Smoltz, Maddux, Andrews urge education in youth baseball to limit Tommy John epidemic
When John Smoltz is inducted in the baseball Hall of Fame later this month, he will be making a little history.
Not only is he the only pitcher in the game to win more than 200 games and save 150 games, but the former hard-throwing right-hander, who went from being a starter to being a closer and back to being a starter, will be the first pitcher in baseball history to make the Hall of Fame after having Tommy John surgery.
Smoltz spent 20 years with the Braves (1988-2008) and then split his final season with St. Louis and Boston. He compiled a 213-155 record with a 3.33 ERA and had 154 saves. He was an eight-time all-star, a Cy Young Award winner and the only pitcher who won 20 games in a season and saved 50 games in a different season.
He is one of thousands of pitchers who have undergone the famous surgery named after the famous left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher. Today, it’s a widespread problem for pitchers from youth to the majors.
In 2014, there were 31 surgeries, and 30 of them were performed on pitchers. Of the 31, 11 were do overs. Since 1999, 235 pitchers have undergone the surgery, and 32 of those players have had the surgery twice.
It is caused by overuse and poor mechanics, according to Smoltz, hall of famer Greg Maddux and Dr. James Andrews, who performs the surgery. They were on a conference call last Wednesday to promote the 26th-annual American Century Championship at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course July 17-19.
All three celebrities feel that players, parents and coaches alike need to be educated on the perils of pitching too much. The trio also feels that the push and pressure of trying to get a college scholarship is at the heart of the problem, and it starts at the youth baseball level.
“I think the problem is these kids actually throw too much in high school,” said Maddux, who served as an assistant at Bishop Gorman High (Las Vegas) this past season. “I think if they should play other sports and just play baseball during baseball season, I think if they’re athletic enough and they’re fast enough, they’re going to get their scholarships regardless.”
Smoltz said it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big leaguer or a doctor doing the talking.
“They’re (players and doctors) are giving the formulas for success and no one’s paying attention,” Smoltz said. “Because the business of baseball and youth baseball is so great, that people feel like they’re being swept up in a wave of, ‘I’ve got to catch up to the next generation of people.’
“Kids do not throw enough — they pitch too much,” he added. “I played strikeout, we played backyard baseball. We did things that kids don’t do. Everything that a kid does today is organized and pressured into a pitch to impress.”
Andrews, the most famous orthopedic surgeon in sports today, equated the problem to the tail wagging the dog.
“In other words, the systems are telling these parents and these young players what they have to do to play baseball, and until we get control of the systems, even at the high school state athletic federations and get that under control, we’re going to continue to have an epidemic of injuries, of arm injuries in baseball.
“We recommend obviously that they have at least two months off each year where they’re not playing competitive baseball. We’d rather three to four months.”
South Tahoe High varsity head coach and Babe Ruth baseball president Starbuck Teevan echoed those sentiments. In South Lake Tahoe, the schedule allows for two months off between summer and fall ball in order to prevent overuse.
“Travel ball is something that’s pretty prevalent now, and the kids aren’t really getting any rest,” Teevan said. “They’re playing baseball year-round, and I feel that you have to have some rest somewhere in there.”
At the youth level, the two biggest issues have been overuse and throwing too many pitches. There is also talk about at what age a youth pitcher should throw a curveball.
In Nevada, high school pitchers can throw 11 innings a week; no more than 33 outs in any four consecutive days. Little League has established pitch counts — 75 for the 9-10 age group and 85 for the 11-12 age group. It isn’t ideal, but it does protect the players more than ever before.
South Tahoe’s Babe Ruth league, for players between the ages of 13 and 15, even established pitch counts prior to this season. Teevan approves of pitch counts despite the fact that it’s a number that everybody, no matter how they have matured, has to live with.
“More than anything with kids, it’s the pitch count,” Teevan said. “Sometimes you see them throw 120 to 130 pitches, and there 12 or 13 years old — that’s overuse.”
Maddux said he always tries to stress safety.
“I think if one of my pitchers threw more than 30 pitches he couldn’t pitch the next day and if he was under 30 he could. He couldn’t pitch two days in a row,” Maddux said.
“And then I just got him on throwing programs between starts with the starters and all that stuff. Just kind of basic, common sense type stuff that I learned in the minor leagues basically I tried to pass down to the high school kids.”
Trouble with the curve
Throwing a curve has historically been one of the great debates in youth baseball.
“As far as throwing a curveball, you know, the old adage was you shouldn’t throw it before the age of whatever,” Smoltz said. “But that varies for people and their body and their growth.”
Andrews injected some levity with his response.
“As far as throwing a curveball, it’s pretty simple,” Andrews said. “Our recommendations for throwing a curveball is when they shave. That takes out the age differential. That just means when they go through puberty.
“Now, the problem with a curveball, if you throw it with proper mechanics, we’ve proven in our lab that there’s no greater forces across your shoulder and elbow throwing a curveball properly with good mechanics than throwing a fastball. The problem is for me at least is a curveball is a highly developed neuro muscular control pitch that most kids can’t throw with good mechanics.”
Teevan recommends that curveballs aren’t taught until a player is at least 14 or 15 years old. He added that physical development is a key to properly learning the pitch.
“Kids really shouldn’t be throwing curveballs until they’re in their teen years at least — it gives them more time to develop,” Teevan said. “If you’re teaching curveballs at eight, nine or 10 years old, you’re not exactly helping a kid.”