Pitchers in Major League Baseball are making more money than ever before. In the last few weeks, Zack Greinke signed a six year, $206.5 million dollar contract, David Price signed a seven year, $217 million dollar contract, Johnny Cueto signed a six year, $130 million dollar contract, and Jordan Zimmermann signed a five year, $110 million dollar contract. Unfortunately for the sport, pitchers are going down with long-term injuries at an alarming rate as well.
The first Tommy John surgery was completed in 1974 on, of course, Tommy John. The surgery was rare in its infancy, with only three surgeries being performed from 1974-1981, including John’s. Comparatively, 25 pitchers had Tommy John surgery in 2015 alone. The first time more than 10 pitchers had the surgery in a single year was 1996. By 2000, over 20 pitchers a year were getting the surgery. What was once a last resort with a one percent chance of recovery is now seemingly customary with over a ninety percent success rate.
It is no coincidence that pitching injuries are increasing with the prevalence of travel teams and youth players playing on multiple teams per year, often at the same time. Parents and coaches are pushing little league and high school arms to the limit and not enough is being done to regulate the players’ innings. As a result, arms have damage well beyond the age of the player.
Much like the NFL’s issue with concussions, MLB needs to seriously consider developing standards for youth players. With the amount of money tied into players, teams cannot afford to have their pitchers being sidelined for over a year at a time. While nothing can eliminate injuries and stubborn parents, MLB written standards will save countless arms.
Decades ago, youth athletes played multiple sports for years without a focus on one single sport. New seasons brought new teams and sports. While some see this as wasted time for focusing on a single sport to become an expert in, this helped athletes remain well rounded and not overworked in any one area.
MLB teams have the ability to pay pitchers enormous amounts of money because the game is experiencing increased revenues from growing viewership, higher merchandise sales, and massive media contracts with local television networks. Fans are tuning in more than ever to see their favorite stars excel on the diamond. Seeing stars wind up on the disabled list for over 12 months at a time hurts this viewership and the revenue coming into the game.
As a child athlete in the 1990s, I can relate to being overworked to the point of injury. As a teenager I was playing on three separate teams per year, two of them at the same time. I pitched for all three teams and eventually injured my arm badly. I had to take nearly a year off during high school, injured it again the summer after my freshman year in college, and was never able to play again. If my father had known about the risks he put me and my arm through from MLB guidelines, it may have saved my arm and my career.
MLB creating a youth pitching guideline will take years to create and even longer to see the advantages. We already know rough estimates – do not let your child pitch more than 80-100 pitches more than once a week, do not let them throw curves or sliders until they are at least 16, etcetera. However, these rules need to be revamped by MLB, updated, and promoted as the law of the land.
As I mentioned earlier, these guidelines will not benefit MLB for years. Of course, these guidelines will help players that are still under the age of 12. It will be a minimum six years until these athletes are drafted by teams, most likely more. However, a drop in Tommy John surgeries would be fantastic news for the sport, the players that make the sport great, and the viewers at the stadium and at home.
Not all injuries can ever be prevented. However, Tommy John surgery is very clearly a result of an arm being overused. With youth athletes playing more than ever at a specialized level, MLB needs to save athletes from themselves, their parents, and their coaches with a set of rules on how to best preserve an arm. If implemented correctly, baseball can expect to see a decrease in long-term pitching injuries and an increase in fan loyalty as a result. Baseball pushes its star players to the front of the sport. Fans truly deserve to see these athletes on the diamond, not on the disabled list. There is also the idea that countless MLB-ready arms are getting destroyed before even getting to the big show. These guidelines could actually make the competition in the game better than ever.