Faster might not always be better – are today’s pitching speeds causing more injuries?

by | Mar 16, 2017 | Sports Featured

The demand being placed on pitchers to reach triple-digit radar gun readings continues to escalate, and while young baseball arms are stepping up and breaking speed barriers, there can be repercussions.

Reaching over 100 miles per hour (mph) used to be a rarity, but today it is becoming the norm. According to PITCHf/x data, in the 2016 season, a record 31 Major League Baseball pitchers threw 100 mph.

Amateur players are also producing record-breaking numbers when it comes to pitching speed. In 2016, 71 prospects in the minors clocked 100 mph pitches.

“Every year we are seeing more and more guys coming up with higher radar readings. The expectation is certainly rising and that is stressing these young arms out, especially if the player doesn’t possess sound mechanics,” explains Toronto’s Tim Kendall, who is an MLB Scouting Bureau certified scout.

A recent study suggests that there is certainly a relationship between increased velocity and increased risk in Tommy John surgeries, the surgical operation where the ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The report notes that the largest rise in surgeries is among 15 to 19 year olds. Surgeries within this age group have risen 9.1 per cent every year from 2007 to 2011.

Doctors with the American Sports Medicine Institute stated that, “research has shown that the amount of competitive pitching and pitching while fatigued are strongly linked to injury. Other risk factors may include pitching on multiple teams, pitching year-round, playing catcher while not pitching, poor pitching mechanics, and poor physical conditioning.”

Tim Kendall adds that in many cases players will throw so hard during a single season that they burn out the following year.

“When young pitchers showcase to scouts they are always throwing their hardest. Everyone is looking to light up that gun,” continues Kendall. “But, that causes a lot of pressure on your elbow and the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), the ligament complex on the inside of the elbow. This can definitely have an impact on player longevity.”

Mike Reinold, founder of Champion Physical Therapy and Performance in Boston, has been vocal about being cautious with young arms. He says there are a lot of players who are training rigorously with weighted balls to try and increase their velocity, and this is definitely impacting player health.

“We have enough evidence to know that weighted ball training helps to increase pitching velocity.  We’ve known this for decades. But at what cost?” said Reinold. “I hear this comment all the time from injured baseball players: ‘I started a weighted ball training program this winter, gained 3-5 mph on my fastball, and then hurt my arm for the first time during the season.’ I can’t tell you how common that is.”

Reinold recently ran a study on the impact of using weighted baseball and though the findings are preliminary, they do fall in line with trends in both the minor and major leagues. Eighty-six per cent of participants added four per cent to their mph readings and 27 per cent wound up injured.

Over the course of the six-week study, many participants developed more external rotation in their shoulder, which is helpful for greater pitching velocity, but also correlates with higher injury risk.

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