Every summer, the Little League World Seriescomes on the TV and I shudder. Why? Because there are eleven and twelve year old kids throwing curveball after curveball after curveball. Before starting a witch hunt, there is mixed evidence to show that breaking balls does any more damage to young arms than fastballs or change-ups. Yet most baseball experts agree that the torque placed on young pitchers’ elbows is greater when throwing curveballs and sliders. Ask any pitcher, and they will probably tell you the same.
There is no one clear cut answer as to when youth pitchers should start throwing breaking balls. Today, we will go over the purpose of curveballs, the damage throwing breaking balls can do to young arms, what really matters when protecting pitchers’ arms, and give our opinions on when to begin throwing breaking balls.
Youth Baseball is About Developing Skills, Not Winning at Any Cost
Before we get into the nitty gritty, a brief reality check - youth baseball is not about winning at any cost. Coaches, parents, and players all want to win. As Herm Edwards would say, “you play to win the game”. But little league is not the MLB, and the health and safety of youth athletes is paramount.
The temptation of teaching young pitchers to throw curveballs and sliders is simple - they are effective. A pitcher with all straight stuff is much easier to hit than a pitcher with a 12-6 hook. This is why it is important to remember that youth sports is about player development from both a baseball perspective and as a maturing young athlete.
Whether or not you personally believe the science of breaking balls being more or less dangerous than fastballs, you must ask yourself whether it is worth the risk. Pitchers of all levels are already exposed to potential arm injury. Throwing breaking balls before the body is physically developed just adds to that risk.
Does Throwing a Curveball Hurt Youth Athletes?
The science of curveballs and young pitching arms remains largely a grey area. Some studies have shown that the stress put on the arm during a breaking ball vs. a fastball is minimal or non-existent. Other studies have shown that breaking balls can do damage. Here are some factors to consider:
Throwing a “proper” fastball is easier - a variable in these studies which is rarely touched upon is that throwing a successful curveball requires greater body control. Throwing an unsuccessful curveball can definitely contort the arm in an unnatural and damaging way.
Industry knowledge and anecdotal evidence - take this with a grain of salt if you choose, but most players and coaches have seen (or felt) curveballs and sliders put more strain on young arms. Whether or not a peer reviewed study confirms this, it certainly seems to be the case that curveballs put the elbow under greater stress.
Almost all pitchers throw majority fastballs - even if you find none of the evidence compelling, one fact remains true: the fastball is the most important pitch in baseball. All great pitchers must first master the fastball before mastering any secondary pitches. At young ages, this should be the focus of young hurlers regardless of other factors.
Protecting Young Pitchers’ Arms
The breaking ball debate may rage on, but the primary way to protect young pitchers’ arms moving forward is limiting workload. It is well documented that overusing a pitcher is the number one risk factor for both short and long term injury.
A general rule is to limit youth pitchers to less than 80-100 innings per season. This includes pitch counts per outing and making sure to rest the arm between appearances. Kids will always tell coaches and parents that they are fine and that they want to pitch. Don’t listen. As a coach or parent, it is up to you to keep young players safe for the long haul.
When Youth Baseball Players Should Begin Throwing Breaking Balls
As mentioned above, there is no singular answer to this question. Each young pitcher is built differently. The short answer is that many experts agree that pitchers can begin throwing curveballs between the ages of 13-16. We believe that when an athlete is at least 13 years old AND can say “yes” to the following questions, he or she may be ready to begin throwing breaking stuff:
Is the player able to throw fastballs and changeups (or other secondary pitches like a splitter) with control and proper mechanics?
Is the player being taught to throw a proper curveball?
Does the player have the emotional maturity to know when to throw breaking balls and when to lay off?
Is the player physically mature enough to handle the strain of a new pitch?
Is the player legitimately interested in developing his or her pitching ability?
Note that the final question is often overlooked. Many players will pitch in spots, but do not consider themselves “pitchers”. These players do not necessarily ever need to develop a breaking pitch if it is not part of their overall baseball development.
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