Why do Non-Baseball Fans Know the Name Tommy John Now?

A recent USA Today article highlights the surge in Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) surgery among youth baseball players.

Years ago, when most of us reading this blog were playing sports, we never talked about rotator cuff surgery, Tommy John (UCL of the elbow) surgery, or pitch counts. However, these are all household terms now. So why are we blowing out our elbows at alarming rates? Perhaps the answer lies in a few different areas.

The first is the fact that professional pitchers need rest. Greg Maddux, who was just inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, never needed major arm surgery. He thanked his doctor and trainer in his acceptance speech. He pitched on four days’ rest throughout his career. So why do we ask our kids to pitch all summer long on multiple teams, multiple times a week, and with a skeletally immature body? Furthermore, why do we have them doing indoor pitching clinics in the off-season when the pros don’t do that? If we want our kids to be pros, then maybe we should start acting like pros ourselves. Another aspect is not appreciating the benefits of cross-training. According to the USA Today article,“Sillanpaa gave up football and basketball and devoted himself to travel baseball.” Another Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Tom Glavine, is a pro in two sports, having been drafted by the National Hockey League as well as the MLB.  Maybe giving up multiple sports and the cross-training effect they have on our muscles is not in the best interest of our young athletes.

The final consideration is the need for pitch counts. To quote the USA Today article again: “In 2007, the Little League International Board of Directors unanimously approved pitch count limits based on research conducted by Andrews and Fleisig. Andrews said that injuries at that level have dropped by 30%. His next project is to get similar rules adopted by each high school athletic association.” This is awesome! This is objective research that proves the reduction of repetitive stress to the skeletally immature arm results in a reduction of injuries.

Further evidence that less pitching results in greater success was highlighted in a Sports Illustrated article.

This article clearly shows that MLB pitchers with 200+ career wins were born primarily north of the Mason Dixon line, where they were limited in their pitching presumably due to weather.

Medicine is not an exact science, but we are getting better. In the end, we know that pitching is a high stress to the arm. A little common sense and a lot of current research show us that moderation is the safest way to preserve longevity in our youth athletes. My son is 8, and the worst thing I could imagine would be that he hates baseball. I encourage his interest, but I don’t overload him. What I know now is that less is more at an early age to preserve the love of the game and the health of the arm.