Today’s youth, adolescent, and amateur pitchers experience a much different brand of baseball than those of generations past. As such, they also undergo entirely different demands. Sure, the kinematic progression over the course of a pitching career probably hasn’t changed all that much, so the physiological demands from the pitching motion itself are relatively the same. But, the variables that ultimately amplify the stressors experienced during a career certainly have seen changes in the 21st century. Not to mention the greater expectations and pressures faced by those that are the most talented.
When considering the management of the amateur pitcher, we must take into account that upper-echelon arms tend to see their risk factors add up. In other words, risk factors for upper-extremity injury can summate very quickly if the coach/parent/pitcher doesn’t appreciate their role in the management of the pitcher.
Understanding Key Risk Factors
Of course we all know that velocity is a risk factor, as outlined by Dr. James Andrews and the ASMI in their research of upper extremity risk factors in youth baseball. 85 mph has generally be defined as the “red line”, where the ability to exceed this speed as an amateur pitcher leads injury risk increases of over 2.5x that of pitchers who throw below 85mph. Like anything else in life and sport, as we push a system toward its limits, the chances of it breaking down increase. Perhaps this is just the “cost of doing business” in elite pitching.
FREQUENCY, VOLUME, and OVERUSE
Regardless of your take on the efficacy of innings-limits vs. pitch-counts, the simple fact is that the total volume of pitching over the year – whether it be from accumulated innings and/or pitches – is a risk factor for upper-extremity injury. The ASMI has suggested that pitching more than 100 innings per year, pitching for multiple competitive teams during a single season, and pitching through fatigue are significant risk factors for the youth athlete (and yes, the term “youth” does apply to the 18 year old high school pitcher).
HIGH STRESS INNINGS/PITCHES
Intuitively, situations with added pressure can also be more stressful for the pitcher, exacerbating their desire to throw harder and pitch longer by whatever means they can muster (even if this is poor mechanics or pitching through fatigue). Thus, pitching at showcases or tournaments with the desire to meet or exceed performance expectations, and pitching in big-games or high-leverage game situations can also potentially pose as a risk factor. In the very least, these types of events/situations can increase the likelihood that the overuse risk factor is amplified.
Considering these Risk Factors For Elite Amateurs Pitchers
While each of the above risk factors are enough in and of themselves to consider for any pitcher – elite, average, or downright atrocious – it is the elite pitcher who is oftentimes faced with a combination of all of these due to poor management and great expectations.
- At the amateur level, the “best” pitchers tend to be the hardest throwing. Not always. But, certainly it is common for this to be the case.
- The “best” pitchers, regardless of level, also generally get the most use. Even at the youngest levels of competitive baseball, players and coaches alike want to win. And, putting yourself in the best position to win a ballgame usually entails putting the ball in your best pitchers’ hands. Similarly, the “best” pitchers tend to get invited to play on more teams, in more tournaments, and in more events.
- Generally, the “best” pitchers tend to receive the highest-leverage situations, whether it be the locally/regionally/nationally televised game, the district or playoff game, or crucial relief situations. The “best” also get asked to pitch in the biggest events, they tend to throw in front of the most radar guns, and they inevitably have the greatest expectations to live up to – such as Division-I or professional aspirations.
Hopefully the point is clear: the elite or upper-echelon pitcher isn’t just facing the risk factor of high velocity. Chances are he is also facing many other risk factors (e.g. overuse and stressful pitches/innings) as a direct result of his ability and dependability. Not to mention the great drive that most elite athletes possess to compete, live up to expectations, and come through for their team/coaches.
This is exactly why the coach and/or parent must be the young, talented pitcher’s own advocate. The competitive nature of these high-level athletes (combined with the sometimes present immaturity of their age at this point in life) can lead to short-sightedness masquerading as an outlook on the big picture. In other words, the young talented athlete may think they are looking at the big-picture by thinking about “getting a deal” or “impressing the scouts” but in reality, if this drives them to throw 120 innings at age 16, it is any but future-oriented. Thus, it is up to the adults in charge to be their son/athlete’s own advocate.
Overall, it is the responsibility of the coach or adult to take care of the youth athlete, no matter how good or elite they are. Throwing 90mph in front of scouts at 16 years old means nothing if the pitcher blows out right before signing day. Similarly a PerfectGame tournament championship does not mean much if the pitcher flames out physically or mentally before ever taking advantage of that summer of exposure.
This is not to say that a great young arm shouldn’t pitch in showcases, shouldn’t compete on the travel circuit, or shouldn’t ever throw high pressured innings. Rather, it simply means that anything but the conscious management of the exceptional pitcher is not only careless and risky, it can quite possibly be detrimental in the short term and have long-lasting ramifications.
Proper management of the elite amateur athlete begins with an understanding of what the elite pitcher experiences relative to peers, and is then followed by conscious consideration of how he is utilized in the short and long term.