Young pitchers balance potential, protection in year-round sport
Published: Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 6:14 p.m.
Just a sophomore in high school, Williston High School left-hander Austin Langworthy is a rising pitching prospect in baseball circles.
The future is bright. Langworthy already has a scholarship offer close to home from Florida. He throws four pitches with good command, with a fastball that's been clocked between 80 and 85 miles per hour. Last month, Langworthy fired a two-hit shutout in the state semifinals, helping to lead Williston to its first state title in any sport since 1923.
So it would stand to reason that Langworthy would be careful about how often he throws.
“There's always something in the back of your mind saying you don't want to get hurt,” Langworthy said. “But I mean, you have to play, honestly. You can't play scared to get hurt. If you do, that's when you are going to have arm problems.”
The question of whether young pitchers are throwing too much, too soon has been raised due to a recent rash of season-ending elbow injuries in Major League Baseball. Young phenom pitchers Matt Harvey (New York Mets), Matt Moore (Tampa Bay Rays) and Jose Fernandez (Miami Marlins) all are on the shelf for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair torn elbow ligaments. About a third of the way through the season, 20 MLB pitchers have been shut down after Tommy John surgery.
Baseball and medical analysts have suggested the combination of high school baseball, travel baseball and year-round showcase events have put more strain on teenage arms in their early stages of development. That in turn has led to pitchers encountering arm trouble in their early or mid-20s.
“I don't think you can put the blame on high school coaches or travel ball,” Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. “The fact of the matter is these kids are throwing 12 months out of the year. There's no break. There's no three-sport athletes anymore where you go to football and then wrestling and then baseball, or basketball in between. Guys are throwing 12 months out of a year, they are never taking a rest. I think that puts a lot of stress on your body, and your elbow and your shoulder.”
Langworthy said he takes at least two months off where he doesn't throw. His coach at Williston, Scott Hall, limited Langworthy to 80 pitches a week during the high school season. Hall made an exception and extended Langworthy to 86 pitches in Williston's state semifinal win.
Like many high school coaches, Hall shares concern about how often his pitchers throw during the offseason. Langworthy said he intends to pitch for a travel team this summer, but will limit his pitch count to 60 per week. He said he usually takes five to seven days off between starts.
“He's a good enough character kid where he wouldn't (put himself in jeopardy),” Hall said. “But I think Austin, he does need to take a couple, two or three months off out of the year. Even the big boys, they don't throw all year round.”
Volume vs. mechanics
But the issue of how often a young pitcher throws perhaps isn't as important as how they throw. Mechanics play an important role as to whether or not an arm stays healthy.
“There's a huge emphasis on velocity now,” O'Sullivan said. “I see it with our pitchers. The art of pitching and locating and making the ball move is secondary to velocity.”
Florida redshirt junior Karsten Whitson knows about lighting up radar guns. A top prospect out of Chipley High School, Whitson threw a mid-90s fastball and was taken ninth overall in the first round by the San Diego Padres in the 2010 June amateur draft. But Whitson passed on a seven-figure signing bonus from the Padres to sign at Florida. Shoulder problems started to arise for the right-hander during his sophomore season and he sat out the entire 2013 year after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Whitson said he pitched in summer travel leagues and showcase events in high school.
“I don't ever feel like I threw a ton to where I was overused in high school,” Whitson said. “I just think something like that may be something that you can't really escape as far as just something that's going to happen along the way.”
Whitson was drafted in the 11th round by the Boston Red Sox last Saturday.
“I think you just play baseball,” Whitson said. “You don't really think about injuries that could happen three or four years down the road. So you just play, have fun and (if) something does happen with an injury, it's bound to happen.”
Whitson said he thinks mechanics also play a role in pitching injuries.
“If you have a smoother arm action, you probably are going to stay away from some injuries maybe sooner in your career,” Whitson said. “I think a lot of it has to do with your style of pitching, too. A lot of guys that are getting hurt, especially at the big-league level, are guys who throw 95-plus with a 90-mile per hour slider. That's a lot of torque and a lot of wear and tear. Just the nature of the pitcher and what he does, I think, has a lot to do with it.”
That wear and tear can be reduced depending on how much a pitcher uses his entire body. According to a Florida study, hip flexibility can play a big role in helping pitchers prevent elbow injuries. The study, conducted by Dr. Kevin Farmer of UF's medical staff, measured hip range of motion from seven Division I college pitchers and compared them with pitching mechanics recorded in a motion analysis lab. It discovered limited hip range of motion led to faulty mechanics and recommended extensive hip stretching.
“Our guys have incorporated more hip range of motion and we're probably going to work on a program over the summer to increase hip motion, hip strengthening,” Farmer said.
At Williston, Hall makes sure his pitchers just don't do arm-strengthening exercises, but squats as well.
“Pitchers, that's where they really get their success from, their lower body,” Hall said.
Dr. Farmer, an orthopedic surgeon who joined UF's staff in 2009, said volume and mechanics both play a role in pitching injuries.
“Mechanics, I also think without question are a huge problem,” Farmer said. “But without the volume, I think mechanics are less of an issue.”
Educating young athletes
Farmer pointed out another study in which pitchers from warm weather states (Florida, Texas and California) are more prone to injuries than their cold weather counterparts because of the ability to play year-round baseball.
“There's been some effort to try to curb that,” Farmer said. “We have pitch counts and recommendations from Little League Baseball and now the injuries group to try to keep track of that.”
Education, Farmer said, is key. At the youth level for pitchers, it means making sensible choices. For example, pitchers who play quarterback in high school are more prone to arm problems because of the constant throwing required by both positions. Likewise, pitchers who also catch or pitchers who also play infield for their youth and high schools are more prone to arm problems associated with overuse (Langworthy pitches and plays outfield for Williston).
“I've seen some bad injuries in the 12-year-old pitcher-catchers where the elbows are just falling apart from the cumulative effect of the wear and tear,” Farmer said.
Farmer said he's conducted surveys with parents of incoming UF pitchers. He's come away surprised at how many still don't know about pitch counts or how many days a pitcher should rest between starts.
O'Sullivan comes from a pitching background. A catcher in college at Virginia, O'Sullivan served as pitching coach and assistant head coach at Clemson from 1999-2007 before taking the head coaching job at UF. Inscribed in a mural at the Florida baseball office is a quote from Orel Hershiser from an ESPN broadcast that talked about the care O'Sullivan takes in handling pitchers. It reads, in part, “he will not only develop the young man as a pitcher, but protect his arm.”
O'Sullivan said he understands that younger pitchers feel the need to get noticed by college coaches and pro scouts at showcase events. But the seven-year Florida coach said it's important to strike a balance between being seen and being overworked.
“You have decisions to make,” O'Sullivan said. “You have decisions to make as parents and coaches. You don't have to do every event. If you're good, you're good. I don't think you need to put yourself out there November, December, January. I think there just needs to a break. Put the brakes on and let teenagers be teenagers at some point.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.