Muscular development and age are big factors. But parents also need to actively monitor their child’s overuse to avoid injury.
If you’ve been around baseball long enough, you’ve probably heard or seen this horrific story: A young and talented pitcher has a menu of pitches — including a slider and curveball — that dominates the rest of the league. Yet, his pitching career is cut incredibly short because he blew out his elbow or shoulder.
Players, parents, coaches, league administrators and health care providers have often debated the appropriate age for a young player to begin throwing breaking pitches. And there are many factors contributing to the debate, and what ultimately influences the decision.
One of the most influential elements is the often misguided belief that throwing these pitches will somehow accelerate a young athlete’s rise to stardom and land a college scholarship. While anything is possible, the odds are against it; in fact only 1 percent of high school athletes receive college scholarships. The increased stress and demand on a young pitcher’s elbow and shoulder will only leave them susceptible to significant injury.
With participation in baseball and softball soaring (up 3 million participants between 2013-2018 according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association surveys), there’s increased emphasis to teach and develop younger players properly.
So, what is the appropriate age?
In regard to curveballs and sliders, I recommend a player wait until he is 13- or 14- years- old. It all depends on his physical maturation and muscular development. You want to avoid overloading the shoulder and elbow.
One of the first outward signs of pubertal development is facial hair and young boys starting to shave. You can also be evaluated by a sports physical therapist or certified athletic trainer, who can help you make the decision. The key is the longer you wait and the more development a player endures, the more prepared he will be.
In the meantime, young players can focus on throwing fastballs and change-ups while improving mechanics and pitch control. By delaying breaking pitches, you strengthen these foundational skills while minimizing risk of overuse and injury.
What are the risks?
The two most common injuries for pitchers are Little League shoulder and Little League elbow —inflammation or irritation of the growth plate. But there has also been a spike in ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears among younger players.
UCL tears require Tommy John surgery, a significant procedure with at least nine months of recovery, where surgeons attach a new tendon by drilling holes into the humerus (top bone) and ulna (lower arm), threading the graft through and securing it via sutures, buttons or screws.
Tommy John used to be limited to professional and collegiate athletes, but is now being performed on pediatric pitchers because of the year-round specialization in one sport and/or prematurely trying to develop a curveball and slider.
In 2018, research from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) showed that more than half — 54.7 percent — of parents encouraged their child to specialize in one single sport.
This is not a good trend.
Youth sports specialization, which is defined as playing a single sport more than eight months out of the year, can open children up to overuse and injury. The general recommendation is to not exceed that timeframe, ideally having young athletes get three consecutive months of rest and play on only one team at a time.
In the days of travel ball, some players/parents choose to play on multiple teams throughout the spring and summer seasons, which heightens an individual’s risk.
It’s OK to switch it up and play basketball or participate in track and field. This will keep the athlete healthy while changing the demands on the body and preserving the arm for the baseball season.
Pitch counts and proper rest
Some youth leagues impose mandated pitch counts for various age groups. For example, Little League Baseball only allows 7- and 8-year-olds to pitch 50 pitches each day; 9- and 10-year-olds 75 pitches; 11- and 12-year-olds 85 pitches and 13-16-year-olds 95 pitches.
These are intended to keep a young player from over-using their arms during the season. But there is more to it. Parents should be empowered with this knowledge and monitor their child’s pitch count and overall health.
Make sure the coach stays within the pitch count. And also make sure your child doesn’t play catcher on days off because the position calls for throws on every single pitch.
Russell Camhi, DO, ATC, is a primary care and sports medicine physician with the Northwell Health Orthopedic Institute. He is also the head team physician for Hofstra University athletics.