When Should Youth Baseball Pitchers Learn Curveballs?

The debate continues.

 

The consensus between doctors, coaches and parents for youth baseball pitchers is to avoid throwing the curveball – so much to the point where Little League baseball has even considered banning breaking pitches during games.  The thought behind the controversial pitch is that it is too strenuous on the young arm; that these youth players cannot handle the torque and load on their elbows and shoulders without suffering injury.  Sometimes serious enough to lead to the infamous “Tommy John” surgery – which replaces the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) located on the pinky-side of the elbow.

 

However, more recent research has brought some different opinions on the issue to light.  A few studies and articles released within the past 7 years, by reputable experts in their respective fields, have revealed that the curveball may not be as maniacal as once imagined.

 

Published in 2007, a laboratory study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that the curveball is not necessarily more harmful to the youth arm than the fastball – which strongly contradicts the previous mindset for most of those involved with youth baseball pitchers.  In the study, 29 youth baseball pitchers threw 3 types of pitches, 5 times:  the fastball, change-up and curveball.  After evaluating the mechanics, the study showed that their elbow and shoulder loads were actually greater in the fastball, over the curveball.  This went on to conclude that the curveball does not impose any more harm than a fastball to the arm.

 

What a relief right?  Now all these youngsters can just go out and huck curveballs all day and not worry about it!

Um, well, not exactly.

 

Renowned orthopedic surgeon and founding member of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), James Andrews M.D. insists otherwise.  Dr. Andrews states that there are other factors that come into play when throwing a curveball, that are not necessarily measured during these lab studies.  The mechanics of the curveball lead the bones of the elbow to slam together and put extra stress onto the Olecranon Process, which is the part of the Ulna bone that is commonly recognized as the elbow itself.  These stressors can lead to serious injury in the elbow and should not be dismissed after hearing that studies show no additional harm is done by the curveball.

 

So the question remains, when is it appropriate to start throwing curveballs in youth baseball – if ever?  This argument will continue about the curveball itself, but a couple additional factors seem to be falling to the wayside during the curveball discussion:  youth pitching mechanics and pitch count.

As a parent or coach, if you are unsure of when to show your youngster a curveball, start with the pitcher’s basic mechanics.  You wouldn’t expect someone to read well before learning the alphabet, so don’t expect a player to throw a curveball properly without first learning basic pitching mechanics.  A couple of huge factors leading to injury are fatigue and improper mechanics.  If the player has sub-optimal mechanics s/he is going to tire out quicker due to being inefficient, which will likely lead to injury.  So start from the fastball and throwing technique.  Once the pitcher has sound mechanics, then it may be acceptable to introduce the curveball – walk before you run, so to speak.

 

Once the player learns the curveball, it’s important to keep track of how many pitches s/he is throwing.  Little League baseball introduced pitch-count restrictions a few years back and has done its best as an organization to enforce those restrictions for the safety of the players.  However, other organizations may not have ANY restrictions, which can lead to some kids throwing 3- maybe 400 pitches in a single weekend.  Keep it in MODERATION.  Overuse is arguably the biggest factor in risk and cause of injuries to youth and even adult pitchers.  There is no debate that pitching creates stress and load to the shoulder and elbow – regardless of the pitch that is being thrown.  It is important as a parent, player or coach to pay attention to the amount of pitches one player has thrown.  Dr. Andrews as well as Glenn Fleisig (research director of the ASMI and adviser to Little League) recommend not only complying with the pitching restrictions implemented by the Little League organization, but additionally:

“include a break of months from overhand throwing and competitive pitching, a 100-inning annual limit, avoiding radar guns and barring pitchers from playing catcher”

 

So at the end of the day, the debate over the curveball still rages on and it may be a while before the discussion is closed on the potential harm.  In the meantime, it is still a pitch that is generally accepted and still taught throughout youth baseball – and while that remains to be the case, multiple factors should be taken into consideration before and after introducing the curveball to a young pitcher.

  • Overall efficiency of baseball pitching mechanics

  • Signs of fatigue

  • Amount of pitches thrown

 

By monitoring those things and keeping an open mind of other suggestions, those involved in youth baseball can introduce the curveball with a little less hesitation and more confidence.

 

Ready to get throwing?  Check out our selection of Pitching Aids to help you or your pitcher reach his/her potential on the mound!

 

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