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At what age can a pitcher throw curveballs?

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/sports/baseball/26score.html?_r=0

 

For many years, I have been shouted down, or shouted at, or just treated with complete disdain if I ever spoke my mind on this particular topic.  You see I am one of only a few people who never bought the "curveballs destroy arms" fallacy that has been repeated so many times, that it's just assumed to be gospel now.

Being a pitcher, I knew from my personal experience that supinating in an overhead position feels much more natural and puts less pressue on my elbow.  On the other hand, pronating, as you do with a fastball or sinker HAS caused me arm problems.

Test it out yourself.  Put your arm in a loaded slot position and bring it forward while turning your thumb down.  Now do it really hard.  You can easily feel the tug on your inner forearm.  That's the ulnar collateral.  The cause of elbow problems that require Tommy John surgery.  Everyone conveniently forgets that Tommy John made a living off his sinker.

Now try the same exercise, but supinate your forearm like a karate chop, and bring it straight down.  That's the proper motion of an overhand curve.  It hardly puts any pressure on the elbow region, and actually feels good.  At least to me it does.

See, I always felt that the problem wasn't the curveball as much as it was the way it was taught.  Many coaches teach spinning the ball out, or "snapping the wrists" which is completely wrong and DOES put undue pressure on an elbow.  You can easily spot this pitch as it has unearthly side to side movement....a la Kerry Wood, or Jeff Nelson.  It also happens to be the way to throw a curve with a wiffle ball, which is where most kids first start experimenting.  This then becomes the way many kids throw their curve with a baseball.

I learned my curve from a terrific book by Nolan Ryan (the title escapes me) written many years ago.  He specifically instructs the reader to use the exact same motion as the fastball, while only changing the angle of the forearm.  No twisting, no spinning, no snapping.  It's a hard karate chop.  And for those old enough to remember, Ryan had one of the deadliest 12-6 curves ever thrown.  IMHO it was truly what made him great, not his fastball.  AND, he threw it well into his 40s with no elbow problems.

Only recently, however, did I come across a couple of articles ( a link for one is posted above) that I think supports what I've been saying all along.  In a nutshell, the only truly scientific studies on the subject have shown that curveballs don't put any more pressure on a young elbow than a fastball does.  In fact, the only true, and scientifically proven cause for arm problems in young players is overuse.  Throwing too many pitches in one day and/or not resting enough between throwing sessions.

There are many coaches out there who stand on a soapbox because they forbid the curve until a player is 15 or 16, but will happily allow a young player to throw 100 pitches or more in a single outing.  They will gladly let a kid practice throwing in between starts and without the proper rest period observed.  We see the incidence of ulnar collateral damage increase 4 or 5 fold despite kids not being allowed to throw a curve.  This is the REAL problem with a "strawman" villain like the curveball.  It blinds us to the actual problem and makes matters worse.

 

Now, I know I'll get flamed heavily for this.  But, check out the link and read the article.  Google other articles on studies that rely on actual empirical evidence and not hearsay or opinion.  No one has EVER shown the curveball to be the cause of arm problems in any statistical, empirical, or scientific way.  There is PLENTY of evidence however that shows overuse to be a major problem.  The Little League has even set forth pitch count rules for every age group based on these studies.  They are enforced at games, but NOT at practices, or any OTHER time.  I think it's also very telling that the Little League has NEVER imposed or enforced a "no curveballs" rule.  It's my belief that they can not come out and actually say that curveballs don't hurt arms, because it would open them up to all sorts of litigation, and under the current climate of ignorance regarding the topic would likely pass muster with a jury.  It just wouldn't be prudent.

 

So, I stand by my assertion that the "curveball" problem is a fallacy, and believing it and following it actually makes matter worse as it takes the spotlight off the real issue; OVERUSE!

Views: 643

Comment by Anthony Vontobel on March 8, 2013 at 8:17pm

I completely agree with you on the major problem, with injuries in children with pitching is due to overuse. Couple of the leading factors with this are that kids that throw hard and get a lot of strike outs at young ages the coaches feel the kid is throwing fine. But in reallity the child has major issues with his or her mechanics causing stress to the elbow and shoulder. With the curveball being an issue is not the pitch but the form of the pitch and the way it is taught to be thrown. A lot of kids get taught to throw it more like a slider with a hard snapping motion which then on all ages young an old can cause issues. When I work on my own pitching and other teammates and children on pitching I work more on their mechanics and controlling the fastball, then work on a secondary and third pitch. With over hand pitching I tend to throw at a 3/4 slot which it actually gives me a natural 2 seam/ sinker movement. 

Comment by Matt Manning on March 8, 2013 at 9:58pm

Here is a great article on this topic featuring Dr. Andrews the famous Tommy John specialist Young Arms and Curveballs: A Scientific Twist.  A player I coached who was 15 years old had been having arm troubles since he was 13-14 and finally got it checked out and needed TJ surgery.  His dad had him on a strict 'no curveball' rule and didn't allow him to throw past 90 feet, but it was his natural throwing mechanics that likely led him to being injured.  Going out and throwing fastballs as hard as you can every pitch when you fly open with your front side and leave your elbow exposed over and over is going to much more damage than throwing a few breaking balls per game.  From what I've seen the problem arises when you have coaches who don't really know what they are doing, and when they see the other team can't hit a curveball, they just have the catcher call that repeatedly.  Not only does it put the pitcher at risk of injury, but it's also not teaching them how to pitch either.

Comment by HENRY WALTHAM on March 8, 2013 at 10:52pm

GLAD SOME ONE BROUGHT THIS UP. THERE IS NO EXACT AGE BUT 16 AND UP FOR ME IT IS OK TO TRY DIFFERENT PITCHES.  PLAYER DEVELOPMENT.BEST TO HAVE PRO COACHES HELP U TO BE COMPETENT!!

Comment by Ted Browne on March 8, 2013 at 11:18pm

I'm pretty sure that most arm injuries happen from overuse, not the curve.  That said, anyone teaching a curve ball at the expense of proper fastball/changeup pitch sequencing and location is doing his young pitcher a disservice.  The tradeoff between cheap strikeouts for a 12 year old versus proper arm slot mechanics when he's 15 is priceless. 

Comment by Don Ervin on March 9, 2013 at 3:08am

As the old master of the physical and mental aspects of pitchers, Johnny Sain who most have never heard of preached many years ago, The curve ball when taught and thrown properly as Curt Schilling for instance executed without leaving your arm out there to the side in no mans land twisting  jerking and snapping the wrist and elbow in particular is no more harmful to the arm than throwing a fast ball, if one could view an animated movement of a fast ball at the release point, your mouth would fly open in fear that the fore arm had just came loose, the skin blows up like a balloon, how many people out there are pitching educated and experienced enough pro coaches or otherwise who know how to teach proper pitching/throwing mechanics in general? I think  possibly just a hand full remember, it is not what is taught  it is being taught the proper way,  Furcal an infielder for instance is out with his elbow blown out so in actuality pitchers are not the only ones whose  arms and shoulders are in jeopardy of  injury,  view all of the major league pitchers who just basically throw with their arms, which is in  the majority, the percentage numbers of major leaguers who are either waiting for or have already  had and are recuperating from elbow and shoulder surgery before the season starts is [43%} or more.Where are the proper sequenced, chained reactive mechanics here? one can play the game at the highest level but teaching youngsters is a horse of a different color.

Everyone talks about curve ball,slider, this pitch. that pitch when basic control and command of the fast ball and the straight change up are of the utmost importance of all pitches, especially the fast ball, even at the major league level how many major leaguers have good command and control of just their fast ball? not many,their ball strike ratio is atrocious

The question should be what are proper pitching mechanics and how should they be taught and executed, ask 10 different coaches, players, parents etc. and you will get ten different types of answers. according to Dr. Andrews Dr. Fleisig, Tom House, Brent Pourciau and other experts there are not separate mechanics for each individual pitcher.

Dr. Andrews, Dr.Fleisig along with his associates have proven through their "SCIENTIFIC." research that a pitchers body in motion from the rubber to it's finish position should function/operate within a "SERIES." of forward  "SEQUENCED." "CHAINED" "REACTIVE" "MOVEMENTS" that consist of forward accelerated hip movement before stride foot and leg movement which follows {hips sideways} into a stride length of at least app. matching one's body height to a  decelerated stride foot touch/plant down, at or just the split second prior to stride foot touch/plant down {hip to shoulder separation} is to be executed with  the arm being brought forward from it's cocked/launched external lay back position on forward to it's internal extended ball release position onto it's final nice flat back fielding position letting the arm come to a rest just  over the glove side knee in order to let the arm momentarily relax which also enables the tension and strain built up during the throwing movement to dissipate within the larger muscles of the lower body instead of in the smaller muscles of the upper body.

They have also brought to the table that {no matter what kind of a pitcher} one is, {their {mechanics} are all basically the same} so this tells me that there are some absolutes within the pitching movement/motion .During the period of puberty, 13 to 14 1/2 the growth plates are still maturing and a sometimes boy's bones do not mature with his body's sudden growth spurt, he may lose control and even become unstable so during those times caution should be taken to assure that strain and abuse is very  limited people need to be aware that just because a pitcher or even a position player is doing good is not always a sign that everything is ok as can be seen with all of the unnecessary numbers of chronic sore arms,elbow and shoulder surgeries  acquired by pitchers all ages and levels as young as 10 yrs. old.

It is good to see that there some people out there who talk about proper mechanics etc. here in Springfield turn me off when I bring up something that they are not aware of, I mentioned to a players dad that when the lift leg knee approaches it's peak the hips begin their forward movement into weight shift without stopping and gathering that old balance position and momentum stalling body movement  which allows the hips to lead the body, stride foot and leg following down the hill he became very irate.everyone is quick to dispute someone's word when they hear something they have never heard before.

To get the body into movement first one must move the hips then the stride foot and leg follow the hips  I  continually observe pitchers stopping and gathering balance and then moving their stride foot and leg first ahead of their hips.

Don Ervin

dfervin32@yahoo.com

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Comment by Leo Trayner on March 9, 2013 at 5:02am
I completely agree with you all, especially Don, well said. I too am of the group that believes curve-balls are not the root of all evil in pitching injuries. It has been shown that when thrown PROPERLY via GOOD MECHANICS within limited numbers, (pitch counts) throughout the games and season, the curveball can be taught at any age. I see arm injuries in my place of work in orthpedics and majority of the cases are from overuse. There are too many kids throwing way too many pitches for a significant number of months without rest. This is why we have continuous rise in arm injuries.
Pitches don't hurt kids, parents and coaches do. Teach the proper grips, teach the proper mechanics, manage pitch totals. I coached a team from 9 y/o to 16 y/o and never had one kid come down with a arm injury. Coaches- Don't let the game situation take precedent over the safety of the player.
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Comment by Billy Reilly on March 9, 2013 at 10:13am
This is going to be a topic of discussion for many years until better research is out there. From what we do know now, overuse and poor mechanics are the concern more than specific pitches. That being said, I do believe curveballs should not be thrown until the pitcher is skeletally mature, until the growth plates are mature. What can conflict with that thought is that study from James Andrews and Glenn Fleisig. It shows that there is more force on the arm throwing a fastball than there is throwing a curve. But you have to look into the reason for that. The study shows that the arm speed of throwing a fastball is greater than throwing a curve or other off-speed pitch( as much as we try to teach maintaining the same arm speed between types of pitches). The greater velocity the more force on the arm. If you hear Andrews speak, he feels this info can be misleading and not an indicator that curveballs are safe. The forearm position throwing a curveball is different than it is throwing a fastball. Meaning, there is different musculature trying to dissipate some of the force of throwing a ball. What we need to still find out is if throwing a ball with the arm more pronated(fastball) less stressful on the elbow than in less pronation(curveball). If this is true, this puts more stress on ulnar collateral ligament and the bone structure of the inside elbow. Clinically, as a physical therapist, I believe this is true because the wrist is generally stronger in the position of the fastball than the position of the curveball. I rather be safe than sorry with this because it can mean the end of kid pitching at a very early age.
Comment by Don Ervin on March 9, 2013 at 3:46pm

The comments above are all well stated, Excellent info.

"PRONATION."

The time and place in the delivery are most important, the earlier pronation begins the harder it is on the elbow in particular because of the early  twisting of the arm with ball in hand which tends for attempting to get more movement etc.on the ball, I would for that reason want my pitchers to pronate at the very release even after ball release to eliminate any premature and excessive twisting of the wrist and arm at the elbow area, The reason for pronation is to assist the arm, not to acquire more movement etc.with it's delivery/movement, I like to view pronation executed in a nice smooth non forceful, twisty or jerky movement therefore all pitchers urgently need to seriously understand this fact and should be consistently monitored/checked to make sure they are not prematurely and forcefully executing their pronation during the early part of their delivery, the only and most successful way to do so is through regular taping and viewing the delivery in slow or step motion/movement which also helps tremendously in finding out whether there are other faults within the delivery or not. The naked eye simply cannot properly pick up and view the arm movement during it's speed of movement.

It is my suggestion that all coaches to familiarize themselves basically with the area of body growth, how the muscular and bone structure mature together or not  during growth periods especially during  sudden growth spurts within one's  time of puberty, there are times with certain individuals when during sudden growth spurts their bone structure does not mature with their body's sudden growth up shoot which can be and is very painful, also the lack of comparable body and bone maturity many times causes the bone structure to become unstable enough to render a person immobile and to possibly have to have pins inserted, I am repeating myself here but as we tell our athletes repetition of proper methods is the path/route to success.

I am going in a little different direction here by stating that  proper mechanics are the basis for letting the body do the work instead of just basically the arm and without proper mechanics creates the majority of unnecessary abuse to the elbow,shoulder and all other body parts negatively effected during the throwing motion/movement and is the basis for potential injury due to the fact that there is a lot of throwing and torque to the arm during the act of throwing a lot of balls with very little rest during a short period of time while on the mound, again I must say that when the arm is allowed to finish up and momentarily relax/rest at the glove side knee of the decelerated foot leg then the enormous amount of tension and strain imposed on it during the throwing motion/movement is "ALLOWED TO DISSIPATE"  WITHIN THE LARGER MUSCLES" {LEGS},{HIPS} ETC. OF THE ":LOWER BODY" "INSTEAD" OF THE SMALLER MUSCLES OF THE UPPER BODY. {ARMS,} {SHOULDERS} ETC.

"POOR MECHANICS  DEFINITELY CREATES ABUSE TO THE ARM DUE TO THE FACT THAT

POOR MECHANICS FORCES THE ARM TO DELIVER THE MAJORITY OF THE BODY'S THROWING MOVEMENTS TORQUE ETC. INSTEAD OF ALLOWING THE BODY TO DO SO.

With no abuse or overuse the lack of proper mechanics alone would still create the chronic sore elbows, and possible elbow and shoulder surgeries confronting [pitchers every time they step on the mound and throw a ball. Teaching, learnig and using proper mechanics is first and foremost to a pitchers arm and shoulder health, command and control of their pitches. Of course knowing what proper mechanics are  and being able to teach them is paramount to the student being able to absorb/learn and execute them properly. as I stated in my article yesterday proper mechanics compliments of Dr. Andrews, Tom House, Brent Pourciau and other experts have brought to the table through their scientific research of how the body functions and how it should function/operate within a  series of sequenced, chained reactive movements creating body momentum built up from the mound to the finish position to be executed with proper timing in their proper sequence {indifference} as to how the body does work/function during it's throwing/pitching movement and when any part of the chain is broken the arm is left to take on the body's duties. it is also stated that no matter what kind of a pitcher one may be the proper mechanics are basically the same for all pitchers so in my eyes I see some absolutes there within the mechanical movements. 

Don Ervin

dfervin32@yahoo.com

Comment by Michael Richards on March 11, 2013 at 8:17am

At what age can a pitcher throw curveballs?

What age can he throw fastballs and change ups for strikes?  Once he accomplishes that, the curve should be added no matter what age he is.  The curve is an excellent out pitch or ground ball inducing pitch and needs to be in every pitcher's arsenal as long as it is helping to reduce pitches per innings.  I have been telling parents this for years.  I learned a long time ago watching a 9 year old Marquis Grissom mow hitters down with a nasty yacker.  I'm sure he didn't learn that pitch at 9.  He was probably throwing it ever since he started throwing.  Little known fact:  Grissom was drafted as a pitcher.  His 4.4 speed, hitting and defense turned him into an outfielder.  He attended Florida A&M on a track scholarship.  Mike Hampton was another great athlete that could have been in the everyday lineup but being a lefty probably kept him on the mound unlike Grissom.

Comment by Willie Ramirez on March 11, 2013 at 6:18pm

I greatly appreciate everyone’s feedback on this post. I agree on appropriate age (14-15), maintaining safe pitch counts, throwing with proper mechanics, etc., when teaching a pitcher to throw the curveball. My question is – does anyone have additional information written or videos that demonstrates and explains how to throw a curveball with proper mechanics safely?  

 

I came across Dan Gazaway’s YouTube video from the Pitching Academy on this subject (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEq5xZvqGXc&feature=related). What caught my attention; at 6:40 – 6:55 of the video Dan explains the change in the wrist and forearm angle in the FB, CU and curve in the video, which makes a lot of sense. Dan breaks down how he teaches players to throw the curveball (influenced by Mr. House) and I believe Dan’s video is a good explanation of the throwing position…any comments on how well Dan’s instructions are in the video?

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