Rise in Elbow Surgeries Starts With Youth Leagues

The Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka could be the next good pitcher headed for Tommy John Surgery.

Baseball has a significant problem. It isn’t steroids or performance enhancing drugs and it isn’t tobacco use or betting on the games by players or managers. The problem baseball has starts where the game itself starts and that’s on the pitcher’s mound.

While the number of Tommy John surgeries may just be an exception to the normal rule in 2014, we cannot just dismiss them as such. More and more pitchers are missing entire seasons because of the need for Tommy John surgery and personally, I don’t think this should be seen as a surprise.

Consider for a second the career leaders in innings pitched in Major League Baseball. On the list of the top 100 pitchers with the most innings pitched, there is not one active pitcher on the list. Think about that for a second; not one active pitcher on the top 100 of career innings pitched.

The argument made here will be that baseball and baseball strategy are entirely different animals today then they were 100 years ago and I can’t dismiss that case at all because it’s true. If you look at the record for most innings pitched in a single season, you would have to go to number 105 before you hit a pitcher from the 1900’s.

The great Cy Young had 511 wins and over 7,000 innings pitched.

Oh, so that many guys from the 2000’s are on there? Uh, no. The other 104 guys all pitched in the 1800’s. Back then it was routine for pitchers to throw both games of a double-header and in most cases they would throw complete games in both of the games.

Because of the incredible amounts of money going to pitchers today and the specialization of relief pitching and closers, the number of innings that starters pitch annually has dropped significantly. The question that comes from this is shouldn’t pitchers be healthier considering the fewer innings they are pitching?

It’s in that question that many of the causes of arm problems may exist. The biggest reason arm surgeries are exploding in my opinion starts in the youth leagues where kids are throwing too many innings and not always with the best mechanics. Cal Ripken, Jr. made a great point in a recent interview when he said that most youth baseball organizations today are focused on tournament-style play rather than league play.

What that means is that kids will play six or seven games in just a couple of days and coaches are relying on their ‘horses’ to pitch huge innings during those tournaments. That’s a lot of stress on young arms. As part of that equation is also the act that young kids are being taught to throw breaking balls at a tremendously growing rate and that isn’t good for the arm either.

More curve balls and more sliders means more torque and stress on the arm and more specifically the elbow. There just isn’t a need for kids to throw so many innings and so many breaking balls. Another thing to keep in mind too is the specialization of young kids which is totally wrong in my opinion. Kids are being forced to chose one sport to focus on rather than keeping the opportunity to play multiple sports.

Kids need to get out there and play different sports so that they develop different muscles. The strain that is put on the elbow of a kid who is working on his pitching motion 12 months a year is too great and that’s why we are seeing this rise in these surgeries.

We need to get back to letting kids be kids. That’s a message for parents as well as coaches.