Tommy John surgery has become baseball's blessing, and its curse.
Hundreds of pitchers at all levels of the game undergo the procedure each year to fix their ulnar collateral ligaments and repair their damaged elbows.
It's a problem that begins due to the fact that too many young pitchers are pushed to pitch too many innings and throw too hard way too early.
Major League Baseball and USA Baseball — the governing body for amateurs — launched pitchsmart.org on Tuesday. This website offers a set of guidelines for pitchers and their coaches and parents to follow when developing youngsters.
It's a long-overdue coordinated attempt to bring some sanity to the maturation process of children and teen-agers who are serious about playing baseball for the long term. The site offers some sobering stats on the overuse and abuse of young arms.
Among the scary numbers:
- 45 percent pitch in leagues without pitch-count limits
- 43.5 percent pitched competitively on consecutive days
- 30.4 pitched on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
The site offers guidelines for pitch counts, preparation, rest, conditioning and is now the pre-eminent in-line primer on Tommy John surgery. According to MLB and the New York Times, surgeries performed on pro baseball pitchers have increased in the last three years to about 30 per year.
Of course, the troubles start long before these players reach the majors.
“The problems we see in professional baseball don’t start when they sign their contracts,” Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s medical director and an adviser on the site, told the Times. “A lot of the problems start when they’re younger. We’ve decided that we can’t just focus on the major leaguers and minor leaguers. We have to get an earlier start on this.”
Therein lies the real issue. We didn't need MLB, or its very slick, well-designed and informative web-site to tell us this. The major difference nowadays with pitchers being overused at a young age is that coaches and parents are often fooled into thinking surgery or other medical advances can fix it. Push them. Burn them out. We'll just repair that elbow, or that shoulder, and everything will be fine.
Baseball, and every other professional sport, loves to make itself far more complicated and complex than it needs to be. Baseball, for instance, is a game played by 5-year-old boys and girls that was popularized in many parts in this country by Civil War Veterans and others, many of whom could not read or write. It remains simple at its essence. Keeping pitchers stable and healthy over a long career, starting in Little League, is equally simple, if not challenging.
More than 100 years ago, Cy Young retired with more innings pitched [7,355], more career starts , more career victories , more career losses  and more career complete games  than anyone in pro baseball history. Those records still stand, and will stand for another 100,000 years. To get some perspective on these numbers, another Red Sox pitcher whose first name begins with "C" and ends with "Y" - Clay Buchholz - has eight complete games and 915 innings pitched since 2007. Cy had some advantages in the "dead ball/spit-ball/segregated" era, but his numbers remain nonetheless astounding.
Given the breakdown rates of today's pitchers and their astronomical contracts, the original "Cy" can clearly rest in peace.
Young was born in '67 - 1867 - and often attributed his longevity to the fact that he did chores on his farm every day as a child. Throughout his life, he chopped wood as a means to strengthen his arm.
"I never had a sore arm, and I pitched every third day," Young, who died in 1955, once said. "Once I pitched every other day for 18 days." His birth pre-dated the telephone. When he died, televisions were common-place in American homes. He never Tweeted, however.
So, what should young developing pitchers do to preserve their arms, shoulders and the rest of those tricky internal parts for the long-term. Chopping wood is a good start.
You can go to one of the highly-touted, highly-paid specialists and coaches out there. Or you can read Leo Mazzone's book "Pitch Like A Pro," which is available on Amazon for $6.40. If that's too much for your budget, you can read the first chapter for free online.
Mazzone was the pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves during that team's hey-day of the 1990s and early 2000s. Under his watchful eye, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux developed into Hall of Famers, as did their manager Bobby Cox. The Braves of Cox and Mazzone won 14 NL East titles, four National League pennants and the World Series in 1995. Mazzone's pitchers combined for six Cy Young Awards and won 20 games in a season nine times.
The number of starts that were missed due to injury were barely noticeable.
That was 100 percent by design.
"Bobby said, 'Those are your pitchers, take care of them.' That's the thing we were most proud of. We took care of them the way we handled them, and the program we had in between starts. The way he handled the staff, we never had any sore arms," Mazzone told FoxSports.Com in July.
"We had, what, two Tommy John surgeries in that 16-year run? Kerry Ligtenberg was one, and John Smoltz later down the road. That was it. We'd go two or three thousand innings without missing a start, at times. That's the thing that I'm most proud of, and they'd say, 'I'm not going to be the first one to miss a start.' It was tremendous. You could use that mindset these days, too, but nobody preaches that anymore. They encourage you to miss starts.
"I had a conversation with Glavine a couple of months ago and I told him, 'If you told other organizations now what we did in between starts, what do you think they'd say?' He said, 'Well, they'd say you can't do that.' And he went 20 years without going on the DL. We threw a lot, but they learned how to pitch without maxing out their effort. That's the key to this whole arm problem situation. You know how many times I used the term velocity in my 16 years as Atlanta's pitching coach? None. I didn't give a s--t about velocity. That's what's killing kids now. They're trying to figure out the reason for all these Tommy Johns. I'm going to tell you what it is: It's a term called velocity, which people are being told now if they don't reach a certain number on a radar gun, or a certain velocity, then they aren't going to make a team or get a scholarship or get signed."
Velocity, or the lack of it, is a point Mazzone hammers throughout his book. It makes tremendous sense. Weight-trainers, cross-fitters and others who work out to compete at working out don't "max out" on each effort. The reps at slower speeds and lesser weights are designed to condition and strengthen muscles so that when it is time to "max" your effort, you can do so with success.
Pitching is no different. Mazzone tells young pitchers to pitch 10 to 15 minutes for two straight days after an off day. Those pitches are thrown at about 70 percent of max velocity. Take a day off, and do it again the following two days. Playing soft catch on the off days is welcomed, if not encouraged. "I encourage pitchers to throw. I never discourage pitchers from throwing a baseball."
Wash, rinse, repeat.
For a program like this to work, going 100 percent each and every time you throw is a certain recipe for failure and Tommy John surgery, if not both, long before you'll ever get a shot at the majors.
"Arm injuries," he writes, "are not the result of trying to throw a certain pitch [curveball, slider, etc] but from over-exertion, 'muscling up' or over-extension."
Developing a feel for certain pitches, again over a long period of time with contained exertion, is also part of the learning process.
Among his quick pointers:
- Work on command of your fastball
- Throw as often as possible
- Throw more often with less exertion
- Make the ball do something without maximum effort
- Put some touch on your pitches.
None of this is rocket science, which is good considering some of the issues we've had with rocket science lately. Nor is this a workable plan or cure-all for everyone, nothing is.
But these simple tips, explained fully in detail in Mazzone's book that was first published 15 years ago, may work wonders for the young wanna-be pitcher in your life.
And if the powers that be in MLB and USA Baseball had adopted its principles back in 1999, never mind 1899, so much pain, so many lost innings, hundreds of damaged careers and thousands of surgeries could have been avoided.
The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address. Thanks always for reading.
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