Columbus North senior Christian Glass is hoping to enjoy a baseball career at Xavier after finishing this, his senior season, at Columbus North High School.
Glass, a pitcher, isn’t worried that his coaches will put his college career in jeopardy.
“I think our coaches worry about our future,” he said. “It’s about more here than winning games.”
That isn’t the case everywhere. Columbus East head coach Jonathan Gratz said he has seen some high school pitchers throwing more than they should.
Gratz said he isn’t about to overwork any of his pitchers, no matter the situation.
“It’s something we don’t play around with,” Gratz said. “We’re really looking out for the health of our kids. No matter what, you want them to be healthy.”
All pitches can cause damage
The American Sports Medicine Institute has studied research on baseball pitchers from their first days of youth baseball to the college level. While popular theory blames curve balls for much of the damage suffered by youth pitchers, the ASMI notes that throwing too many pitches of any kind seems to be the main culprit.
At both North and East, every pitch thrown in high school is tracked and documented.
“We really do focus on a pitcher’s arm health,” said North coach Ben McDaniel. “Frankly, I don’t know if that was done as much 10 years ago.
“But I care more about what happens for these kids four years from now than what happens in the four years that I have them.”
Working against themselves
Sometimes the athletes can be their own worst enemy. With college scholarships and even professional contracts on the line, many of the elite pitchers will work year-round to enhance their chance of getting a scholarship or a shot at the pros.
“People argue about whether you should do it,” said North pitching coach Trevor Baty. “I knew I used to throw year-round. Some say it’s like a sprinter (in track) where you are never taking time off.”
The ASMI recommends that pitchers take at least two or three months off every year and, preferably, four months off.
Former Chicago Cubs pitcher Steven Ellis, who has written 11 books on pitching, said in an article on thecompletepitcher.com that the extra work should be focused on the mechanics of pitching as opposed to just throwing. Ellis explained that many of the ligaments and tendons used in the pitching motion can be overpowered by other muscles in the body used to throw a pitch. With more athletes developing their bodies, and major muscle groups, at an earlier age, the amount of surgeries for youth pitchers on their shoulders and elbows has steadily increased.
In an article for worldwidebaseballprospects.com, Dr. Michael Q. Freehill noted: “It is recommended that parents and coaches watch closely the pitcher who might have developed physically earlier than his counterparts.”
Those who throw the ball at speeds in excess of 88 mph are at great risk to suffer an injury, and it is also logical that the most talented pitchers are at greater risk because they pitch more innings. Those extra innings translate to victories, so often coaches are hesitant to take out a star pitcher when the team’s success hangs in the balance.
“I do think we are more cautious now,” said Gratz, whose pitching coach is former Wabash High School head coach Justin Denney. “We don’t have our guys throwing too many off-speed pitches. We teach them to establish a fastball.
“And I don’t really like to see guys younger than ninth grade throwing something other than a fastball.”
Gratz, who lettered four years at DePauw, said during his youth baseball career, it wasn’t uncommon for him to throw 100 pitches in a game.
“And I threw all kinds of stuff,” he said. “I had a sore arm until I got into college.”
As the season starts for East, Gratz said he limits his upperclassman pitchers to 70 pitches and 50 for the underclassmen.
Gratz said Indiana High School Athletic Association rules limit a pitcher to 10 innings in a three-day period, but doesn’t set pitch limits.
“Pitch counts would be too hard to monitor,” Gratz said. “Impossible, really.”
The responsibility falls on the coaches, even more so than the players themselves.
“A pitcher will say he feels fine,” Gratz said.
So the North and East coaching staffs look for any signs that a pitcher is tiring or experiencing discomfort.
Compounding the problems for both schools is that most of the pitchers on both teams will be playing a position in the field when they aren’t on the mound.
“You have to take into consideration that if they are taking reps in the outfield, you don’t want them throwing in the bullpen,” Baty said.
“That’s definitely one of the hardest things,” Gratz said. “Monitoring what they do at their position is definitely a challenge. You have to ease up on the amount they throw.”
Both coaching staffs put a lot of effort into doing whatever they can to protect their athletes.
“I believe we have the trust of the parents,” McDaniel said.
Or as North pitcher Cody Burton said, “If my arm is ever sore, they won’t let me throw.”