By Nick Musumeci and Guneet Singh
When sixteen-year-old Max Nielsen first felt the pain in his arm, he was standing on a mound in the middle of a game for Ward Melville High School last spring, dressed in green and gold, getting ready to face a batter.
Something wasn’t right.
He was suffering from a strain to his UCL, the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow. Among pitchers between the ages of 12 and 16, injuries like these are a growing problem. Doctors are now performing five times more “Tommy John,” UCL reconstruction, surgeries than they were ten years ago, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
To address the issue, New York State passed a pitch count rule, which took effect last week. The rule limits the amount of pitches a high schooler can throw in a game to 105. It also mandates that, after reaching the pitch count, pitchers must rest for 4 days before they can throw again.
“Overall I think this rule is a good one, and it couldn’t hurt to cut the pitch count down to maybe 95 or 100,” Rob Massara, a Suffolk County varsity umpire, said.
Max was not allowed to touch a baseball for a month and a half, and went to physical therapy twice a week for 6 weeks before he got back to where he was.
“I’m not the biggest fan of [the pitch count rule] but I understand and respect it, because it’s just to protect pitchers and prevent them from injury,” Nielsen said. “Tweaks in the elbow or shoulder are pretty frequent.”
These elbow and shoulder injuries are caused by a myriad of reasons including the repetitive unnatural throwing motion, the possible lack of flexibility, and the lack of strengthening exercises prior to starting the season, Walter Chomick, a physical therapist at Advanced Sports in East Setauket said.
“A while back we had kids come in between 15 and 17, but now we see kids even younger than that,” Chomicki said. “Coaches should have been implementing [the pitch count] a long time ago.” Advanced Sports in East Setauket is among the physical therapy and rehab facilities on Long Island that have experienced an influx of young patients over the last few years. There are 880 physical therapy and rehab facilities on Long Island, according to yellowpages.com.
When it comes to enforcing the new pitch count rule, umpires may not be able to implement the rule themselves, as they have their own responsibilities during the game.
“I think the responsibility should be placed 100% on the coaches,” Massara said.
In addition to the number of pitches per game, another factor that contributes to the growing number of injuries is the lack of rest between games.
“Pitchers are pitching almost all year round without giving themselves a chance to rest,” Terry Moran, the baseball coach from Bayport-Blue Point High School, said. “They compete right in their high school season, summer ball and finally fall league. Mix in some showcases and its overuse.”
Nielsen had a successful recovery from his UCL sprain and is now committed to the University of Connecticut.
About 750,000 overuse injuries will occur in young athletes every year and most of them are avoidable, according to South Carolina Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center.
To date, pitch count rules at the high school level have been implemented by all states, except Massachusetts and Connecticut.