A Curveball on Throwing Curveballs

Throwing curveballs puts Little League pitchers at risk for injury. And they’ll need that arm someday. Right?

Reputable sources have blamed pitching injuries on curveballs ever since I can remember. You would think that twisting the wrist while throwing amplifies strain to the elbow. You would think that pitchers who throw more curveballs are more likely to suffer injuries and undergo surgery. You would think that parents, coaches, and medical professionals have plenty of good evidence for their safety recommendations.

But that's not the case. While it's true that pitchers of all ages are at increased risk, evidence is mounting that the curveball is not guilty in the case for sore arms. When researchers measure the mechanical forces placed across the shoulder and elbow of pitchers, they find that curveballs are actually less stressful than fastballs.

If curveballs are not to blame, what's going on here?

While researchers do not really put it in these terms, the data clearly shows that the problem is...pitching. Imagine that! It looks like we finally have to admit that pitching may not be great from a health perspective. The number of pitches is the most significant predictor of injuries. Just like it hurts to be kicked in the shins, whether by a slide tackle or roundhouse kick, the type of pitch is of relatively little importance.

Science proves that kicks to the
shins are harmful to the shins.

Is it any surprise that an asymmetrical, maximal effort, high velocity activity like pitching is hard on the body when performed for ninety repetitions at a time?

Participating in baseball showcases, where young athletes overreach in order to light up a radar gun, has been identified as a contributing factor to arm injuries. Playing year-round with less than 3 months of rest from competitive baseball is also a predictor of injuries.

Little League Baseball has embraced these findings and revised the rules on pitch counts. The Little League Safety Advisory Committee further recommends that athletes rest from competitive baseball for three months out of the year; that parents and coaches watch for signs of fatigue before pain sets in; and that players with pain be evaluated by a sports medicine professional.

Will there be a time when rules dictate a hitting T until 18 years of age? Hopefully not. Beyond the above noted recommendations, it may be good to reconsider the traditional preparation and rehabilitation of serious pitchers.

Taking time develop overall athleticism is undoubtedly more beneficial than getting in another eight or twelve games. It may be good to go beyond vague notions of "pitching mechanics" that everyone speaks of. Throwing is a total body effort. In order to spare the arm as much as possible, the athlete must identify and correct underlying issues in strength, flexibility, and bad habits that only add to the strain.

"Should young athletes throw curveballs" is another question altogether. Implementing rules proves challenging. "No breaking pitches unless the game is tied and there are runners on base" does not sound reasonable. The point of this writing is not to encourage or discourage the curve, but to shift the emphasis of our attempts to serve young athletes.

Little League revised pitch count limits for 2010

League Age - Pitches Allowed Per Day

17-18 105
13 - 16 - 95
11-12 - 85
9 - 10 - 75
7 - 8 - 50

Details of many of these recommendations and scientific studies can be found at littleleague.org and the website of the American Sports Medicine Institute (amsi.org).

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