“Sooner or later the arm goes bad. It has to . . . Sooner or later you have to start pitching in pain.”
— Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford Whitey Ford pitched until he was 38 years old and, like many of his peers and many pitchers to follow, he battled arm soreness and injuries as a result of the stress from pitching.
Most baseball pitchers won’t get the opportunity to play into their late 30s, but the risk for serious injury and long-term soreness is no less serious.
“(Pitching) is the most demanding thing you can do to a shoulder,” said Dr. Robert Fitzgibbons, of the Front Range Orthopedic Center in Longmont. “That, and racquet sports.”
You could build a Hall of Fame pitching staff with the hurlers that have suffered injuries — John Smoltz, Kerry Wood, Eric Gagne, Mariano Rivera, etc.
You could also fill a book with stories of pitchers whose careers were cut short, or never took off, because of arm injuries.
In 1990, Mike Schiefelbein of Chatfield High in Littleton was one of the country’s best high school pitchers.
Taken in the second round of the draft by the Texas Rangers, he chose instead to accept a scholarship to the University of Arizona. Injuries hampered him throughout college and he had a short minor league career before injuries forced him to shut down.
Local high school coaches are doing all they can to prevent their pitchers from joining the injured list.
“It’s a big concern because they are young kids and they’re still growing,” Silver Creek High School coach Trevor Platt said. “It is a concern because I don’t want to blow any kid’s arm out.”
The competitiveness of the kids puts the responsibility squarely on the coaches.
Longmont senior pitcher Zach Juth said that if the Trojans needed him to get a few outs, it wouldn’t matter if he had thrown 10 innings the day before.
“As long as I’m feeling good,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
But, it does.
The Colorado High School Activities Association places limits on how many innings a pitcher can throw — no more than 12 innings in three consecutive calendar days, and no more than 70 innings during the regular season — but a coach can’t simply rely on those regulations.
A coach has to know his pitchers’ personal limitations.
“It’s something that a high school coach deals with all the time,” Skyline coach Morgan Ganz said. “Especially at that young age, it’s something you really have to be cognizant of.”
Niwot coach Bob Bote is one who pays close attention to pitch count.
“When we hit 100 (pitches) in a in a ball game, we get nervous,” Bote said. “Very rarely do we let a kid go the next inning after he passes 100 pitches.”
While keeping track of pitch count is rather new in baseball, it has merit. The more a pitcher throws, the more tired his arm becomes, thus increasing the chances of injuries.
“You start getting tired, your arm angle changes and then you’re not doing something consistently right,” Platt said. “All coaches hope you have your kids fundamentally sound when it comes to pitching. The more tired you get, those fundamentals disappear.”
All the local coaches, as well as Fitzgibbons, agree that the first rule of pitching is learning to do it properly.
“Mechanics are huge,” Fitzgibbons said. “That’s probably No. 1 on the list.”
Poor mechanics can lead to serious injuries, whether a pitcher throws 100 pitches or 25.
“Obviously, throwing, in itself, is an unnatural motion for the human body,” Ganz said. “It starts with teaching mechanics correctly.”
Once a player knows the proper technique to pitching, proper maintenance becomes the biggest concern.
“It’s just a lot of maintenance stuff,” said Niwot senior Sean Ratliff, who is being scouted nearly every day by professional teams. “If you let (the maintenance work) slack for even a little bit, it comes back to hurt you.”
The local high schools teams have programs installed for their pitchers, and while they vary a bit, they are quite similar. The main focus is to strengthen and protect the elbow and the rotator cuff.
“(The rotator cuff is) usually the source of the pain,” Fitzgibbons said. “Elbow problems are right behind the shoulder, as far as pitchers are concerned. There’s a lot of force put on those joints.”
Band work — stretching the muscles of the rotator cuff with surgical tubing bands — are a staple of most teams.
“It stretches your arm out really good,” Longmont pitcher Justin Mathews said. “We do all the band exercises every day before practices and before games.”
Light weight work and other stretches are also key, as is taking care of the arm after a game, whether it be through rest or icing a sore arm.
“Usually, it’s improper care (that causes injuries) at this level,” Ganz said. “They don’t take care of (the arm) properly, ice properly and stretch properly.”
In his 28 years as the coach at Niwot, Bote has run across few arm problems among his pitchers, and said he has subscribed to the same philosophy used by the Atlanta Braves over the years.
For nearly 15 years, the Braves — guided by one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, Leo Mazzone — preach more throwing, rather than rest, to keep an arm healthy.
“The Braves are the ones that have incorporated getting on a mound and throwing some sort of bullpen (session) every day,” Bote said. “The Braves very rarely have arm problems. They throw every day. If and when their pitchers go down, then I’ll get nervous.”
Bote will have his pitchers do some sort of light throwing and technique work every day in between starts. Only once during those four days off will the pitcher throw at 90 or 100 percent strength, and that’s for only 32 pitches.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Fitzgibbons said. “You have muscle memory where you want to keep the arm in shape. You don’t go run 10 miles and don’t do anything for a week and then run 10 miles again.”
Keeping the pitchers healthy is as much about long term health as short term success.
“I can speak from experience,” said Ganz, who played catcher in college and had major shoulder surgery as a college freshman. “Once your arm is done, it’s done. Ever since (having surgery, in 1996), it’s never been the same.”
Platt has seen the same thing in his family.
“My dad had to throw underhand to me because he had thrown so much and didn’t take care of it,” Platt said. “I don’t want to just play catch with my son underhand, and I try teaching my high school kids that.”
The last thing Platt, or any coach, wants is for his pitchers to blow out their arms trying to throw a fastball past a second baseman from Berthoud.
“You’ve got to baby (the pitchers) and take care of them because you’re only born with one (throwing arm),” Platt said. “Pitching is its own beast.”