Young pitchers. Old pitchers. Right-handers. Left-handers. Starting pitchers. Relief pitchers.
Torn UCL’s don’t discriminate. There is no obvious pattern or solution. What is obvious though is it is a problem that isn’t going away. MLB has lost several stars this year to the issue. And while the recovery, and recovery time both improve as medicine and understanding does, it still is an injury that costs players a season, and possibly their team’s chances of winning with it.
Dr. James Andrews is more famous than most of the athletes he operates on at this point. Whether it is an ACL fix for a football player or a UCL fix for a baseball player, you know, when you see his name in the news, that is not a good thing.
His opinion counts, and he recently released a paper on the subject of UCL tears in the American Sports Medicine Institute. I read it (it doesn’t take long, the link is below) and here are some cliff notes if you don’t have the time.
- While it feels like everyone is getting Tommy John surgery, only 16% of pro pitchers undergo the procedure
- UCL injuries in pros usually appear to be cumulative with much of the damage done during the amateur years
- There’s little relationship between elbow injuries and curveball use by young pitchers
- Lowering the mound probably won’t help
- Mechanics matter and fatigue leads to flawed process and injury
- Young amateur pitchers who play catcher on off days appear to be at greater risk
- High velocity pitchers are at a greater risk
- Pitchers should not pitch with maximum effort at all times, and that goes for side work as well as games
- Among pro pitchers, participation in winter league baseball is to be discouraged
- Use of PEDS may make the pitcher’s surrounding muscles too strong for the UCL, increasing the likelihood of injury
Here is the entire paper if you wish to read it on your own.
Baseball has lost over 30 pitchers to the injury in 2014 already. Stars like Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Kris Medlan, Jarrod Parker, and Patrick Corbin have all gone under the knife. What is most depressing is how long it takes to return to the field. In football, with the ACL, recovery has really sped up in recent years. It no longer takes a year or longer. Guys are doing it 9 months. Baseball, with the UCL, that hasn’t been the case. You are pretty much looking at 12 months. And even then, the return, like the ACL, isn’t always smooth sailing right away.
The great UCF basketball coach and Hall of Famer Torchy Clark once told me a saying that applies to much in life and sports. He said, “Too much, too soon.”
After reading the paper above, the saying appears to match up with the problem. The problem is, kids, even when forced to be limited, find ways around it. They want to be great. They want to play and practice. And as they get older, they want to win. They want to be rich and famous. And to that you have to work hard. Throw hard. And that is the problem.
You wait too long to flip the switch and you may never get the opportunity. It seems as though Tommy John’s fame will carry on for a very long time.