November 9, 2016

When doctors speak, we should listen


Despite agreement on the part of most experts who study sports medicine, including Dr. James Andrews, some remain skeptical of how modern-day pitchers are handled. But why?

Inevitably, every time that a discussion comes up about the fragility of pitchers in today’s game, the get-off-my-lawn type of baseball fan comes out of the woodwork.

“You’re babying them,” some say.

“Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan never worried about pitch counts and this other nonsense, and they turned out just fine,” others will chime in.

Over the years, Dr. James Andrews has heard these sentiments often. And frankly, he’s getting a bit tired of it.

“If pitching coaches know more than the doctors who study this, then God bless them,” he said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “That’s why you’ve got a tenfold increase in injuries to the throwing arm and elbow in the last 15-20 years. Tenfold now, that’s not some little minor increase.

“If I was biased, I would be telling you, ‘Let them throw year-round,’ and that would get me more people to operate on. But that’s just not how handle something when you’re trying to take care of people. You’re trying to keep them off of the operating table and on the playing field.”

As far as authorities on sports medicine and the science behind pitching go, Dr. Andrews’ role is similar to what Babe Ruth meant to the home run. He’s an innovator who was ahead of his time and has become the go-to guy for professional teams, not only in this country, but around the world.

There’s a reason why soon after a prominent athlete gets injured, word usually surfaces that they’re flying to see Dr. Andrews. He’s so good that Matt Harvey and the like willingly go out of their way for his opinion.

If you don’t trust his judgment when it comes to matters of the arm and how it responds to the unnatural act of throwing a baseball at high speeds, then who?

“He was really on the front of this,” said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, a Tappan native who is now the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute  in Birmingham, Alabama. “Here we are now, and he was right.”

As I did hours upon hours of research for our weekend feature, “Feeling the Heat: Radar gun rules modern baseball,” it became quite obvious that experts are in agreement when it comes to most of the dos and don’ts for pitchers.

Teenaged pitchers should avoid throwing in excess of 100 pitches in one outing.

All pitchers should take at least two-to-three months off from throwing in the offseason.

Pitching with fatigue is a big no-no.

The higher velocity with which you throw, the more stress you put on your ligaments and tendons, and therefore the more likely you are to sustain an injury.

Strengthening your lower body and core is paramount to maximizing performance.

Playing other sports, rather than specializing in one, is good to develop areas of the body that get overlooked in baseball.

“The problem in athletics today is that 60 percent of our kids playing youth sports drop out by the age of 14 because of being burnt out by parental, coach pressure — just plain burnt out and tired of it,” said Dr. Andrews, who is currently based out of Gulf Breeze, Fla. “They don’t want to do that anymore, so we’re losing a lot of kids. The number of kids playing youth baseball goes down every year in the last few years.”

Dr. Andrews and his team outlined many of these parameters on MLB’s, which I would highly recommend checking out.

Their intention isn’t to sabotage the game, or to scare you. They’re simply offering solutions to a problem that no one knows as well as they do.

Trust me, I have a certain appreciation for the hard-nosed, I’m-playing-no-matter-what mentality. It takes courage to go out there when you’re not feeling 100 percent, or to take the ball on short rest. But it would also be irresponsible to act like there aren’t any potential repercussions when the science tells us that there are.

If it’s Game 7 of the World Series, that’s one thing. But when we’re talking about a regular season high school game, or even a Little League game, what is there really to gain?

Being safe doesn't mean being soft, and we should know the difference by now.

“I try to tell parents, they brag about, ‘My kid is in the ninth grade and he is throwing 90 miles an hour,’ ” Dr. Andrews said. “I tell them, ‘Be careful. He’s suspect to tear his ligament in that young age group, and don’t let the coach overuse him because he’s the best pitcher. He’ll abuse him, and fatigue will produce an injury to his throwing elbow. Your kid has a great future, but you better be careful with him and protect him.’ ”