Are curveballs really as bad for kids as we all thought?

Consider this article from the NY Times and chime in.

For almost as long as children have been throwing baseballs, adults have been telling them about the worst thing they could do to their still-developing arms: throw curves.

The warnings go back to the earliest days of sports medicine, orthopedic surgeons say, at least to the 1950s. In the 1970s, Robert Kerlan, the eminent surgeon who cared for Sandy Koufax, condemned curveballs as murderous on the elbows of professional pitchers, ”to say nothing of the young athletes whose bones and joints are still growing.”

That remains the mantra of many sports medicine experts. The orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who performs more than 100 Tommy John ligament-transplant operations most years, cautions that children should not even think about throwing curves until they are 14.

Are those doctors all alarmists?

Maybe so, according to two studies in which scientists and surgeons evaluated more closely than before the effects of curves on young arms. The studies were done independently by research teams in Connecticut and in Alabama. Each compared the forces across the elbows of pitchers as they fired fastballs and curves. (The Alabama study also included changeups). Each study concluded that curves are less stressful than fastballs and, based on the data collected, contributed little, if at all, to throwing injuries in youth players.

”I don’t think throwing curveballs at any age is the factor that is going to lead to an injury,” said Glenn Fleisig, the chairman of research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala.

Carl Nissen, the principal author of the other curveball study and an orthopedic surgeon at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Farmington, echoed that. ”I can comfortably stand up and say the curveball is not the problem,” he said.

The curveball research has not ended the debate. If anything, it seems to have intensified it. One of the reasons is that the findings come from reputable sources and in particular from the A.S.M.I., whose president and founder is Andrews.

Over the years, the institute has produced research studies on all manner of sports movement, from biomechanical comparison of female and male baseball pitchers to an analysis of the swings of professional and amateur golfers. In 2006, Fleisig and Andrews published a study on the effects of curveballs on college pitchers: curves were less stressful on the elbow than fastballs.

Intrigued, the research team repeated the study using youth pitchers as their subjects. They posted notices on youth baseball Web sites seeking players in the Birmingham area for a curveball study. Even that proved somewhat controversial.

”We had a few complaints from coaches saying, ‘How dare A.S.M.I. promote and endorse the curveball,’ ” Fleisig said.

In all, the institute’s study looked at 29 youth pitchers from ages 9 to 14. All were told to throw their curves — fastballs and changeups, too — as if they were in a real game. The results, published last year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine — Nissen’s study has been accepted for publication in the same journal — were similar to those that Fleisig had found with the college pitchers: Curves were less stressful than fastballs; nothing linked curves to elbow injuries.

Why for so many decades have most doctors and youth coaches believed otherwise? Fleisig said the evidence had been based largely on anecdotes, and that over the years those stories simply began to sound like fact.

”Why did people believe the world was flat? Because one guy told another it was flat and it looked flat. Until someone discovered that it wasn’t,” he said.

The new research has put some sports medicine experts in an awkward spot.

Topping the list is Andrews, a surgeon sought out by dozens of injured professional athletes each year. In July, Andrews became the president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, a position in which he is championing a national campaign to curb sports injuries in children. Andrews does not challenge A.S.M.I.’s study. But he is hardly trumpeting the findings.

”It may do more harm than good — quote me on that,” Andrews said during an interview in his Birmingham clinic. He fears that parents and coaches may interpret the findings improperly, as a license to teach kids to throw too many curves or begin when they are too young. ”There are still some unknown questions,” he said.

Andrews cited several limitations of the study. The fact that it was conducted entirely in a lab also needed to be considered, he said. Under game conditions when youth pitchers are fatigued, Andrews suggested, curves could be dangerous.

”I just operated on one kid this morning,” he said. ”At age 12, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in two. His travel ball coach called 30-something curveballs in a row. He became fatigued. Then he threw one that snapped his elbow.”

Despite differences over curves, experts do agree on other risks to young pitchers. At the top of the list are unreasonably long seasons and pitchers throwing too many innings in individual games. One study of youth pitchers written by Fleisig and Andrews found youth players who pitched more than eight months a year increased their risk of an injury that led to surgery fivefold. Youth players who threw more than 80 pitches a game were four times more likely to need an arm operation than those who did not, according to the study.

”I’m not saying, everyone throw the curveball,” Fleisig said. ”I’m saying, if we’re going to prevent injuries, change the focus. We should be looking at overuse.”


3 Responses to “Are curveballs really as bad for kids as we all thought?”

  1. August 16, 2009 at 8:24 AM

    I am not sold on the idea that it is ok for these boys to be throwing curveballs at such an early age. I think the findings are very interesting but hardly give a ringing endorsement across the board for doing it. I do think it can cause damage to the elbow and arm but I also thinks it takes away from a major part of what is important…THROWING STRIKES. Sounds crazy but most of the problem with these boys is that they cannot consistantly throw strikes. Trying to throw a curve for a strike is twice as hard and with improper techniques can cause some serious damage.

    I always grab the pithchers and the 1st question I ask them is “What is your best pitch?”. I get from them…fastball..changeup…curve!. I tell them “The best pitch you have is the pitch you throw for a strike!”

  2. 2 Pete
    May 12, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    I pitched in high school and played short stop when not on the mound. As the season wore on, I didn’t take throws to first base before each inning as my arm was too sore. When I pitched and my arm was sore, I always threw a curve ball. I knew the ball would move and I could control it. The most important reason I threw it though was because it didn’t bother my arm at all and my arm hurt when I threw a fast ball. The problem is that many coaches do not know how to teach kids to throw a curve ball. They try to have them use their wrist and snap their wrist to make the ball curve. That puts stress on the elbow and doesn’t make the ball move very much.

    • May 12, 2010 at 9:17 PM

      I agree that most coaches don’t know to tell a kid to keep his wrist straight when throwing a curve and to simply let the ball come out the top of your hand. Snapping the wrist most certainly puts a ton of stress on a young kid’s elbow

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