Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Encore Sports Medicine staffer Jon Hammontree applies ice Decatur High pitcher Michael Schuster's arm after Schuster tossed five innings recently in a high school baseball game.
Coaches say protecting pitchers more important than winning games
By Josh Cooper
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Decatur High coach Mike Burns surveys his baseball team warming up before practice.
First it's movement drills, arms flying in several different directions. Then, resistance drills — one player putting his arm up at a 90-degree angle and the other pressing against as he tries to push it down.
Finally, after about 10 minutes, the tossing starts. The short-finger throws evolve into longer, more fluid motions.
Burns looks at his players. He sees their mechanics, and in his mind, he is making notes.
The battle to prevent pitching arm injuries starts in warm-ups, and Burns is on the front lines.
"You only have one arm," Burns said. "And you have to learn how to protect it."
Whether it's a certain rest regimen, training regimen, mechanical regimen or mental regimen, high school baseball coaches are often trying to figure out the secret to save a young pitcher's arm.
But with a motion so rigorous and so unnatural, there is no surefire way to figure out how to prevent arm injury.
Take a look at a certain example from Major League Baseball.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior had the size at 6-foot-4, perfect mechanics and could throw the ball 95 mph.
There were several tests done on Prior upon his being drafted second overall by the Chicago Cubs in 2001,which indicated that his sturdy frame and fluid motion would translate into minimal arm injury.
Now Prior throws 86 mph as shoulder and elbow problems have sapped his pitching arm.
"The baseball pitch is one of the most stressful motions you can put through the shoulder and the arm," said Dr. Randy Riehl, who practices at the Decatur Orthopaedic Clinic. "The forces that go through the shoulder when you are throwing a baseball really exceed the shoulder's capability to hold itself together."
Since there is no tell-tale way to figure out how to prevent injury from an alien motion, how can a high school coach save the arm of a young pitcher?
Mechanics, rest and training are the three most common approaches.
Those are the three philosophies that three local coaches have developed.
Each emphasizes each point differently, but all three have figured out a way to use all of them to a certain extent.
Decatur emphasizes the mechanical.
A former player in the Houston Astros organization, Burns helps run a baseball clinic in the summer where he teaches athletes from all age groups different fundamentals.
According to Burns, young players are like sponges, soaking up plenty of knowledge. Burns said he tries to teach them the proper way to throw a baseball.
His hope is that when they land in the Decatur or Austin High programs, they will have the perfect delivery so engrained in their muscle memories that Burns won't have to re-teach the mechanics.
"If you don't have good mechanics, it doesn't matter how well you take care of your arm, you're going to hurt it," Burns said. "There have been a lot of studies that show better ways of throwing and how to condition your arm. If you don't have proper mechanics, you're going to tear your arm up."
Burns has hired what he calls a "pitching guru" in Todd Carter. A former pitching coach with Bob Jones High in Madison, Carter played with Burns at Calhoun Community College.
Carter has developed props and techniques to get the Red Raiders throwing properly.
There may be a time when looking at the field at Decatur, you may see players throwing towels, lifting tennis cans, or standing on wooden planks.
It may look silly, but it's all part of the plan to strengthen the arm and keep the body steady and level.
"I'm not saying my way is the best way, but everybody has their own idea of what the best way is," Carter said. "I take (other people's) ideas and my own ideas and just see how it works."
Carter is not the only local pitching guru.
First-year Austin baseball coach Jake Miles is trusting the services of former Alabama pitcher and current junior varsity coach Eric Mennen to help his staff.
Before the season, when Mennen and Miles went over their pitching program, they were both in agreement on this — give the pitchers as much time to recover as possible between starts and don't overwork them during a game.
The result? Erring on the side of caution, they advocate long rest periods and limiting the number of pitches a player will throw in a game.
They do not want to work a pitcher's arm too hard during a game. In addition, they believe the player needs sufficient time to recover.
"You never worry about wins and losses early because you think that guy can work one more inning," Miles said. "But that one more inning could hurt him through the rest of the season."
According to another school of thought, that the arm can be trained to withstand the act of pitching.
For example, according to Riehl, there are anatomical changes in a pitcher's arm that enable it to better throw a ball.
William Booth, head baseball coach at Hartselle High, uses that training philosophy.
Booth is more old school. While he and his staff count pitches during games and limit the number a pitcher will throw, he believes that the best way to maintain a healthy arm is to keep it loose and moving.
Even after starting on a certain night, Booth will not shut down a pitcher the following day. He may have him play catch or do something involving a throwing motion.
Steve Woodard, a Hartselle High graduate who played in the majors for seven seasons, agrees with Booth. He never had an arm injury, which he attributes to conditioning his arm and body to take the rigors of throwing in game situations multiple times per week.
"Things happen, but taking care of yourself can prevent it," Woodard said. "I've always worked hard and never got hurt. I may tweak a muscle in my neck, but never anything in my arm."
On the days after he threw, Woodard said, he would do cardiovascular work to flush the lactic acid that built up in his arm.
He said he mixed that in with several lifting exercises formulated by arm injury specialist, Dr. Frank Jobe, to work his small endurance muscles, and throwing.
"At the end, it's what works for you," Woodard said. "But kids nowadays do not work hard at keeping themselves in shape. You can play in a game every day, but that's not keeping yourself in shape to keep yourself from getting hurt."
However, experts say the arm is not the most important part of the throw.
Most of the power in a pitch comes from the legs and mid-section.
Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver was famous for having dirt on the knee area of his uniform after he pitched.
The reason — he put so much push in his legs toward home plate that his knee would touch the ground on his follow through.
The arm is mostly used for putting spin on the ball and guiding it toward home plate.
There are instances where a player puts too much effort on throwing, rather than using his whole body. Also, when certain types of spin are put on the ball, more issues can arise for the elbow and shoulder.
The curveball puts a lot of undue pressure on the arm as does the slider, coaches say.
Hartselle High grad and Alabama-Huntsville pitcher Jacob Wray hurt his arm, requiring Tommy John surgery — a replacement of the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament — at a scouting showcase two summers ago.
Coming off his junior year, Wray said he hadn't pitched much because of a back injury. He said his arm was in decent shape, but wasn't to the point where he could throw consistently.
Before the showcase, he said he felt some pain after playing for a summer travel team. Then, after he was told to change his curveball, he felt a pop in his elbow on one of the ensuing throws.
He had surgery and lost his senior season.
According to an article by Edward G. McFarland and Mary Lloyd Ireland in a journal by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the curveball is something that shouldn't be thrown until age 14 at the earliest and 16 at the latest.
"Even if a kid is 17 years old and throwing 75 percent curves, they may be effective, but the long-term future is not good," Austin's Miles said. "I want to win every game we play, but the long-term health of our players is the most important thing."
That long-term health could be something that high school coaches cannot control.
Wray's injury occurred during the summer. And with several different travel leagues and prospect showcases, it can be difficult to monitor a pitcher's progress year-round.
Overuse is the main cause of an arm injury, physicians agree. The Alabama High School Athletic Association puts limits on the number of innings a player can pitch each week. In general, pitchers are allowed to work 14 innings in a week that begins Sunday and ends Saturday.
While that's a guideline high school coaches can use to limit pitchers for prep games, once the season is over, the player's arm situation is out of his control.
"There are a lot of different variables, and the best policy is for the kids who are going to pitch during the summer is to make sure they communicate with the coaches," said Alan Matthews, associate editor for Baseball America. "There needs to be a clear communication for the coach and the parent and player."
It's game time for Decatur High.
Left-handed pitcher Steven Tumbleson prepares to face Russellville by doing some long toss.
He then goes to the bullpen, throwing from 45 feet away from the catcher, then moving to the normal 60-foot 6 inches from the plate.
Twenty to 25 pitches is all he needs, Burns said.
Burns yells at Tumbleson, asking him if he is OK.
Tumbleson gives the thumbs up.
And for that split second, Burns knows he has done his job.
AHSAA pitching limits
A condensed list of the Alabama High School Athletic Associationís pitching rules. Any violation can result in the forfeiture of the game and a fine of $250.
A player may pitch in a maximum of 14 innings per week per week (Sunday through Saturday for regular season, tournament and playoff games).
A player may pitch in a maximum of seven innings in one day or over two straight calendar days, after which two straight calendar days of rest are required before being eligible to pitch again. A playerís eligibility to pitch is not determined by the number of hours between pitching appearances.
One pitch (legal or illegal) thrown in any inning will count as one inning pitched for the player making the pitch. Warm up throws by a pitcher do not count on a playerís record.
The coach of each team will be required to keep written pitching records in his teamís scorebook. These records shall always be available for review upon request.
- Alabama High School Athletic Association
Five tips to avoid shoulder injury
Begin a shoulder stretching and strengthening program three times a week a month prior to baseball.
Develop proper technique and pitching mechanics.
Utilize your core body and trunk muscles for power and your arm for directional control.
Increase your throws gradually over several weeks up to a desired pitch limit appropriate for age.
Stop pitching and rest if you become fatigued or experience pain.
- Dr. Randy Riehl, Decatur Orthopaedic Clinic
Suggested pitch limits
Age 11-12: 65 a game, two games a week.
Age 13-14: 75 a game, two games a week.
Age 15-16: 85 a game, two games a week.
Age 17-18: 95 a game, two games a week.
- Dr. Randy Riehl, Decatur Orthopaedic Clinic
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