The Pitching Process is Wrong—More Tommy John Surgeries Coming

written by Brandon Agamennone of Pro Source Athletics  brandon@prosourceathletics.com  on May 12, 2014

Okay, so this is going to require some in depth explanation to help parents, coaches and players sort through what the media is putting out there about the rash of Tommy John surgeries in the MLB and the blame being placed on youth baseball but really the larger issues that exist at higher levels. There are a couple of things I want to mention before I get going:

1) I absolutely was over used as a young pitcher

2) I had Tommy John surgery when I was 28 years old in my 7th year as a pro pitcher

3) The human body has limits…but these are different for each player

4) I own a youth baseball organization

5) I agree youth baseball plays a part in surgeries later down the road, but it is not the main problem.

Here is my first bold statement. Most MLB Pitchers who have Tommy John either have a mechanical flaw or are trying to throw too hard. What?

Fact: The equivalent of 1 ½ teams pitching staffs (17 players) are slated for Tommy John surgery. Over $50 million in payroll is on the shelf for the next 12-18 months and some of the top talent in the game.

In order to grasp this concept, you must first understand the prevailing mind set of both the players and the coaches in the MLB. Most of the players see no reason for change if they are at the highest level of their profession and most coaches don’t want to touch a guy even if he has mechanical flaws because if they do and he struggles guess who’s head is on the chopping block. In other scenarios, the coach recognizes the flaw, tells the organization and they agree to talk to the pitcher but the pitcher has had extreme success throwing that way so why would he change? Pride.

Take Neftali Feliz for instance of the Rangers. I had heard about him for two years before I saw him throw then when I saw him throw I immediately said two things: What a great arm and he will blow out his elbow. That was after seeing him throw 5 pitches. Why was I so certain he would blow out his elbow. It’s physics. He recoiled horribly (small muscles trying to stop big ones…picture bicycle brakes trying to stop a freight train) and he was locked out his front leg terribly and spun off the pitch thus creating a merry-go-round motion where he led with his small front side arm muscles and effectively shutting down the big muscles and getting his hand out front on top of the baseball too late. I am sure both of these things were noticed by Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux and were probably addressed but unfortunately Neftali still ended up the same place…the DL and on the operating table. I could use another dozen examples of guys like this.

So back to the task at hand. I was abused as a young pitcher. Back to back days of complete games at 11 and 12 years old, very little rest, no throwing program, heating my arm after games instead of icing and on and on…that was 26-27 years ago so the information back then was scarce. All my coaches and dad knew was I could throw hard, I could throw strikes and I would win. I don’t blame them at all for what happened later on but today I absolutely blame youth coaches and organizations who chase the W over a pitchers health. This is where youth baseball does play a part in my opinion. If winning is a bi-product of development than you actually have to understand how to develop. There has to be instruction on the process of throwing a baseball, intensity during warm ups, bullpens, etc. and making sure the body is in tip top physical condition to do a short quick burst motion but to do it 50, 60 or 100 times. Pitch counts are essential, teaching “cruising speed”(I will go more in depth later), and proper amounts of rest in between pitching in games and proper amounts of rest throughout the year.

Well-meaning people just simply either don’t know what they are doing, are too prideful to ask for help or just don’t care. They look at a player and say, “he was going good so I let him go.” That is simply foolish.

This year alone I saw first-hand a 14 year old throw 111 pitches in 5 1/3 very tough innings and the coach wasn’t going to remove him except for an ill-timed base hit after an error. I also have heard of 99 pitches for a 10 year old in a game they were losing 28-5. Our team manager actually went to the umpire to have him ask the other coach to remove him. This is the beauty of game changer and Iscore and other such programs. There is tracking for this type of issue. Those coaches should be ashamed and honestly…banned.

How do we prevent this? Parents need to step in and tell the coach here are the recommended number of pitches per day and per week by Dr. James Andrews and his brilliant staff and other top orthopedic specialists. Parents should simply say, “follow these guidelines or my son won’t play for you.” The problem is, parents get caught up in the hype of the win as well so they can share how great little Johnny was this past weekend at the water cooler at work or post a picture on Facebook. How else can we prevent these injuries later in life? A proper process.

There is a right way to go about teaching your body to throw. Just because a kid can throw strikes and throws hard doesn’t mean his body is functionally throwing correctly to prevent arm issues. Another example would be going to the gym and seeing a guy dead lift a ton or squat a bunch of weight but a well informed and educated trainer watching cringes because he knows there is a significant injury waiting to happen because the guy’s technique is wrong.

Proper rest is another key. This should not only be weekly but also during the course of the year.

A pitcher should have 4 plus months off of full rest of the throwing arm. They can still do lower half drills or “dry” (without a ball) pitching drills but their arm should rest a minimum of 4 months a year. The other reason why I don’t think youth baseball plays the largest part in future arm injuries is simply because kids ages 8-12 or 13 aren’t strong enough in most cases to do a lot of damage. Say what? What I mean is remember how when you were young you could contort your body, fall awkwardly, etc. and not get hurt at all but as you got older and your body stronger, filled out and joints, ligaments, etc. tightened up that if you fell the same way or did the same exercise it actually hurt a lot or you got injured?

I don’t think in my 16 years of doing this I have seen very many kids 10 years old and younger actually create enough force with their spaghetti arms to really apply enough energy to cause a lot of damage. However, please let me remind you of my previous statements as I still think guidelines and education need to be paramount for youth pitchers and should be adhered to.

So if I had to give a percentage I would say youth baseball plays a 20% part in future arm injuries. I would say High School accounts for 50%, college 20% and pros the other 10%.

The main reason: A win at all cost mentality and lack of teaching. I know that will make some people angry but honestly it’s not about them, it’s about the kids. The biggest issue in my opinion is High School. I have heard absolute horror stories about training techniques, number of pitches in a game or a week, lack of rest in the off season and much more.

I have some good friends who are great HS coaches and then I know some HS coaches who are more interested in a W then actually teaching a pitcher or young player the right process. The process should include teaching a proper number of days rest, pitch counts, proper warm-up and cool down routines as well as proper weight training techniques and exercises. They should be having conversations with the HS training staff about baseball specific weight training and much more. Or…wait for it…they don’t know how to train a pitcher. This is the most likely scenario in most cases because if a kid throws hard and throws strikes, they think the kid must be throwing correctly.

Most HS coaches are there to win and I understand that but what I don’t understand is riding only two-three pitchers the whole season while they have good arms on the bench or at other positions that they could teach to pitch better. Instead guys get abused because of schedule and number of pitches.

These are not full grown men. They are teenagers whose bodies need rest and recovery to perform at peak levels. Throwing a kid 150 plus pitches to win a game means nothing. “But I asked his parents” is their response. Great. Who is the leader of the team? Who knows what the right thing to do is? The coach. Or at least they should. Bottom line is MOST HS coaches do more damage than good when it comes to pitching. Some do a great job but others simply say, “the players are resilient, they’ll be fine.” Really?

College coaches do a much better job but still there are those schools out there chasing Omaha and in turn racking up huge innings and pitch totals to the point where it may even hurt a kids draft status.

I had very smooth but very poor mechanics in hind sight that weren’t addressed until my 4th year in pro ball. It was way too late by then. Why? Because of the old adage that says, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problem is pitchers like me and others at the professional level were having great success on the mound. The process we were following or lack thereof was actually breaking us down from poor mechanics or trying to throw too hard with poor mechanics was increasing our risk for severe injury. The more intense you do a sport related movement with poor mechanics, the margin for error decreases greatly.

I referenced ‘cruising speed’ earlier and this is what I mean. Later in my career, my top fastball was probably only 92mph but I routinely pitched at 88-89mph and would reach back for a little more when needed. It was too late at that point for me but for guys like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine or Mike Mussina who could have thrown harder than they did, they would only rev the engine to a 6 or 7 out of 10 instead of many guys today going to that 9 or 10 right out of the gate. Again, if we understand science, mechanics and training techniques so much better and the body is now pushing more 98mph pitchers than ever before, why are they having so many surgeries?

There are more Tommy John surgeries today than ever before so why did old time pitchers not break down as much even if they had less rest, not as good of mechanics as guys today and threw more innings. My theory is the top factor in Tommy John today is guys trying to throw too hard. Old time pitchers knew they were supposed to go complete games…it was theirs to win or lose, so they paced themselves. Similar to a marathon runner, they set a pace they know they can be effective, “run” the race well and have a good chance to win and only in certain moments did they ramp up the RPM’s to a point of max intensity. This is cruising speed. Most of the pitchers today do not understand this concept because 6 innings with 3 runs or less is a quality start and a bullpen stacked with great arms and stuff is coming in behind them.

I want you to picture “maxing out” on a weight exercise 70-80 times every 4-5 days instead of reps at some lower weight and then only doing a few max reps. Your body will respond better and last longer and you can still be successful. Just ask Maddux, Glavine, Mussina, and so on.

Do I think MLB needs to change the pitching staff or set inning and pitch count limits? No. Do I think they need to really take some time and educate staff, trainers and the pitchers themselves? Absolutely! If I had a payroll of $150M plus you better believe I would do everything possible to protect my investment. There are some great teaching and developmental minds in the MLB, now it’s coming together to really start some change to protect young talent and increase the opportunity for longer careers of people the fans want to see play.

The final point I will make is this. Hitters still hit .300-.330 and hit 40 plus home runs and drive in 130 RBI and nobody is breaking strikeout records pitching but more people are ending up on the operating table. So why the emphasis on max velocity? If you ask most MLB hitters, they would rather see a hard throwing guy with a little off speed than a guy who can sink a ball, locate it and changes speeds well. I had the honor of having Tommy John as my pitching coach for parts of two seasons and he made a statement I did not think much of at the time but is now very applicable which was, “if there were no radar gun, you would see a lot better pitchers.”

If it was only about velocity than only the hardest throwers would win games but that is not the case. Maddux probably understood better than anyone about movement and location as the key to success rather than 100mph fastball.

All of this to say, your body naturally has a certain velocity it can reach but to force it beyond that is adding tremendous stress and pain to the equation for young pitchers but the good news is there are ways to fix this but it will take time.

Find people that are educated and who really care about your son’s arm and not just a win. Look for experts and not just guys who played the game in little league.