Baseball's Arms Race: The Price Of All Those Fast Pitches

Oct 14, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2015 1:14 pm

Pitching a baseball overhand — which has always been a rather contorted, unnatural action — is now leading to an epidemic of injuries. Incredibly, it is estimated that one-fourth of all major league pitchers have had what's called Tommy John surgery, which involves the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament.

Part of the reason for this is, obviously, that kids have been throwing too much, too hard, too early in youth leagues. Now that we see all the arm injuries to young grown-up pitchers — and even some position players — we can surely expect that better care will be given to young pitchers.

However, the other apparent reason for this plague is simply that too many pitchers are now throwing too hard for the human body to bear. It's commonplace for pitchers to throw well over 90 miles an hour. That's the ticket to the big leagues. Can we expect teenagers and 20-somethings to cut back on their speed?

Click the audio to hear the rest of Deford's thoughts on the pressures that lead to sports injuries.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And commentator Frank Deford is thinking today about some young baseball players who are suffering injuries because of their own talents.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: How strange the end of the baseball season has become, how different, with all the plans about limiting the amount young pitchers can throw or even how teams are shutting them down. Honestly, I can barely recall the expression shutting down being applied in any sport before these past few years. It was something you did to an engine, wasn't it? It would strike us as so bizarre if all of a sudden a hockey team's goalie were shut down for the playoffs or a valuable power forward in the NBA were furloughed when it mattered most or even, if you can conceive of it, a star NFL quarterback being shut down as his team goes for the Super Bowl.

But of course, what has happened is that pitching a baseball overhand, which has always been a rather contorted, unnatural action, is now leading to an epidemic of injuries. Incredibly, it's estimated that one-fourth of all major league pitchers have had a so-called Tommy John surgery, which involves the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament. Part of the reason for this is obviously that kids have been throwing too much too hard too early in youth leagues. And now that we see all the arm injuries to young, grown-up pitchers and even some position players, we can surely expect that better care will be given to young pitchers. However, the other apparent reason for this plague is simply that too many pitchers are now throwing too hard for the human body to bear. It's commonplace for pitchers to throw well over 90 miles an hour. That's the ticket to the big leagues.

Can we expect teenagers and 20-somethings to cut back on their speed? No more so than our outstanding young football players quitting in droves even though they understand the well-publicized risk of concussions. Of course, there've always been injuries in sports, but what is so unusual about pitchers' arm injuries is that the players are doing it to themselves. Pitchers are committing arm suicide. How ironic that we've worried so about athletes taking drugs into their systems to improve performance. Now as athletes concentrate on sports seriously from younger ages, as people grow bigger and stronger, better conditioned and as concurrently the rewards grow greater, we're seeing athletes victimizing their own bodies. Pitchers are just the most obvious example. How strong can we humans get? How fast can we run? How hard can we throw? Young athletes chasing riches and glory won't shut themselves down. They never have, and they won't start now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.