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April 3, 2014

Tommy John: pitching year-round bad idea

By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
Cooperstown Crier

---- — Young pitchers would be better served by mixing things up.

That is the opinion of Tommy John, a former major league pitcher who played for the Los Angles Dodgers, New York Yankees and four other teams in a career that stretched 25 seasons. John won 288 games but is best remembered for the surgery that was named after him, Tommy John surgery.

First performed on John, the procedure repairs a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament by replacing the ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in the body or from a cadaver. At the time, John’s injury was considered career ending but, after recovering from the surgery, John pitched for 14 more years. Today Tommy John surgery is widespread, and has extended the careers of numerous major league players.

John said that the way some young players train today sets them up for injury.

Specifically, John criticized the practice of players aged 8 to 17 pitching all year round.

“You can’t pitch year round,” said John.

Instead, John is of the belief that young athletes should play baseball in baseball season, and then play another sport in the off-season, such as football or basketball.

John himself played both basketball and baseball in high school, and pointed to New York Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez as another successful athlete who played multiple sports in high school. Rodriguez was both the short stop on his school’s baseball team and the quarterback of the football team.

John also questioned the impact of children beginning to play early, and future high level success. He said that if he was presented with someone who had never pitched before at 16, and who wanted to learn, he could probably teach them what he knew. He said he believed there wouldn’t be much difference between that player and a player who had started at 8, by the time they were 18. John confirmed that this was because one of the most important contributors toward high level success is learning to pitch with an adult’s body.

Dr. Jocelyn Wittstein, an orthopedic surgeon at Bassett Medical Center and friend of John’s, is a researcher on a study that Bassett has been conducting since 2013 that tracks the training habits and injury rates of young baseball players.

While Wittstein says that it is too early to draw many definitive conclusions from the study, which tracks about 1000 kids in local high schools and baseball camps, Wittstein did say that the study had found no correlation between athletes playing multiple sports and an increased injury rate. This is contrary to what Wittstein expected to see, especially in students who play another sport that emphasizes overhand motion, like tennis. Yet, even with sports that utilize similar motions, no increase in the injury rate was found.

While the study has yet to show any benefit to playing multiple sports, Wittstein does not discount the possibility.

“We may find … that’s protective,” said Wittstein, saying that playing multiple sports might serve to prevent overuse in younger athletes by varying the motions they perform, and by strengthening different sets of muscles.

Wittstein says that the study has not yet been able to draw any definitive conclusions on whether playing baseball year-round might increase the risk of injury for young athletes. However, she does suspect that this will turn out to be the case.

“I would hypothesize that year round play would definitely increase injury rates,” said Wittstein.