Protecting pitching arms is an admirable but fluid goal

Somewhere along the way, 100 pitches in Major League Baseball became a magic number to exceed at the pitcher’s own risk. But there’s nothing magical about 100 pitches any more than there is in limiting the number of innings a pitcher throws.

At the lower levels of baseball, the number of pitches or innings a pitcher throws is predicated on the fear that too many coaches will abuse young arms in order to win a Little League game.

As kids grow into young men, most coaches will do the right thing and try to avoid causing an injury by having a pitcher throw too long. But rules to protect pitchers’ arms are necessary because of the perception that some coaches will do anything in order to win.

It’s easy to see why pro baseball teams are hesitant to let pitchers pile up too many innings, because there’s a major financial investment in those arms. Even at that level, there’s little agreement on how many pitches are too many.

In ESPN The Magazine, Tim Kurkjian writes: “If a pitcher throws 120 pitches now, it is no longer considered normal; in fact, right or wrong, it’s almost considered abusive.”

Kurkjian cites a number of reasons why limiting pitchers to 100 has become so sacred.

Former NL Cy Young Award winner Orel Her­shiser said the strike zone “now is the smallest it has ever been. When we lost the height on the strike zone, we added some width, but then there was a trend to cut down on violence in sports, and with the new rules in baseball we lost the inside corner. So you pitch in, hit a batter and a fight starts.”

Another reason for limiting pitches is the specialization of relievers. In the 1970s, Orioles manager Earl Weaver often would break camp with eight pitchers. He would let Jim Palmer finish what he started, asking, “Who do you want pitching in the ninth inning with a one-run lead, Jim Palmer or the ninth-best pitcher on the team?”

But now, the ninth-best pitcher on the team might come out of the bullpen throwing from 95-100 mph, and he’s making a lot of money to finish games.

There’s also the old bugaboo of injuries. Kurkjian writes: “Most pitchers are on the disabled list (more) today than ever before. It’s a paradox: The less they throw, the more often they get hurt.”

For younger arms, there’s still an ongoing debate about when a pitcher is old enough to throw curveballs.

Bill Pennington, writing on nytimes.com, said, “For decades it has been an article of faith for parents of young pitchers: Do not let them throw curveballs. The reason was simple. Contort­ing elbows—all in the service of ever more competitive baseball at ever younger ages—puts more strain on the joint than arms can handle.”

However, one study showed curveballs pose no greater risk than other pitches. And many studies have shown that the greatest threat to young arms is not throwing curves, but throwing too many pitches of any kind.

James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon for many athletes, has written that some of the studies have failed to prove that curveballs are hazardous to young arms.

“What we found in the lab is true,” Andrews said. “For pitchers with proper mechanics, the force of throwing a curveball is no greater than for a fastball. But that’s not what happens in reality on the baseball field. Many kids don’t have proper mechanics or enough neuromuscular control, or they are fatigued when throwing curveballs. Things break down. Those are the kids I’m seeing every day in my operating room.”

What’s the answer? It’s not necessarily the number of innings thrown or a strict pitch count, although I’m not suggesting there isn’t value in those approaches.

It may be a combination of things, not the least of which is addressing the proper mechanics of pitching at a young age.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. He can be reached at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.