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Too Many Curve Balls in Youth Baseball?

Youth baseball programs - Little League in particular -  have put new limits in place in recent years to reduce the number of pitches thrown per game, week, and for what team, prompting, indeed requiring, parents and coaches to get out "the clicker" to count pitches.

With pitch limits in place, the attention seems to have turned to another important element in the pitching injury equation: the type of pitches being thrown. At the Little League World Series, it seems that every other pitch is a curveball or some other breaking pitch. At younger levels of play, any ball that breaks gives pitchers a significant edge over batters. The big question is whether young pitchers are focusing too much on Little League strikeouts instead of developing proper pitching mechanics and skills for the future.

The most difficult part about limiting breaking pitches in young athletes is the attitude that "they get the job done." A 12 year-old who develops a good "12 to 6" curveball will dominate his opponents.  It is difficult to convince a young pitcher racking up the Ks that he should stick mostly with fastballs and change-ups, not to mention parents and coaches, who enjoy watching their young athletes succeed on the field.

I remember pitching a great deal between 6th and 8th grade. My main positions were shortstop and center field, but I loved the mound because then I was in control. I never had a terribly overpowering arm, but I generally had good control. Unfortunately, I also spent the majority of my time practicing my knuckle curve ball, knuckleball, forkball, side-armed curve ball, and a very rudimentary sinker thrown straight over the top. The combination of these pitches accounted for more than 50% of my pitches.

Youth baseball pitcher delivers to the plateAnd I had success; a lot of success. I often became the "go to pitcher" when our team was in a jam. I could throw strikes with a whole bunch of pitches, and even though I did not have an overpowering fastball, I still got batters out. I probably pitched every third game between 6th and 8th grade. I developed a sore elbow and shoulder, but that was "the way it was suppose to be." After all the pitching lessons, practice with my brother in the backyard, and time spent developing about 8 different pitches, I threw 2 games in high school and that was it.

What happened? My arm never developed to handle a 60 foot pitch. I spent so much time throwing "junk" I never strengthened my arm to hit my spots from the full pitching distance. The breaking balls were now like "slow pitch softball" to the competition. I switched back to playing shortstop and then reconditioned my arm for throwing off one foot in the hole.

I was fortunate. I really never had any serious arm problems. I had the sore elbow, shoulder, etc. when I threw a lot in middle school and into high school, but no tears or strains that ever sidelined me more than a few days.

Seeing the Big Picture

So what is the point of this story? That young pitchers should never throw breaking pitches and should just deal with hitters constantly bashing their fastball and change-ups all over the place? That parents and coaches should have a "clicker" for fastballs, curveballs, change ups, and then after the game break down the stats and watch game film? No, these are extreme responses. The key is to start with the big picture and make decisions based upon an individual's environment. Consider the following:

  • Since the 1980s, the incorporation of the slider into regular use has corresponded with a significant increase in arm injuries at the professional level
  • ACSM guidelines for throwing curveballs starts at the age of 14. The sliders starts around 16. This recommendation means to begin developing and incorporating the pitches into a regular routine.
  • Young pitchers will rely heavily on breaking pitches to have increased success on the mound
  • Having more pitches is often "more fun," meaning spending extra time working on that curveball or slider
  • The mechanics to throw good breaking pitches increases strain across the shoulder and elbow joints, areas that are still developing in young athletes

Many professional and collegiate programs are looking for the following:

  • Command of a fastball
  • Command of a change-up
  • A body to put more mass on
  • A history of minimal to no injuries

What to Do as Parents and Coaches

As parents and coaches, sticking to the basics is key to developing and protecting the future athlete. The medical guidelines for not throwing breaking pitches are based upon growth and development patterns for adolescents. Overstressing growing body parts at vulnerable times frames is not a good idea. Pitch count limits are designated to improve awareness about the volume of throwing. If parents and coaches are counting, that means they are likely paying attention to when possible injuries can occur.

Focusing on developing good throwing mechanics, pitch placement, and the mental aspect of throwing does not have an age limit or restrictions. These qualities are beneficial at all levels and desired by collegiate and professional programs.

Finally, the combination of all these guidelines and suggestions is to protect your young athlete's "hardware." You only get one arm. Becoming obsessed with strikeout statistics and tournament trophies at the adolescent level can start a dangerous snow-balling effect of "well, just one more curve won't hurt" or "throwing back to back games this one time will be okay." The attitude of "everyone else is doing it" or "my child won't succeed unless they....." is what ends up destroying thousands of young arms every year.

When it comes to breaking pitches in baseball, as parents and coaches, do your best to stick to the guidelines. They are not based upon aptitude, nor do they create barriers that limit competition. The guidelines are meant to combat the excesses of today's competitive youth baseball culture, and are designed to protect young talent so it may blossom into tomorrow's superstars.

Keith Cronin is a physical therapist in the St. Louis area and a MomsTeam expert.

Created September 25, 2010, updated January 4, 2012