Sports

Kallas: Little League Update – Pitch Counts, Curveballs And Aluminum Bats – Where Do We Stand?

(credit: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

(credit: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

By Steve Kallas
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Back in August of 2007, Rick Wolff and I wrote an article entitled “Little League – Is Winning More Important Than Safety?” (see Kallas Remarks, 8/30/07).  In that article, we discussed the Little League approach to pitch counts, curveballs and aluminum bats.  Here, a comparison of Little League’s 2007 rules and its 2011 rules are set forth below.  Much still needs to be done by Little League to protect its young players.

PITCH COUNTS

In 2007, Little League’s newly-instituted pitch count rules were so watered down (the recommendations of Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glen Fleisig for 11 and 12-year-olds were 75 pitches per day, 100 pitches per week and four days of rest if you threw 61 or more pitches) as to be unrecognizable.  When Little League made the pitch count mandatory in 2007, they decided (without doctor approval) that only three days of rest were needed during the regular season and, much worse, only two days of rest during the Williamsport tournament.

As a result, a pitcher during the Little League World Series in 2007 (and 2008 and 2009) could throw 255 pitches in seven days, a number that not even major league pitchers would throw in that time frame.  It resulted in a lot of criticism for Little League baseball.  Dr. Tim Kremchek, the orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds, who does a lot of work with young pitchers, called this pitch-count limitation “abuse.”

In 2011, Little League has (finally, as of 2010) altered the pitch-count days of rest back to the recommendations of Dr. Andrews; that is, four days of rest whether in the regular season or the Williamsport tournament.  Thus, no Little League pitchers could throw the absurd numbers that they could throw back in 2007-09.

Conclusion as to pitch counts:  Little League is to be commended for instituting pitch counts and, finally, for adding the correct number of days of rest to make the pitch counts meaningful.  But, a review of the original recommendations of the world-renowned doctors of 75 (not the present 85) pitches per game and 100 (not the present 170 in six days) per week is necessary to determine if arm injuries can be further limited.  For example, in this year’s Southeast Regional, Kyle Chandler of Alabama, while pitching against Florida, hurt his arm on his 84th pitch and had to be removed from the game.  He had thrown 50 pitches on August 5, 13 pitches on August 8 and then 84 pitches on August 10 before hurting his arm.

On his 84th pitch, it was obvious that he had hurt his arm.  Later, he was shown in the dugout with an ice pack on his shoulder (and thanks to Joe Heinzmann of Ridgefield, CT for the heads-up on this incident).

The point, of course, is that Kyle Chandler wound up throwing 147 pitches in six days and 84 on the day of his injury, both still over the Dr. Andrews-recommended limits of 100 pitches every seven days and 75 per game.  While Little League deserves much credit for improving its pitch-count recommendations, they should take a further look at the daily and weekly numbers (indeed, when pitch counts were first introduced in Little League, Dr. Andrews stated that they had to “fudge up” the numbers (from 75 per game to 85 per game) to get Little League approval).

It’s time for Little League to take another look at those numbers.

CURVE BALLS

In 2007, hardly anybody (doctor or not) believed that throwing curveballs at the age of 11 or 12 was a good idea.  Indeed, Drs. Andrews and Fleisig had written two papers, one based on a survey and one based on a study of hundreds of young pitchers.  The first study concluded that “In general, a child can start throwing a fastball at age 8, a change-up at age 10, and a curveball at age 14.”  The second study, by the same doctors, appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2002 and concluded that “pitchers between the ages of 9 and 12 should limit themselves to only fastballs and change-ups, and not throw sliders and curveballs.”

Little League International President Steven Keener even went on Rick Wolff’s WFAN radio show “The Sports Edge,” in 2007, and said “If I could, I would ban curveballs from Little League Baseball.  But it’s really a question of enforcement.  We don’t know how to enforce the rule.”

But that was then, this is now.

In 2011, in what can only be called a bizarre study, the University of North Carolina has come out with a five-year study that concludes, among other things, that “the relationship between age, type of pitch, and injury risk is complex, but there was no clear evidence that throwing breaking pitches at an early age was an injury risk factor.”

Uh-oh.

This new study stands about 50 years of medical research on its head.  Dr. Andrews, to his credit, when a similar study was released two years ago, stated that he feared that the study “might do more harm than good.”  Indeed, Dr. Andrews still suggests that young pitchers not throw breaking balls until they can shave, i.e., at 13 or 14.

Dr. Kremchek was shocked by the new study, stating recently on “The Sports Edge” that both the methodology and the conclusions are simply wrong.  Dr. Kremchek, who operates “all the time” on young pitchers, essentially said that the study wasn’t big enough or long enough and that he still strongly encourages parents and young pitchers to not throw curveballs or breaking pitches until they are at least in their early teens.

Conclusion as to curveballs:  Little League has to seriously take a close look at this new study.  It almost has a the-world-is-flat quality to it.  Clearly, there is a major split among knowledgeable doctors about the study’s conclusions.  Clearly, most” baseball” guys understand that it is almost ridiculous to have young kids throw breaking balls.  Of course, many managers (i.e., usually parents), who have that “win at all costs” mentality, now have some ammunition to show to concerned parents (“Hey, look, concerned parent, it’s OK for Johnnie to throw a ton of breaking pitches.  Here’s the study to prove it.”)

The notion that kids can be “correctly” taught to “safely” throw breaking pitches is equally ridiculous.  Unless you have an expert pitching coach in your backyard or in your league, it’s virtually impossible to teach young kids how to properly throw a curveball.  And, when fatigue sets in, according to Dr. Kremchek, that’s when the real injuries can occur, if not immediately, than certainly over time.

Little League should seriously consider banning breaking balls, with the umpire enforcing the rule (first one a warning, second one an ejection).

Thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of young pitching arms will be saved if this rule is implemented by Little League.

ALUMINUM BATS

In 2007, Little League allowed any bat that met the BPF standard (Bat performance standard) of 1.15 or less (when compared to a wood bat).  Little was done to limit the power of the -10, -11 (bat length to bat weight) differential of these bats, often called weapons and even advertised as such.  The dangers of these bats could be seen by pitching (or watching) batting practice to the same group of 12-year-olds using aluminum and then wood (or vice-versa).  You didn’t have to be a scientist or a “baseball’ guy to see the differences and the potential dangers.

In 2011, with the advent of the BBCOR bats (a different measurement of the potential power of the bat that is, at least, closer to wood than BPF or any other measurement), a new world has developed in baseball – at least for older kids.  In college in 2011 and in high school in 2012, the mandatory use of BBCOR bats has changed the landscape of baseball for older kids, making it closer to wood and safer than the previous bats.

But in Little League, the bat rules have become a hodgepodge of new rules, with composites banned (maybe, unless they get a “waiver”) and BBCOR bats that must be used next year but only in the older Little League divisions.

As of this writing (August 2011), Little League has refused (inexplicably) to go to a BBCOR standard in its 9-13 division.  All older divisions of Little League will go to some form of BBCOR (but not the same across the board) in 2012.

Conclusion as to aluminum bats:  Little League should immediately announce that, starting in 2012, even the younger kids must use BBCOR bats.  If it wasn’t clear to Little League officials before, surely it is now that they have seen that screaming line drive that hit California’s pitcher, Braydon Salzman, in the head during a Little League World Series game this year against Rhode Island.

ESPN gave it to you from different angles, in slow motion, just about any way you wanted to see it.  Fortunately, the ball actually hit the brim of Braydon’s baseball cap, deflecting some of its energy.  He clearly had no chance to catch the ball as it was obvious, in slow motion, that he was physically unable to protect himself. He went down like somebody shot him and, if this isn’t a warning of what could happen with these bats, you won’t get another one until someone is knocked into a coma or even killed in a Little League game.

Since we already have a close to $1 million jury verdict (affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court) against a bat company in the death of 18-year-old Brandon Patch (who was hit in the head with a line drive off an aluminum bat and dies a few hours later), partly because Patch had no chance to defend himself, all leagues are on notice of the potential danger of these bats.

While that is not to say that something terrible could not happen with a wood bat (it could), it is to say that, with the bigger sweet spot and the “trampoline” effect that the Little League bats presently have, it’s much more likely that something terrible will happen to one or more virtually defenseless kids who are 12-years-old.

A switch to BBCOR bats, effective for the 2012 season, for all divisions of Little League, including the 9-13 Majors Division, would go a long way to saving pitchers (and, arguably, some infielders as well) from potentially life-threatening injuries.

FINALLY

Feel free to contact your local Little League or Little League International with your own suggestions for the safety of children.

The arm (and/or even the life) you save, may be that of your own child.