Steamboat Springs Jay Kearns, baseball coach of the Loveland Hitmen team of 10-year-olds, knows his team is at a disadvantage.
By no means are Kearns' boys not good ball players. Through the summer, they've won more than two-thirds of their games.
But in the ever-changing and often over-competitive game of youth baseball, Kearns probably is an exception.
He doesn't let his players throw breaking balls.
"We just don't want to take that chance," Kearns said. "We'll stay with a fastball and a changeup."
While some coaches of young teams allow their players to throw "Elway curveballs" - a curveball thrown with the arm motion of tossing a football that limits the torque created on an elbow - Kearns said players shouldn't be wearing out their arms at age 10, when they most likely have at least eight more years of baseball to play.
Although Kearns might be in the minority when it comes to breaking balls - he said every team they played in this week's Triple Crown World Series, with an exception of a few, had players throwing sliders and curveballs - he's not the only one who has started taking breaking balls and pitch counts seriously in youth baseball.
Just this year, Little League instituted a pitch count for each age group. Pitch limits depend on age (10 years and younger, 75; 11 and 12, 85; 13 to 16, 95; and 17 and 18, 105) and once the pitcher reaches that limit, they can finish throwing to the batter before the bullpen takes over.
In addition, any player younger than 16 who throws more than 60 pitches must wait three days between starts. A pitcher who throws from 41 to 60 pitches must wait two days, and anyone who throws from 21 to 40 pitches must wait one day.
Triple Crown limits pitchers to six innings per tournament. Each pitcher gets an extra inning for every game played after their team's fourth game.
"It's definitely very helpful," said Dr. Jim Dudley, a local physician. "A lot of the times, it's kids being kids. They don't like to listen to coaches or like to push the issue. They tell you they're feeling great. With this, it puts a limit on that."
Before the beginning of the season, Little League worked closely with Dr. James Andrews of the Alabama Sports Medicine & Orthopedic Center. Dr. Andrews is considered the czar of arm injuries, and the surgeon a majority of pro athletes seek out for the elbow repair known as Tommy John surgery.
Dr. Andrews has presented some startling numbers.
Between 1995 and 2000, he performed five Tommy John surgeries annually on adolescents. In 2003, it was 55, and in 2004, 61. In the past two years, Andrews said, those numbers have spiked. He also told Little League he's performed Tommy John surgeries on players as young as 12 years old.
While Dr. Dudley said he doesn't see a lot of arm injuries in Steamboat, he said the breaking ball, high pitch counts and the amount a player plays all contribute to arm problems.
While Dr. Dudley wouldn't say when it's safe for a young ball player to start throwing breaking balls, he did emphasize strong mechanics as a key to staying healthy.
That's something Steamboat baseball coach Dave Roy completely agrees with.
Roy, who religiously keeps pitch counts and rarely lets a starter throw more than 100 pitches, said when it comes to keeping players' arms healthy, mechanics are at least half the battle.
"You want them to keep their elbow up, come straight over the top and let the ball come off the top of the hand," Roy said. "If a kid has good mechanics, they can probably start throwing breaking balls a little earlier."
With pitch counts and coaches like Kearns molding young players, arm injuries to young ball players should be on the decline.
But with an increasing amount of youth teams playing 10 months a year and the push to always win, Kearns said it's a problem leagues and players will always have.
"Each coach is to his own," Kearns said. "Like I said, we just practice fastball-changeup, and as long as their arms aren't hurting, they can pitch the maximum number of innings. But we don't mess with curveballs."
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