Pitch Counts & Proper Mechanics Mandatory

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Victory at What Price

By John Ventola

While trying to keep up with the regional collegiate baseball action this weekend, I was tuned in to the pitching staffs of the participating teams and how they were being handled by their coaches. Realizing the reward for winning a four-team regional would be a berth in one of next weekend’s eight Super Regionals, a few things jumped out at me as I watched ESPN’s “Bases Loaded” TV coverage around the country.

First, and foremost, the quality of the baseball played showed how the sport has expanded over the last few decades with more kids concentrating their efforts on the Baseballdiamond. Up and coming schools like Kennesaw State and College of Charleston can compete and win a regional (KS won the Tallahassee regional as a three seed, and C of C became only the fourth four seed to ever win a regional since the format update in 1999 by winning in Gainesville), and weaker conferences like the SWAC can send a representative to upset a top-eight national seed ( Jackson State over University of Louisiana-Lafayette, 1-0 ). Also standing out was the large number of lefthanded pitchers, and finally, the inconsistency of coaching decisions when high-pitch counts arrived in a game.

A former collegiate pitcher myself, thankfully before aluminum bats were even considered, I am concerned that the arms of young players continue to be abused. College coaching staffs are filled with good, knowledgeable baseball guys, both as head coaches and assistants, but that urge for victory, that attempt to “ride the horse who got you there” mentality can be destructive to young, developing arms.

Tommy John surgery, where a surgeon replaces a damaged elbow ligament with a tendon from another part of one’s body or from a cadaver, is now in its 40th year. The tendon is usually harvested from the forearm or hamstring, The surgery, named for former major league lefthander Tommy John, was first done by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 and has been responsible for many pitchers continuing their careers after injury. There is usually a thirteen to fifteen month rehabilitation period and results seem to differ by individual. John won most of his major league games in the late ‘70s after having the surgery.

Today, Dr. James Andrews, probably the best known surgeon for TJ surgery, and rehabilitation partner Dr. Kevin Wilk have developed a pitch application that can be used by young athletes and coaches in a effort to cut down on arm injuries. The application encourages pitchers to not exert maximum effort on every pitch, emphasizing change of speeds and location of a pitch can be just as beneficial (Calling Greg Maddux). Dr. Wilk presents between game and pre-game exercises, a pitch counter, and rest calculator to recommend duration rest time between taking the mound. Why Dr.Andrews? Why Dr. Wilk? No doubt, because the country of baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet finds itself in an epidemic of arm injuries requiring surgery.

The American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, notes that Tommy John surgeries increased from nine in 1994 to 131 in 2010. Already this year, nineteen professional pitchers have undergone the procedure. Alarming!

Although this writer thinks overuse and abuse of college and professional arms is the main culprit, I also feel the abuse starts much younger. Where years ago baseball was played for a maximum of four months, today youngsters are playing the sport almost year round. Travel squads, particularly in the hot weather states, are taxing the young arms on their teams as they compete for the trophies that will later become useless dust collectors There is little or no recovery period for the outstanding pitchers. After all, every team wants the hard thrower that can get them another trophy. Throw in a thirteen year old who can spin what he and his father consider a curve ball and you have a rotation ready to take on all comers!

It might possibly be acceptable if proper pitching mechanics were stressed for these travel squads. However, some do, some don’t. I have walked past many ball fields and heard a “coach” yell for little Johnny to throw strikes. Only problem, little Johnny has never been shown how to throw strikes. The game of baseball is great if it is learned, and played in a proper way. It presents a challenge to an individual. Part of the package is players, and their parents, have to be able to trust the coaches they are playing for and hope that winning is NOT the only thing that coach has on his mind.

A couple of Sunday games in the NCAA regionals showed exactly how different coaching decisions can affect a game, a tournament, and sadly, even a young player’s career. The damage to a young hurler’s arm may not show itself immediately, but the wear and tear will eventually cause a problem.

LSU’s fan base is not thrilled that the Tigers blew a late-inning 4-0 lead over Houston , particularly with starting pitcher Kyle Bouman being removed from the game by Coach Paul Maineri after throwing two hit ball and walking only two in his six-inning stint. With Bouman having used a minimum amount of pitches (64), Maineri probably noticed the Cougars getting better swings on their second trip through the lineup, or being the astute mentor that he is, realized Bouman had not pitched more than six innings since March and stretching his endurance would possibly lead to an injury. Maineri is a well-respected baseball coach, and he and pitching coach Alan Dunn, usually make wise decisions with the strong arms under their tutelage. Maineri coached Chicago Cubs righthanded ace Jeff Samardzija at Notre Dame and today he is one of the top pitchers in the majors. Former Tiger hard-throwers Anthony Ranaudo (Boston system) and Kevin Gausman (Baltimore) were well handled, and one time Bengal ace Louis Coleman is still making a living as a Kansas City Royal. Maineri’s quick hook backfired, but rest assured, the decision was not made without concern for the well-being of the young pitcher on the mound.

Over in Houston, Texas A & M defeated Rice and then faced tournament unbeaten Texas for survival. Aggie coach Rob Childress sent out freshman lefthander Tyler Stubblefield to face the Longhorns. Stubblefield, who has been used sparingly this year, threw 134 pitches in a complete game performance to win 3-2. I can only imagine how tired and exhausted that young man was after the game. The decision to extend Stubblefield’s game put him in unfamiliar territory where he was asked to perform and stretch himself physically. Childress decided to ride that proverbial horse, but it was not even the one that had brought the Aggies to the ballpark. Kennesaw State used their ace to pitch 8-2/3 innings Friday and then brought him back Monday for 3-1/3 innings. Alabama used a reliever that had not thrown over forty-two pitches in any game this season to throw double that amount in the deciding game of its regional. Not surprisingly, K-State won the game.

I hope this was Stubblefield’s coming out party and wish him future good luck, but his effort reminded me of two other freshmen pitchers back in the early ‘90s. LSU’s Brett Laxton and Tulane’s Ivan Zweig were hard throwers with promising baseball careers. Laxton struck out 16 Wichita State batters to lead LSU to their first national baseball championship in 1991. He never reached that performance again, although he did finish his four year career and had a brief minor league stay. Zweig was overused his frosh year and mishandled terribly. He struck out seventeen LSU batters in one mid-week game. It gave Tulane a big win over their archrival, but what else did it do. Zweig, also, was never the same. His drop off was immediate. The innings and pitch counts caught up with him quickly. He finished his college career as a seldom used reliever at LSU.

Coaches, players, and parents. Pay attention. Victory sometimes comes with a price.

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