Whenever people talk about baseball and pitchers getting injured, you hear the same thing: The human body wasn’t meant to throw a baseball as hard as you can off a hill.
However, pitchers are still throwing baseballs as hard as they can off a hill, and at every level, too.
That stress is leading to arm and shoulder injuries.
So what are local high school coaches doing to keep their pitchers healthy? It depends on the coach.
“Our first games of the season I was limiting guys to 70-75 pitches, and they were throwing one day a week,” Cony High School and Augusta Legion coach Don Plourde said. “This is a point of the year where I might start throwing guys with five days off.”
“I take that second week (of preseason), where everybody else would be doing infield/outfield, I use that second week for pitcher development,” Forest Hills coach Mike LeBlanc added. “I build everybody up. They are probably at 75-90 pitches before they even throw in a game.”
Franklin County American Legion coach Kyle Gunzinger says every player should pitch at some point.
“We really should be having every kid pitch at the youth level,” he said. “Every kid. It’s an arm strength builder. At the ages of 9 to 12 you don’t know who’s going to develop along what lines. So I believe in covering your bases.”
Pitchers and their arms have become a hot topic in baseball with the recent increase in Tommy John surgeries. Named for the first pitcher to undergo the surgery, Tommy John surgery repairs the arm’s ulnar collateral ligament. According to the MLB Network, about 25 percent of Major League pitchers undergo the surgery at some point in their careers. Just through the end of April, there were 17 Major League pitchers who had the surgery done this season.
“Your elbow is filleted open on the table, and they’re ripping another ligament out of your body,” said Tip Fairchild, a Monmouth Academy graduate who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007 while a member of the Houston Astros organization.
Much of the focus on preventing arm injuries is tied to pitch counts. The number of pitches a player can throw are strictly limited at the youth levels, and at the high school level in some states. Even in the Major Leagues, starting pitchers are rarely asked to throw more than 130 pitches in a game.
But just as limiting pitch counts at the Major League level hasn’t led to a dramatic reduction in arm injuries, throwing high numbers of pitches didn’t necessarily lead to injuries in the past. In 1988, a 22-year-old pitcher threw 143 pitches in his first start of the season, then threw 167 in one game in mid-May.
That pitcher? Greg Maddux, who won 341 games in the majors after that 167-pitch outing. Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees. The New York Times reported that Tanaka threw 160 pitches in a Japanese playoff game last season, then came back the next day to throw 15 pitches and earn the save.
Meanwhile, Arizona’s Patrick Corbin never threw more than 113 pitches in a game last year, but will miss all of this season after having Tommy John surgery.
Plourde said he believes in generally limiting pitchers to around 110 pitches, and that only after they’ve had a couple months of training.
“High school pitchers don’t have enough of a preseason for pitchers to build their arms up,” Plourde said. “This is my 18th year of coaching and I still see guys throwing 112 pitches in game one, when they’ve only been throwing for four weeks.”
The Maine Principals’ Association limits high school pitchers to 10 innings in one game and requires three days of rest after throwing at least four innings. The MPA includes this advisory in its baseball bulletin: “A coach who has the best interest of a player in mind will remove that player once a total of 90-100 pitches have been thrown.” While the innings limits must be followed, the pitch counts are just an advisory.
“It would have been (put in) before my time,” said Mike Burnham, the assistant executive director of the MPA. “I think that came about with the concern that the pitch counts within the inning can really start to climb. It’s only a recommendation.”
“Three innings for some kids might be 90 pitches,” Plourde said. “For others it might be 40. The inning thing for me is irrelevant.”
Asked if he thought Maine would institute pitch count limits in the foreseeable future, Burnham said, “I don’t see right now in the foreseeable future. I will say that it is a topic of conversation that is being discussed.”
Messalonskee coach Ray Bernier doesn’t have to worry much about pitch counts, because he’ll typically throw his pitchers only a few innings at a time. Bernier admits that he can do this because he has the luxury of five or six pitchers he can count on.
“I felt as though when we got into the playoffs, if we had more than one pitcher throwing, it’s harder for the batter to get into a rhythm,” Bernier said. “I’ve heard people make comments that they’re not building their arm strength. I go against that. I feel a lot of times our high school coaches are abusing young arms.”
Gunzinger agreed, saying, “I believe in roles for pitchers. We can’t really do that in Legion because we’re trying to get nine guys on the field.”
As a Legion coach, Gunzinger also has to make sure he knows when one of his players has pitched recently for another team. At Forest Hills, LeBlanc is also in an unusual situation. In a school with 53 students, LeBlanc can’t build a pitching staff with defined roles. LeBlanc could follow the MPA’s recommendation about lifting a starter after 100 pitches but he’d probably be the only coach in his league doing that.
“We don’t follow that rule,” LeBlanc said. “I just watch my kids carefully. They tell me when they’re sore. I think we have to leave it up to the kid. I tell my kids right-up straight: You’re not going to impress me throwing 130 pitches when you can’t do it. You have to let me know when you’re tired.”
LeBlanc, who pitched one season of Class A ball in the Seattle Mariners organization, also played at the University of Maine for legendary coach John Winkin.
“He developed our arms and our arm strength,” LeBlanc said. “We threw every single day. It wasn’t long — mechanics stuff. We could go as long as we needed to. As a closer, I went seven innings three times.”
LeBlanc’s concern this week is that the rain has piled up some games on the Tigers’ schedule. Beginning Wednesday, Forest Hills has five games in six days.
“We’ll figure it out somehow,” he said.
Many people say that it’s not just the pitch counts that are causing injuries.
“I think pitch counts are very important to keep track of and stay conscious of,” Fairchild said. “But the primary reason an arm’s going to get hurt is poor mechanics. Both of them are definitely causes. You have kids that are throwing a ton, incorrectly, with improper mechanics. Do I think kids should go outside and throw every day? Yes. But when you have improper mechanics, that can lead to injury.”
Fairchild threw 58 2/3 innings in the minors in 2005, then jumped to 173 innings in 2006. He felt great the next year, when he suddenly tore up his elbow.
“Mine was pretty traumatic,” Fairchild said. “I didn’t have any warning signs. It was an instant tear. It went from zero to 60.”
Fairchild had Tommy John surgery, but developed consistent pain whenever he tried to pitch after returning to game action.
“If you look back in hindsight, it was probably due to overuse,” Fairchild said. “I can still grab a ball and get something on it. Can I do what I used to? No. But can I throw without any pain? Absolutely.”
Fairchild said fatigue and poor mechanics go hand in hand because the pitcher will change his motion to compensate for being tired. In an interview on MLB Network, orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews said a pitcher throwing with fatigue in youth or high school baseball is 36 times more likely to injure a shoulder or elbow.
“Your arm is fatigued, so you’re going to do things differently that aren’t following the normal mechanics of your body,” Fairchild said.
At Cony, Plourde said he always wants to keep tabs on a pitcher’s mechanics.
“The first day of practice, we just work on basic balance drills,” Plourde said. “Because if a kid’s not in balance his mechanics probably aren’t very good.”
Gunzinger said he started coaching in the late 1990s, and describes how different things got in just a few years.
“What we did for varsity kids back then is just refined their skills,” he said. “By the mid-2000s, I was teaching freshmen in high school to throw the ball correctly.”
While he uses the phrase “throw the ball correctly,” Gunzinger adds it’s perhaps unwise to have every kid try to throw with the same motion and potential workload.
“We have to look at the kid, what his body build is, and what he can handle,” Gunzinger said. “I think that coaches tend to go to a clinic, they see something they like, and they get into what I call cookie-cutter teaching. We end up teaching the kids the same things. You don’t see as much of the individual windups that you used to. Luis Tiant had a very unique windup. We’ve kind of gotten away from that. We might be over-killing the fundamentals a little bit.”
There’s always room for out-of-the-box ideas to help prevent injuries. Hall-Dale graduate Ryan Leach just finished his career at Franklin Pierce University, where, his father Dave Leach said, baseball players would play touch football as part of their practices every fall. When Tom House was the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, his pitchers — including Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan — would warm up by throwing footballs.
“It’s a great cross-trainer for those kids,” Dave Leach said of the touch football games. “It’s done in such a way that it keeps them from becoming too baseball-specific with their muscle memory.”
That reminded Dave Leach of a conversation Ryan had with Fairchild, when Ryan was a young teenager and Fairchild was in Hallowell for a fundraiser. Ryan told Fairchild that he played basketball and ran cross country in addition to baseball, and Fairchild told him to keep playing those sports because the cross-training was good for his body.
Ryan Leach is one of a handful of players from the area who has realistic hopes at playing baseball beyond college. But his father, who coached for nearly 30 years, knows that the deterioration of a pitcher’s arm can come at any time.
“Probably the most dangerous situation is the Little League, Babe Ruth, American Legion tournaments when the pitching rules are changed,” Dave Leach said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys that were much better than Ryan at one point, and either aren’t pitching, or aren’t pitching effectively. They’ve had arm injuries. They’ve had surgeries.”