By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
The Little League World Series is well underway now, and it’s interesting to note the peak pitching speed of some of the athletes. This article notes that several pitchers are in the 65mph to 75mph range and one player actually hit 81mph on one of his pitches in this year’s tournament. They also note that in 2015 and 2016 only a few pitchers topped 70mph. Young pitchers are getting faster.
But at what cost? There is convincing evidence that increasing “loads” on the young pitcher’s arm places that player at increased risk of significant injuries to the elbow and shoulder. Most of the available data suggests that metrics surrounding number of pitches and innings thrown along with number of months of single sport participation are risk factors for injury.
There is an interesting database that puts young pitchers into various categories based upon age, pitching speed, and maximum distance on the throw. An observational study published a few years ago suggests that pitchers in the three standard deviation range or higher on the accompanying chart are “elite” and at risk for arm injury.
It’s Better To Be Healthy Than Injured
Let’s begin with the assumption that it’s better to be healthy and to have a sustained and successful athletic career rather than to be injured. If we can agree upon that then it’s also reasonable to pursue injury prevention strategies. When good data exists components of injury prevention would include education and player protection.
The article cited above is widely quoted in the orthopedic surgery and sports medicine literature when it comes to defining “elite” pitching speeds in young players. The authors of the study are very high credibility individuals (including Dr. James Andrews) but we should also note that this is an observational study and should not be used to predict whether a player will definitely go on to have an injury.
An Interesting Classification System
This is a notable study because it is one of the only ones that looks at pitching speed and throwing distance as potential risk factors for injury in very young players. There is some data that suggests a high school player throwing 80 mph or faster is at increased risk for arm injury, which would place that player at the three standard deviation level in the database.
Extrapolating from the available data on the high school players, these authors suggest that three standard deviations or higher from the average pitching speed for age is a reasonable range to place a player at significant injury risk.
If You’re Elite Take Precautions To Keep Your Arm Healthy
It’ll be interesting to see if this type of data actually turns out to predict injury risk. For now, let’s use this data as an informational asset. If you’re a young pitcher who happens to be elite, congratulations! I’d urge you to keep inside excellent guidelines such as the PitchSmart recommendations and do the best you can to prolong your success.