A rash of Tommy John elbow surgeries in the majors has raised concern all the way down to Little League baseball.
Coaches last week at the Big 12 Tournament at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark agreed the key issues are players are bigger and stronger and elite players participate at a highly competitive level nearly year-round in warm-weather climates.
“Previous generations threw footballs and shot basketballs to give the arm some time to rest,” said Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday, the Big 12 Coach of the Year. “I agree with the school of thought baseball played year-round is dangerous.”
Tommy John surgery is named after the former major league pitcher who revived his career after having the surgery. The procedure usually sidelines players 12 months after doctors take a tendon from elsewhere in the body to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.
OSU, which is hosting an NCAA Regional this weekend, has two players who underwent the operation. Conor Costello, from Edmond Santa Fe, hurt his elbow a few years ago in fall baseball at Navarro Junior College before he transferred to OSU.
“Going through it is a struggle but I was kind of happy I got it done and it didn’t happen later in my career,” Costello said. “My mechanics (weren’t) where they should have been. I was pulling my slider. There are a lot of factors involved.”
In a generation where athletes tend to focus on only one sport, pitchers suffering elbow injuries at an alarming rate has forced everyone to take a hard look at how kids approach the sport.
Many of the nation’s top prospects play on travel teams. Summer leagues often extend into August with high-profile tournaments where pitchers try to impress pro scouts and college coaches.
“I grew up in Maryland,” said 11-year TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle. “I’ve always said it’s a blessing and a curse to play in a warm-weather climate. It’s a blessing to play a lot of baseball. It’s also a curse to play a lot of baseball.
“One thing I’m hearing is it’s playing a lot of games at a highly competitive level. Playing at that level helps a player improve but sometimes maybe it’s better just to play catch (on flat ground) instead of a constant competitive environment off a mound.”
The alarm sounded when elbow injuries reached an all-time high this season in the majors. It’s such an epidemic that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced he’s “worried.”
Texas’ right-hander Martin Perez was the 19th major league pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery since spring training.
It’s significant that 16 of the 19 who have undergone elbow surgery this year are all relatively young and all from places with warm-weather climates — California, Florida, Texas or Latin America.
“If I played in this generation I probably would have never played football because there’s so much baseball available,” said veteran Baylor coach Steve Smith. “Playing that much baseball is what makes them good, but it’s also a perfect storm that can lead to injuries.”
Another variable is today’s pitchers are bigger, stronger and throw harder.
“The baseball is coming out of their hand like we’ve never seen before,” Holliday said. “They throw sliders 90 mph in the majors. That used to be the average fastball. If you throw pitches at such a velocity the soft tissue can’t withstand it over the course of time.”
Elbow injuries have been more frequent in recent years. Four of baseball’s top pitchers — Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Matt Harvey (Mets), Jose Fernandez (Marlins) and Dylan Bundy (Orioles) — have undergone Tommy John operations in recent years.
Mark Robinette, the other OSU pitcher who had Tommy John surgery, injured his elbow the summer after his sophomore year.
“I’ve always taken care of my arm. I’ve iced it and done all the exercises. I was never abused by coaches,” Robinette said. “One day I’m just playing catch and it happened. To be honest it’s kind of inevitable for some guys.”
TCU junior right-hander Preston Morrison, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, has seen teenagers undergo elbow surgery but believes there are steps that can minimize a pitcher’s chances of tearing the UCL.
“One of the big things is kids need to take care of their arms,” Morrison said. “It’s sort of what I call pre-hab, a preventive approach. You have to be smart about it.
“You also can’t have coaches overuse kids, throw them more than 120 pitches, if that, and then take four days off. After the summer every year I’ve never thrown too many innings in the fall and then I take off six or seven weeks in the winter.”
Experts that follow the issue have said the 2014 elbow firestorm is a concern, but warn it might just be a bad year; how the story unfolds the next couple of years will determine whether it’s truly an epidemic.
This year’s list primarily consists of pitchers, but Minnesota Twins third base prospect Miguel Sano, one of the elite hitters in the minors, will miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery during spring training.
TCU junior lefthander Brandon Finnegan, an All-Big 12 pitcher, believes part of it is random luck.
“It can sometimes be a freak deal even if you do all the stretching exercises you’re supposed to do,” Finnegan said. “One of the guys on the team that blew out his elbow is one of the biggest exercise conditioning addicts you’ll ever see.”
Elbow injuries have become an issue at the high school and college levels.
OU pitcher Adam Choplick had to redshirt as a freshman after having two Tommy John surgeries while still in high school.
During his 25 years as a Division I head coach or assistant, Smith in person had witnessed just one pitcher who suffered a season-ending elbow injury while on the mound. This year the Bears have had three — two elbow injuries and a shoulder.
“They play so much baseball there’s no time to train. Eventually the body will break down,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s any way to mandate this. Every kid, parent and coach has to use some common sense when it comes to participation in any sport, not just baseball.”
Holliday said the Cowboys give pitchers November and December off before they resume throwing programs in January to prepare for a college season that begins in February.
“You have to look at this through the eyes of science,” Holliday said. “There are some really smart doctors, scientists and physical therapists who can study the science part of this.
“Every player must be monitored individually. One program won’t fit everyone. Age, body type and arm slot are all factors. Hopefully these scientists can up with logical conclusions that will help everyone have more information to make sound decisions.”