The roster looks like a Top 100 prospect list from 2012 or a fantasy baseball team owner’s keeper list. It includes Miami’s Jose Fernandez, the New York Mets’ Matt Harvey, Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore, Oakland’s Jarrod Parker, Texas’ Martin Perez, Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy, Detroit’s Bruce Rondon and Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon, among others.
Each of those eight players is a pitcher. Each is 25 years old or younger. All have been ranked, in the last two years, among the top 100 prospects in baseball. And with the exception of Taillon, each has advanced to the major leagues.
And each of the highly regarded young pitchers has undergone reconstructive elbow surgery – more commonly known as Tommy John surgery – in the last year.
Elbows have been exploding at such a rapid rate among young pitchers that Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedist in Birmingham, Ala., who is one of the go-to-guys for baseball players who have elbow or shoulder problems, called the rash of elbow injuries an “epidemic.”
There are many theories as to why young pitchers who threw fastballs with such velocity that they drew comparisons to Sandy Koufax in his prime are now having their elbows compared to Koufax’s at the end of his career. Some baseball people say it’s too many curveballs and sliders at too young an age. Others blame poor throwing mechanics. Some blame coaches, from the youth leagues to college, for allowing their best pitchers to throw too many innings and too many pitches, all in an effort to win one meaningless game.
Yet even in this age of closely monitored pitch counts for minor leaguers, ulnar collateral ligaments are tearing at a record rate. In the last year, 70 major leaguers and top prospects have undergone the ligament transplant surgery that was first performed on Tommy John, the former major league pitcher, back in 1974.
I am not a doctor. Nor have I spent years studying the physical impact of throwing a baseball 95 mph. But I can see an alarming threat facing young pitchers today. It’s the American system of putting emphasis on fastball velocity, travel baseball, showcases and winter instruction.
We live in the era of specialization in youth and high school sports. Dad tells his son the best way to land that coveted college scholarship is to play one sport year-round. So we have teenagers playing on their high school baseball team in the spring. In the summer, it’s the local rec league team on weeknights and travel baseball tournaments on the weekends. Mix in a few showcases, and it’s a busy summer. Then it’s on to fall baseball and pitching lessons in the winter. There is no offseason.
“A lot of this is preventable, and it’s preventable if you take care of your kids at a young age,” said Dr. Keith Meister of the Texas Metroplex Institute for Sports Medicine & Orthopedics recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Meister has performed ulnar collateral ligament surgery on pitchers as young as 14.
“The developmental program is screwed up,” he said. “It’s misplaced priorities by coaches and parents. Everybody is chasing the dream. … No. 1, the whole concept of kids in their development years throwing as much as they’re throwing now and throwing year-round, no doubt, is a contributing factor.”
These young pitchers are working the same core muscles with no recovery period. Pitchers today might be throwing fewer pitches in a game than pitchers 25 years ago, but they’re throwing many more pitches over the course of a year.
And we’re surprised that pitchers are breaking down.
Here’s some advice: Tell your kid to put down the baseball in the fall and pick up a football or a basketball or a golf club or, better yet, a book.
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.