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Study: Too Much Teen Pitching Can End a Career

April 15, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A talented teen-age pitcher can ruin his career by pitching.

″The more you pitch, the more likely the difficulty,″ said Arthur M. Pappas, medical director and part-owner of the Boston Red Sox.

Pappas, who also chairs the department of orthopedics and physical rehabilitation at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, discussed the issue in the magazine The Physician and Sportsmedicine.

Pitchers 13 to 17 face the greatest risk, he said.

The growth centers of the shoulder and elbow are going through a critical change from cartilage to bone, and repeatedly stressing those joints may damage or deform them, he said.

In addition, the muscles may not have balanced strength, which can make the shoulder unstable, cutting into performance and contributing to damage, he said.

At worst, a teen-ager may need arthroscopic joint surgery, just like big leaguers.

″We can easily return them to short-term activity 85 to 90 percent of the time, but the clock is started too early,″ said Dr. Lyle J. Micheli, director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Children’s Hospital, Boston. The arm may wind up OK for other activities, but not for a pitching career, he said.

A troubled young pitcher typically starts to lose control as he powers his arm forward, Micheli said.

″A high school player will start throwing more balls,″ Micheli said. This just feeds the problem, because more balls means more pitches to get outs, and part of the solution is to throw less but more wisely, experts say. They praise Little League for its strict control of innings pitched.

In Little League, ages 9-12, a pitcher may only take the mound six innings a week. In Senior League, ages 13-15, a pitcher may work nine innings a week. In Big League, ages 16-18, a pitcher may put in a full nine-inning game, but not extra innings. In all leagues, maximum effort has to be followed by a rest of up to three days.

Pappas is more concerned about pitchers who play games in various leagues, including scholastic ones. ″That’s one of the problems uncontrolled at this time,″ he said.

Rules on high school pitching vary from state to state, said Brad Rumble, an official of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Kansas City. The national governing body only requires that each state set a rule, he said.

Training systems are up to coaches.

″We work sequentially,″ said Michael Sacharski of Honolulu, who coaches 9- to 10-year-olds in the Kalanianole Athletic Club league. In a typical practice, the first 15 to 20 pitches are slow-speed stretches, he said. Many of the rest are at three-quarters speed, to work on form and mechanics, he said.

The remaining 20 pitches of a typical 75-pitch practice will be full speed.

″How practice is structured is important to injury prevention,″ Sacharski said. ″We’ve had no injuries.″

Pappas recommends a full-body training regimen, almost literally from the ground up - the pitching motion starts with flexion of the big toe, he said in the journal article. In addition, tired legs in late innings will throw off the pitcher’s stance, making it more upright, which places the ball higher in the strike zone, he said.

Pappas recommends gentle stretching for flexibility, running or similar activities for endurance, and repetitions of light weight training to strengthen shoulders and arms.

The baseball doctor does not think weight-training machines or heavy free weights are good preparation for repeatedly accelerating a small, light spherical object to a high velocity on a precise trajectory.

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