Let me share with you a little known fact about MLB pitchers…..none of them were pitchers in Little League. Although most MLB pitchers played baseball as youths, none were pitching before the age of 15. Why? Because the adolescent arm is not strong enough to withstand the stress of pitching.
Now before anyone gets upset with this statement, please consider the following fact: every starting pitcher in MLB (2003), and most relievers, has had major arm surgery…as adults. It appears that even adult arms may not be strong enough to withstand the rigors of pitching. Maybe we should re-examine the logic of allowing adolescents to pitch.
The young athlete is continually growing and developing. The bones in the arm do not stop growing until the age of 17-19. The structure of immature bone/cartilage is softer than mature bone/cartilage, and is much less resistant to repetitive microtrauma than adult tissue. The rapid growth of bones during adolescence creates a muscle-tendon imbalance that places additional tension on joints, decreasing flexibility. These two factors create an enhanced environment for overuse on the still-developing growth plates. Damage to the growth plates at this stage of development can result in permanent cessation or retardation of growth in any bone of the pitching arm. Does this mean no one should pitch before the age of 17?
Numerous studies show that upwards of 50% of youth league pitchers have had elbow or shoulder pain. One study found that 20% of 11-12 year old baseball players, not just pitchers, complain of arm problems. Another study found that throwing a curveball is associated with a 52% increase in shoulder pain and that throwing 601-800 pitches in a season significantly increased the risk of elbow injury (whereas 800 plus pitches increased the risk of shoulder injury). Another interesting finding: 63% of the pitches thrown in the Little League World Series were curveballs. What should a parent or coach do?
The best policy is to severely limit the type and number of pitches thrown until the athlete has stopped growing. Two of the most stressful (and damaging) pitches are the slider and the split-finger. These pitches, in my opinion, should be banned from youth baseball. Allow only fastballs and change-ups until the age of 15. Limit pitchers to no more than 70 pitches per game/15 batters per game, and fewer than 600 pitches total for the year. Seeking immediate care for any arm injury is essential. Most serious injuries can be prevented if treated early.