With summer baseball/softball leagues as well as Little League and Cal Ripken League tournaments going on, many youth ball players have shifted from league play to tournament play. Tournament play presents unique challenges to keeping athletes healthy as it is a format many players are not accustomed too. Coaches and players often feel more pressure to win. Having a child involved in tournament play myself and seeing some of the situations these kids are put in, I thought I would provide, based on the latest research, some things to watch out for that can lead to increased risk for injury.
Pitch Counts for Youth Baseball
USA Baseball along with the MLB and American Sports Medicine Institute have teamed to develop pitch count guidelines for youth baseball (see chart below).
These guidelines are based on extensive research and are widely considered the standard for youth baseball. You would think that these guidelines would be adopted in all youth tournament play, but unfortunately this is not the case. For example, see the pitch count regulations for Cal Ripken Baseball Tournament play below.
- As you can see from the 9-12 year old regulations, a pitcher is allowed up to 40 pitches with no rest days required and 75 pitches with only 2 days rest required. These tournaments often can go on for a week or more so you could be in a situation where your child is allowed to pitch up to 40 pitches on back-to-back-to- back-to-back days. This would never happen in the Major Leagues. How can it be permissible in youth baseball? A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2016 that looked at risk factors for “Tommy John” injury found that proper rest between pitching appearances can be just as important as following pitch counts. It is essential that parents and coaches are aware of this and make the right decisions for athletes.
Factors that Affect Pitch Counts
Though the pitch count guidelines above are helpful, there are factors that may reduce the number of pitches that should be thrown.
- Stressful Innings: not all innings are created equal. There is definitely a difference in stress on a pitcher's arm between times when they are cruising along and throwing free and easily, and when they are having tough innings when they have runners on base and are throwing 20 pitches or more in an inning.
- Hot Days: on particularly hot or humid days, pitchers are more likely to become fatigued (more on fatigue later) which can cause their mechanics to break down and leave them at increased risk for injury.
- Pitchers’ Physical Make Up: a pitcher’s size can relate to increased risk for injury in a way that may be counterintuitive to what you may think. A study in the medical journal Arthroscopy in 2015 showed that taller kids who throw harder are at increased risk for injury. It is recommended that coaches and parents are more careful with taller kids who throw harder.
Preventing Injury for Catchers and Fielders
Pitching and Then Playing in the Field: Particularly in the younger levels of youth baseball, the pitcher tends to be one of the best athletes on the field. You will often see coaches take kids from the mound when they are done pitching and put them at shortstop, 3rd base or, worst of all, catcher. Be careful with this practice, as you have to take into account the overall volume of throws the athlete is making. The safest practice if you are going to keep the pitcher in the game when they are done on the mound is to move him to the right side of the field, 1st base, 2nd base or right field.
Catcher: Though pitchers get much of the attention, catchers also are making a tremendous number of throws. Often catchers make many more throws than pitchers do in a given game and catchers may be asked to play multiple days in a row or even multiple games on one day. Care should taken as to the number of throws catchers are making and proper rest should be taken if catchers are starting to show signs of fatigue.
Middle of the Field: A similar idea holds true with middle infielders and center fielders. Most of the action in the game is in the middle of the field so care should be taken, especially if playing multiple games in a day and multiple days in a row. Attention should be paid not only to throws made during play, but also warm up throws between innings.
Fatigue and overuse have shown to be the two greatest factors for injury in youth baseball and softball players. A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute in 2006 found that pitching while fatigued increased likelihood for injury by 36x. I just want to repeat that: If a kid pitches while tired, he or she is 36x more likely to be injured!
A nice study came out in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2014 finding that the best indicators for fatigue are velocity and accuracy. A drop in velocity or loss of control is the best way to tell if a pitcher is fatigued. It’s crucial that a coach not only keep a close eye on the pitcher, but is also in close communication with the catcher about how the pitcher is looking.
I understand how tournament play can lead to increased emphasis on winning. It is imperative, however, that coaches and parents keep things in perspective and don’t let a “in it to win it” attitude place players at risk. Following proper pitch count guidelines, paying attention to overall volume of throws in the field, and monitoring for signs of fatigue are a few ways that coaches and parents can help protect their players and help ensure that these athletes will enjoy the game for years to come.