It didn’t register on Saturday’s Nielsen Ratings. Too bad. Because the parents and coaches of every youth baseball player in the country should have been watching the broadcast of “MLB Network Roundtable: The Pitching Dilemma.”
Hosted by Bob Costas, the program featured an interview of nationally renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews by Costas. The majority of the show, however, consisted of a panel discussion moderated by Costas among New York orthopaedic surgeon Dr. David Altchek, former MLB reliever and pitching coach Tom House, 25-year MLB pitcher Jim Kaat, soon-to-be Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci.
The consensus among these experts?
Tommy John surgery, where the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the elbow is reconstructed, is suddenly occurring far too often among big leaguers, who are far too young.
Because youth and high school baseball stars pitch way too much but perhaps don’t throw enough.
There is a big difference between pitching and throwing or playing catch. Pitchers, all the experts agreed, throw too hard, too much, too soon. By the time they reach the professional level, many have a UCL that is worn out and ready to tear.
The biggest curse?
The radar gun on the Little League field. Smoltz never saw one to measure his velocity until he was at least 15.
Andrews told Costas that in teenagers, the UCL is a “developmental ligament,” capable of withstanding a throw no higher than 80 mph. Anyone who exceeds that speed regularly, in that age range, is asking for an appointment in an operating room.
Also according to Andrews, researchers at his American Sports Medicine Institute have recorded a 5-7 times increase in the annual number of throwing arm injuries since 2000. Those injuries, he largely blames on fatigue, reporting a fatigued pitcher is 36 times more likely to suffer an arm injury than a pitcher who is feeling fresh.
Without offering specific statistics, Andrews said he is now seeing more high schoolers for Tommy John surgery than collegians and pros combined.
The common denominator among the high schoolers needing such surgery?
According to Andrews, they average only one week of rest from pitching per year.
Smoltz decried the proliferation of specialization by young athletes today both among sports and within a specific sport. He feels athletes pick one sport and then one position too soon.
Verducci amplified Smoltz’s point by asking him if he sees a young pitcher with special talent, is he likely to ever lose that talent? The answer, of course, was no. Verducci continued by asking rhetorically, if that talent will remain, why risk overusing and thus ruining it at a young age?
Kaat talked about how he donated a youth baseball field to his hometown in Michigan with the stipulation that the gates should never be locked. However, when he drives by there, the field is empty unless an organized game is scheduled. “Kids only play (now) when they have a uniform on,” he complained.
You can hear more of the wisdom of Kaat and his co-panelists at 11 a.m., today, when the MLB Network will re-broadcast the program. If you can’t watch it live, it is worth recording.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.