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High heat comes at a high price for baseball pitchers

Today’s pressure on pitchers can sway them into habits that endanger their arm health

Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw has thrown more than 20,000 in-game pitches as a Dodger. (Photo/Ed Crisostomo, The Orange County Register)

The glaring lights of Dedeaux Field mix with the reddish hue of twilight. Here, the scent of mowed grass and the buzzing chatter of baseball players defy strict geography: This ballpark could be in Indiana or upstate New York or any meatloaf-and-cherry-pie-loving place where baseball is played at its most innocent and authentic.

I windmill my right arm, stretching it for the challenge at hand. A guy tosses me a ball and I grip its seams. Using all the momentum I can muster, I rear back and hurl the ball as hard as I can toward a screen. A young woman holding a radar gun looks at her readout blithely.

“Sixty-two,” she says. That’s 62 miles per hour. I’m silently thrilled.

Give ’em the high, hard one

For my age — more than twice that of a college senior — it’s more than respectable. Then a 6-foot-3-inch 14-year-old steps up and clocks over 70 mph. Any jealousy or resentment on my part? No, just a tingling arm. I can’t imagine the feeling in my joints if I were the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, throwing fastballs over and over again.

And that’s the point of the exercise that brought us and a panel of pitching and sports medicine experts to Dedeaux Field on March 31 — “Velocity and Vulnerability: Baseball Pitchers and the Limits of Human Performance,” part of USC’s Visions and Voices series.

As Major League Baseball opens its regular season with fanfare and more than its share of red-white-and-blue bunting, the sport unveils its latest crop of hard-throwing and highly paid pitching phenoms.

With their financial investments on the line, teams often carefully count these players’ pitches and yank players from games when they’ve hit their limit to protect their arms. What makes pitchers’ arms so fragile and vulnerable to damage?

It’s all about pitching dynamics, an area overlapping biochemistry, physics and sports medicine.

The physics of the fastball

Every pitcher today must throw faster than 90 mph to get signed to a pro contract, said Tom House, a former pitcher for USC and the Atlanta Braves who’s now a pitching coach with the Texas Rangers and an expert on the science of pitching. He might be best known for turning two amateurs from India into pitchers, as seen in the movie Million Dollar Arm. 

Repeatedly throwing a baseball at these high speeds puts several immense stresses on the body, he said, including great force on the elbow. More than half of the torque created during a pitch is borne by the ulnar collateral ligament, a band of tissue on the side of the elbow that would snap if the forearm muscles didn’t hold it in place.

The result over time: blown arms. Pitchers fray or tear the ulnar collateral ligament in their pitching arm so often that it’s now routine to perform Tommy John surgery, a procedure named after a Dodgers pitcher in which surgeons graft tissue from a forearm or knee onto the ligament to repair it.

Worries about arm health have filtered their way down to Little Leaguers, whose parents worry about injuries from throwing the curveball. Yet the curveball, thrown properly, is the easiest pitch on the arm, according to House. (And the toughest is the cutter.) A bigger concern, recent studies show, is the sheer amount of pitches that children throw. In 2007, Little League adopted specific rules for how many pitches a player can throw during a game, based on the player’s age — as well as forced rest days.

That’s a good start, according to the USC panel, which recommended a holistic approach to keeping pitchers healthy: proper nutrition, sufficient sleep and workouts that boost overall strength, like closed chain isometric exercises — which boost functional fitness — and joint integrity exercises to provide a strong scaffold for joints, as well as exercise machines and free weights.

Despite the big gains that technology is bringing to sports medicine, though, sometimes health is about knowing your own body and what it’s capable of. House remembered the wise words of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who told him in a Texas twang: “ ‘Tom, I throw harder when I lift my leg higher. Put that in your damn computer.’ ”

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High heat comes at a high price for baseball pitchers

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