When the Pitch Smart initiative began in an effort to prevent overuse injuries from baseball players, Major League Baseball had a vested interest in being involved.
Although Pitch Smart — a partnership between MLB, USA Baseball and GameChanger — focuses on youth players, MLB recognized that overuse injuries affect the whole sport, even at the top level.
Chris Marinak, MLB’s senior vice president of league economics and strategy, noted a large volume of research, with many dedicated scholars spending the last 20-to-30 years studying the issue.
The research has shown that overuse among young players is the leading risk for injury.
“In one of the seminal studies, ASMI (American Sports Medicine Institute) found that youth players who pitched more than 100 innings in at least one year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured than those who did not exceed 100 innings,” Marinak said.
Additional studies linked pitching while fatigued, pitching more than eight months a year and pitching on consecutive days to increased risk as well. Organizations such as Little League recognized these problems at the youth level and were at the forefront of implementing pitch count guidelines in 2007, trends that have been monitored by MLB.
“There was a particularly large group of pitchers injured during the early part of 2014, and it was clear that the number of Tommy John surgeries in professional baseball was trending upwards,” Marinak said. “Many of the most successful young pitchers in MLB have undergone Tommy John surgery and missed significant time over the last few years.”
Marinak cautioned that researchers are only in early stages of the program. As more leagues continue to adopt the Pitch Smart guidelines — which includes free pitch count and stat tracking guidelines from GameChanger — the hope is to see fewer pitching injuries among youth.
“We have spent a lot of time working with USA Baseball to meet with youth organizations and explain the benefits of Pitch Smart,” Marinak said. “As the governing body of amateur baseball in the United States, USA Baseball is uniquely positioned to work with these groups and create a unified approach to health and safety for young players.
“These organizations have been extremely receptive, and we are very optimistic that leagues will continue to adopt Pitch Smart and raise awareness.”
In 2014, when an unprecedented number of MLB pitchers suffered injuries that required Tommy John surgery, Commissioner Bud Selig convened a group of leading medical and research experts, including doctors James Andrews, Glenn Fleisig, Neal ElAttrache and Chris Ahmad and many others.
“They quickly agreed that while this was a complicated issue, the injuries occurring at the professional level were a result of having pitched too much as amateurs,” Marinak said.
While much research had been done in that area, it hadn’t made its way to the masses.
“We felt we could bridge the gap and raise awareness among players, parents and coaches,” Marinak said. “We began to develop the contents of Pitch Smart with USA Baseball and worked throughout the summer.
“Once we had content in place, we began working on implementation and raising awareness while continuously looking for ways to improve.”
The research and advisory committee made it clear that overuse is the single greatest risk factor for injury, particularly at the youth level. However, proper throwing mechanics and a coach who understands how to teach these concepts are also important.
“We don’t know the exact breakdown in terms of importance between these two factors, but we have active research projects investigating this issue,” Marinak said. “These guidelines are intended to reduce the risk of injury based upon the best available evidence, but there is always a risk that a player will be injured while playing sports.
“If a young player suffers an injury, it’s important that he or she discontinue pitching until evaluated by a sports medicine physician.”