Rick Peterson: Understanding why young pitchers get hurt

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hughesThe start of the 2008 season was an exciting time for us Yankees fans. The team had two young and talented pitchers in the rotation for the first time in a long time, and a third in the bullpen that was slated to join the other two in the rotation later in the summer. Of course things didn’t go as planned, as Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy struggled before getting hurt, then Joba Chamberlain joined them in the infirmary after successfully making the transition to the rotation. Other than being young and being Yankees, those three guys don’t have much in common. They’re three different kinds of pitchers with three different body types and three different development tracks, yet they all got hurt, albeit in different ways. Why is this?

Enter former A’s and Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson. Peterson and Gary Armida, author of Full Count Pitch, sat down and talked about the epidemic of young pitchers getting hurt (h/t BBTF). The article starts with Peterson stating the industry in general has been slow to react to all the injuries, and that the focus needs to be shifted from “rehab to prehab.” Amateur coaches (going all the way back to little league) don’t have enough information about the proper way to develop young pitchers, which has been a major contributor to the explosion of pitching injuries.

Aside: While I agree that amateur coaches don’t have enough info, we also have to remember that their job isn’t to develop players, it’s too win. Why should Tony Gwynn (coach at San Diego State) take it easy on Steven Strasburg, the likely first overall pick in the 2009 draft? The team that drafts Strasburg isn’t paying Gywnn, the school is, and that’s who he has an obligation to. It’s his job to do what’s right for the university, not what’s in the best interest of Major League teams. It’s a grey area, and we have to remember that the vast majority of college pitchers will never throw a professional pitch, let alone a big league pitch, so is it right to treat the true prospects differently than everyone else?

The article then goes on to list the three root causes of arm injuries. I’m going to quote at length, so let’s add a jump to keep from overflowing the front page.

Root Cause #1: Bad Mechanics

“Unfortunately, with amateur pitchers, this can be trained very early. One of the first problems is getting a young pitcher to grip the ball properly. How the heck can an 8 year old properly grip a baseball? His hands are too small.” This is most definitely the case. If one looks at training methods for other youth sports, most younger athletes are trained with a different set of equipment. In youth football, the ball is smaller. The same can be said for basketball. Coach Peterson jokes, “Can you imagine giving a ten year old an NFL football and saying ‘here kid, grip and throw the ball like Eli Manning’. It’s not realistic, yet we don’t have that option in baseball.”

The most important aspect of a poor delivery is the impact it has on a youth’s arm. The violence of a pitching delivery is very real. Coach Peterson explains, “Think about the pitching delivery as an upside down tornado. Hip rotation determines velocity. If the delivery is executed properly, the shoulder doesn’t do much work. But, in order for the shoulder not to feel the brunt of the workload, everything must be in sync, on-time, and in coordination with the rotational velocities, the lower body and the upper torso.” In other words, if a delivery is done correctly, the impact on the shoulder is minimal. The problem is that most amateur level coaches (I was a high school baseball coach for 10 years, so don’t take the following as a slight) do not have the pitching education to correct such deficiencies. Instead, most coaches will say to a pitcher something to the effect that the pitcher is “flying open”. But, as Coach Peterson explains, that merely means that the pitcher is out of sync which “puts a ton of pressure on the shoulder during the acceleration phase of the delivery.”

Now, the problem is determining what constitutes good mechanics. Every player is different, and what works for one isn’t necessarily what works for another. Sure, a general blueprint can be developed, but it would have to be adjusted to fit each pitcher. Are amateur coaches capable of this? Is it worth the time and money to educate them on it?

Remember, only Joba and IPK went down with arm related injuries last year; Hughes suffered a cracked rib, and in fact he’s only had two arm issues in his career (a sore shoulder and a tender elbow) and none since 2005. Joba famously went down with rotator cuff tendonitis while Kennedy dealt with a strained lat and right shoulder bursitis. Could this be attributed to their amateur workload? Kennedy was a three year ace at a major college program and worked a heavy, but typical college workload. Joba’s a bit different, and kind of ties into the second cause of injuries.

Root Cause #2: Poor Conditioning

Quite simply, amateur athletes are not conditioned to pitch as much as they do. Coach Peterson wonders about the following, “How many amateur pitchers are made to do shoulder strengthening exercises as a part of their youth programs? The answer is probably none.” Essentially, young pitchers are throwing more than ever, but failing to properly condition their shoulders, arms, legs, torso, etc. in order to handle the increased workload. Additionally, conditioning comes into play during the deceleration phase of the delivery. Based on ASMI (American Sports Medicine Institute) research, most amateur pitchers are not old enough (or developed enough) to properly drive through a pitching delivery. Coach Peterson gives a car analogy, “You wouldn’t give a kid the keys to a sports car without brakes, would you? Well, that’s similar to what’s happening to young pitchers. They are not conditioned enough to properly execute a delivery.”

The hard throwers are the group that is most at risk for injury, especially if they are poorly conditioned. Why? Well, to start, on the amateur level, the pitchers who are used the most are the hardest throwers. Having a hard thrower on the mound is the easiest way for an amateur team to win a game. It can be assumed that if a pitcher is throwing harder, the acceleration within that aforementioned 0.3 seconds is much quicker and much more violent. Poorly conditioned, young pitchers will break down as a result.

Joba has a history of conditioning issues. It’s overblown in terms of his current physique, but when he was in school there were considerable concerns about his weight, which ballooned as high as 270-280 pounds. He battled a knee injury at his heaviest, which could be attributed to all the extra weight. Also, while his delivery isn’t max effort, there’s definite effort in there which could lead to problems down the road. Could a better conditioning program in college have helped him? Of course, but again this falls back on being able to educating amateur coaches.

Hughes has long rocked an ideal pitcher’s frame, standing 6’5″, 230 pounds, and by all accounts he’s well conditioned with no weight issues and a free and easy motion. Kennedy is on the small side (5’11”, 190 pounds) but has been lauded for being able to repeat his delivery like a robot since high school. While Kennedy’s size could have contributed to his injury, we also have to remember that he was struggling at the time and could have easily been overthrowing to compensate.

Root Cause #3: Workload

There are many different variations of the term overuse when it comes to pitching injuries. In this case, Coach Peterson is not talking about in a particular season or a particular game (although that can also be a small factor). Instead, he speaks of overuse in the context of entire year. “The days of the three letter athlete are over. Today, amateur baseball is played year-round. Amateur pitchers will play in travel leagues all winter and continue to throw. Quite simply, there is not enough time for a player to rest. The winter should be a time for the body, the muscles, to rest and recover.”

In the age of increased specialization, this issue is not likely to resolve itself soon. As amateur baseball continues to be played all year round and become even more competitive, pitchers are put at risk. Couple the fact of a lack of conditioning with overuse and one as a recipe for disaster, or in this case, the epidemic of pitching related injuries.

This is most applicable to Kennedy. Hughes worked the showcase circuit as a high schooler, but has been babied and far from overworked as a pro. Joba didn’t really become a full-time pitcher until he got to Nebraska in 2005, and has topped 110 IP once only in the last four years. Kennedy on the other hand was always “a guy.” He was a high profile high school prospect that participated in a ton of showcase events, then worked full college workloads in the spring before pitching with the USA National Team and various summer leagues in the college offseason. Given his smallish size and heavy workload, Kennedy could be more at risk for injury than the Yanks other young pitchers. However, how much does Kennedy’s easy and repeatable delivery counteract that? I’m not sure anyone can give us an answer.

The article continues on the discuss Peterson’s various clinics and development breakdowns, but I wanted to discuss how each of these three injury causes relates to the Yanks’ young arms. It’s funny that based on the above, Hughes should be the least injury prone of the three, yet that certainly isn’t the case in reality. Just keep in mind that the bulk of his injury history – a broken toe, a pulled hammy, a cracked rib – weren’t directly caused by pitching (well, I suppose the rib could be, but that would be a little far fetched).

Make sure you give the article a read, it’s a good one.

Photo Credit: AP via SI

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  • toad

    While I agree that amateur coaches don’t have enough info, we also have to remember that their job isn’t to develop players, it’s too win. Why should Tony Gwynn (coach at San Diego State) take it easy on Steven Strasburg, the likely first overall pick in the 2009 draft? The team that drafts Strasburg isn’t paying Gywnn, the school is, and that’s who he has an obligation to. It’s his job to do what’s right for the university, not what’s in the best interest of Major League teams.

    It’s hopelessly idealistic to say so, I suppose, but a university is not the same thing as a professional sports team.

    I think the obligation of coaches is much more than just winning games. They have an obligation to their players as well, which includes not taking excessive chances with their health or futures, whether they are stars or not. That doesn’t conflict with the interests of the university, which has obligations to its students that go beyond driving them to win games.

    • Lanny

      Coaches don’t get paid to do more than win games. Coaches get paid to win. That’s it. They don’t get paid to graduate players or anything like that.

      • http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/CRsmithT1.jpg tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Considering that NCAA President Myles Brand has begun the process in basketball of attaching graduation rates to scholarship restrictions, I’d disagree with that statement. Coaches get paid to win AND to graduate their players.

  • Arin

    Great read.

  • http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/CRsmithT1.jpg tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    Aside: While I agree that amateur coaches don’t have enough info, we also have to remember that their job isn’t to develop players, it’s to win. Why should Tony Gwynn (coach at San Diego State) take it easy on Steven Strasburg, the likely first overall pick in the 2009 draft? The team that drafts Strasburg isn’t paying Gywnn, the school is, and that’s who he has an obligation to. It’s his job to do what’s right for the university, not what’s in the best interest of Major League teams.

    Sort of. It’s his job to do what’s right for the university AND for his student athlete, not what’s in the best interest of Major League teams.

    It’s the job of amateur coaches to win and get results, but not at the expense of their student-athlete’s long-term health. Take football as an analogy. If a college football coach took a quarterback who’d just had a concussion and put him back in the game because it was a big game he needed/wanted to win, we’d all scream bloody murder because he has a duty not only to his school’s success, but to the health of the kids that are entrusted to him.

    It’s a grey area, as you said, but not because an amateur coach has no loyalty/responsibility to anyone but his school, rather it’s a grey area because we’re not quite sure what things/habits/practices directly lead to injury later and which ones don’t. But a college coach absolutely has a responsibility to not engage in actions that damage the long-term health or ability of the kids he coaches (provided we’re reasonably certain which actions those are.)

    Furthermore, I’d argue that ignoring down the line health effects of a coaches actions is probably destined to backfire eventually. Take Rice, for example: they’re an elite program because they recruit premium pitching talent, but if all these kids who go to Rice end up flaming out in the pros because of the abuse points racked up in college, eventually top recruits are going to steer clear of the school. If a kid knows that a coach will jeopardize his long term career goals in exchange for short term amateur success, he’ll choose not to play for that coach.

    • Arin

      Great post TSJC, I played at a JUCO and our coaches were the same way. The player’s health always came first. These schools/coaches/programs live off of their reputations.

  • http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/CRsmithT1.jpg tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    The good news is, while there’s a lot of problems with the millions of various international college, highschool, junior high and little league coaches and programs in terms of how they prepare and train amateur pitchers, Rick Peterson said he can fix all of that shit in 10 minutes.

    • Arin

      Do you think Rick Peterson is insured by Geico?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike A.

      Well done.

  • Johnny

    I cant agree more with the first 3 comments. college sports should be competitive, but the first and foremost function of college is to give those who go there a better chance to succeed in life, whether it’s on a ballfield or off.

    • http://ranger2709.blogspot.com Old Ranger

      This one I like, Good post!

  • UNION YES.

    I wonder if Aaron Crow will be calling Steve with some advice?

  • http://nyfaninboston.blogspot.com/ Manimal

    I think a lot more athletes should be “redshirted”. Take a year off and exclusively train, work on mechanics, and work out. That solves all 3 issues above.

    • whozat

      Except that means the kid graduates later, and thus probably gets to the bigs a year later, and thus hits free agency a year later, etc etc etc. That can cost a kid millions of dollars. I think it’d be a tough sell for a big-time college program to tell kids they won’t hit the draft until 23.

      So, I figure it’d be a good idea, but the kids wouldn’t buy in. Or, not enough would.

    • http://ranger2709.blogspot.com Old Ranger

      I think it would be a great idea but, we have one problem with it; Kids and coaches are very impatient. They want it NOW! If one is a star, you get the star treatment in High School and College.
      I know a guy that fit that very scenario. He was a Star football and baseball player (Basketball in HS also) and received a full ride to a Mid-Western College. Coaches tried to have him play one or the other sport…but, because he was so arrogant and impatient, he wouldn’t hear of it. Bottom line, he injured his shoulder in football…baseball, over with.
      The point being (long way around), most 19/21 year old, don’t hear you…they want more and more, quicker and sooner rather then later.

  • pat

    Good thing we pluck our young latino boys from amongst the banana paddocks at such an obscenely young age.

  • UNION YES.

    We need to begin integrating genetic engineering into the world of baseball. I want my child to have a flawless arm; incapable of pitching-related injuries. Hey, if it’s good enough for my vegetables, it’s good enough for me.

  • dillon

    great read

  • emac2@msn.com

    Hopefully the world gets past the selfish attitude of your aside.

    I’m disgusted at the idea of coaches in school not being responsible for developing players.

    I’m even more disgusted that the public would consider it acceptable.

    • Lanny

      Agreed.

      No coach worth their salt would put a star player at risk of injury because that would be the LAST star player he would get in that program.

      You don’t think amateur coaches talk about these kinds of things and kids don’t know?

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