Given the number of throwing injuries in baseball, some viewers are under the false impression that pitchers simply cannot handle the pain or that the throwing motion is unnatural. However, these common misconceptions ignore the severity of elbow injuries that many pitchers sustain. As baseball players have gotten stronger over the years, the number of injuries has also risen. Getting stronger may help a pitcher throw faster, but it also places more pressure on the ligaments in his elbow. The Tommy John surgery, a procedure that replaces the torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with another tendon from the body, has grown in popularity over the past years. A torn UCL is extremely painful and cannot be handled with toughness alone.
There are arguably two main causes for this misapprehension. The firm is that the way a player is recruited or signed to play at the next level has changed. In addition to college coaches attending high school games during the spring, there are now several large tryout and tournament style showcases taking place all year round. These showcases are meant to exhibit a player’s skills to several coaches at once. As a result of the many showcases baseball prospects attend, they solely play baseball, instead of playing other sports during what was once the baseball off-season. A specialization in baseball results in a higher quantity of pitches thrown, making overuse of the elbow more likely.
Furthermore, the average pitch is now thrown at a higher velocity than in the past. One explanation for the higher velocity is that players partake in strength and conditioning programs. The average weight of an MLB player has increased from 186 pounds in 1960, compared to 209 pounds in 2010. Although it may seem counterintuitive to think that a stronger, larger body is more injury-prone, the reality is that the harder the body will allow one to throw, the more force the UCL absorbs. Similarly, throwing in competition from mounds increases the speed with which a pitcher can throw, also contributing to pressuring the UCL.
Casual tosses over the summer have been replaced with 17 year-olds’ adrenaline-powered heaves off mounds at showcases. The professional pitchers today are stronger, harder throwing and have more wear and tear on their arms than any pitcher from the past. Beginning in high school, pitchers are forced to perform in a highly competitive field that demands year round practice. Moreover, the increase in size and strength of players only makes them more likely to injure themselves, not less. Pitchers are not taken out of games because they are not tough, but because they have sustained a serious injury caused by the evolving world of baseball.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Sept. 17 print issue. Email Sam Raskin at [email protected]