STEPPING UP — My Take: Major league problem starts young

Published 2:54 pm Tuesday, June 17, 2014




Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Ivan Nova, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Josh Johnson and ECU’s own Jeff Hoffman. On paper, this list comprises some of the top pitching talent Major League Baseball has to offer, all under the age of 31.

Parker is the ace of his young Oakland staff, Corbin a crafty breakout left-hander for Arizona and Jose Fernandez of Miami a probable future Cy Young candidate. The Marlins ace, who was leading the race until succumbing to an all-too common elbow injury, suffered a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament. Just days later, doctors diagnosed Hoffman, who was projected to be a top-five pick in this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft, with the same injury.

Both injuries, one affecting MLB and the other the NCAA, expose an underlying problem baseball seems to be disregarding at the youth, high school and even college level. These elbow injuries, previously exclusive to pitchers in their early to late 30s, are now affecting pitchers in their 20s, including Fernandez and Hoffman who are both 21 years old.

Kids who pitch want to pitch every day. That’s not an assumption, it’s a fact. The mismanagement of children’s and adolescents’ undeveloped arms causes damage that will affect their ability to perform down the road, whether that is at age 20, 25 or 30. It’s up to the parents and coaches to monitor pitchers’ innings and simply use common sense, looking past the in-game situation.

Sure, the chances of Beaufort County’s best hurlers pitching when they’re 21 or 22 years old in college or MLB are slim, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. Each arm should be treated like it will be throwing cutters to Jason Heyward in Game 7 of the World Series eight years from now.

Little League has adopted rules that regulate the amount of innings a kid can pitch throughout the course of a week, but at the high school level, staff aces are expected to go the distance in every big game. First hand, I’ve seen high school starters max out their arms, pitching numerous innings a week and on short rest. And it’s not just here in Beaufort County, but all over North Carolina.

There are plenty of examples of coaches looking past the in-game situation and managing their starters’ arms correctly. Terra Ceia ace Austin Roscoe, a freshman, was dominant for the Knights this season, recording a 2-2 record and 1.71 ERA. During the final game of the regular season against rival Pungo, Roscoe and WDN Pitcher-of-the-Year Cole Austin Woolard battled it out into the late innings. Scoreless after seven, head coach Jason Wynne pulled Roscoe in the eighth, the purpose being to save a young, undeveloped arm.

The Knights went on to lose that game in the eighth, 2-0, and Knights’ fans fervently voiced their frustration during the final inning and after the game. Wynne, sticking to his decision like gum to a metal cleat, talked to his team and managed to avoid confrontation.

In the heat of the moment, the decision looked improper, but the fact is, it couldn’t have been more correct, even though bragging rights and, before the TIC Tournament was canceled, a first-round bye was on the line.

You never want to over-manage a pitchers’ arm, like the Joba Chamberlain situation in New York a few years back. However, to avoid future arm trouble, coaches should make sure each starter has at least four to five days of rest in-between starts that go three innings or more.

Dr. James Andrews, the MLB’s go-to orthopedic surgeon for Tommy John Surgery, said in an interview with the New York Times that proper mechanics is key in preserving arms, and that he’s done about seven times the number of operations on young pitchers than 15 years ago.

Whether we as baseball fans, parents and coaches want to recognize it or not, that’s a problem. By fixing the problem at its core, we can better baseball at all levels — Little League, college and MLB — and put an end to a widespread problem that’s crippling the game.