Baseball has a serious problem on its hands. Too many pitchers are having the dreaded Tommy John Surgery. It puts athletes on the shelf for a year or more and may end a pitching career. Tommy John Surgery is becoming more prevalent at the professional, college and high school levels. What gives? Why are pitchers blowing out their elbows so much more than they used to?
First, it’s good to consult an expert. In this case, we’ll consult the expert. Dr. James Andrews is widely considered the best orthopedic surgeon in the world. More often than not, your favorite athlete will at least consult this man before having major surgery. Most would prefer that Dr. Andrews do the work himself.
MLB Network Radio interviewed Dr. Andrews in late April to talk about the sudden spike in Tommy John procedures. Listen to his interview below (email subscribers click here to access media).
Tommy John Surgery is a complete reconstruction of the ulna collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow. Pitching is an unnatural motion for the human arm and puts great stress on the elbow joint. Have you ever seen a still photo of your favorite pitcher in action? Check out this one of St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
As you can see, Wainwright’s forearm is clearly behind his elbow. This is an unnatural stretch position for the elbow joint. As he comes forward with the pitch, his arm acts similar to a whip and snaps the ball toward home plate — creating tremendous velocity on his pitch and great stress on his arm. Wainwright underwent successful Tommy John Surgery in 2011.
So, we know what Tommy John Surgery is and we know why it happens, but why is it happening so much now? As Dr. Andrews said in his interview, kids are playing too much baseball. There’s nothing a major league manager can do to save a pitcher’s arm if he’s played on his high school team in the spring, two summer league teams simultaneously, a fall ball team and a traveling team years before a big club ever calls him up.
Worse yet, as a kid, he’s not under the tutelage of a major league or college pitching coach. He’s literally out there just letting ‘er rip. The story of the high school kid who threw 194 pitches in 14 innings made national news earlier this year. He may feel like a stud now, but his arm may not hold up in an era of lax rules and poor coaching.
What can we do? Dr. Andrews correctly points out that UCL injuries will never go away, but there are things we can do to lower the risk. Here are three things parents can do to keep the fuse lit on their fireballer.
1. Play on one team at a time.
There are parents I know whose kid plays on one team at 9 a.m. and then has another game on another team at 1 p.m. Stop it! Work hard and get better on one team. If your kid has the talent, the scouts will find him.
2. Ask your kid’s coach about playing multiple positions.
Don’t let your kid just pitch. Part of youth baseball is learning to play multiple positions. Encourage your kid to move around. A few innings in right field may be boring, but it beats the excitement of elbow reconstruction.
3. Have an offseason.
Encourage your child to play another sport. There’s football in the fall and basketball in the winter. Give that arm a break. One common trait you’ll find among the greats in any sport is that they played multiple sports as kids. Most did not specialize until college. This also prevents mental burnout and develops a more well-rounded athlete.