A staggering one third of all pitchers in major league baseball have had what is known as Tommy John surgery, a procedure that replaces a ligament in the inner elbow with a tendon from another part of the body (wrist, hamstring foot etc.).
One third! If I had to guess there are somewhere around 350 professional baseball pitchers (30 teams w/12 or 13 pitchers per team?) So we have over one hundred pitchers having had the surgery and it is now taken for granted that American baseball pitchers are going to blow out their elbows.
Prior to 1974 this surgery didn’t exist (Tommy John was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who was the first to have this surgery performed) and it didn’t become ubiquitous until the late 90’s.
I am no expert on baseball mechanics but I have a pretty good read on mechanics in general and I am most amused to read how no one has a direct answer for why so many baseball pitchers elbows are popping, which is the precursor to the surgery.
Theories abound but no one actually knows why this is happening—which make me feel free to weigh in with my two cents. My favorite detail of this problem, as I was reading it, is that you have two very distinct camps telling you why this is happening to baseball pitchers.
One claims that elbows are popping because pitchers are throwing too many pitches. The other camp claims that pitchers throw too few pitches.
On the surface of things I would throw my lot in with those who think pitchers aren’t throwing enough.
As it turns out, over the last number of years the pitch count camp—they think pitchers threw too many pitches leading the ligament to wear out and snap—has won the day and their influence dominates the pitching philosophy of most teams.
The problem is that in that time frame the number of injuries and surgeries has gone up.
Those who claim that pitchers need to throw more pitches talk about a body designed to perform if kept in the optimal shape which in their view means an endless number of repetitions to keep the engine humming.
As much as I agree with the too-few camp— that the body is designed to work without limitation if developed correctly— I don’t think this addresses the issue directly enough.
Where I differ from both camps is that I don’t see anyone talking about a different way to maintain that elasticity.
So here’s my two cents—the prevalence of the Tommy John surgeries that we see is due the rise of weightlifting programs over the last few decades. Athletes, baseball players particularly, were not bulked up when I was a kid, and while bulk might definitely serve hitters, building muscles with too much tensile strength does not serve pitchers in the same way.
Weightlifting builds strength by creating shorter harder muscle which can limit the elasticity required to support the mechanics required of an arm throwing upwards of one hundred miles an hour.
It might be counter intuitive but baseball pitchers, from my perspective need a different kind of program to build muscles for pitching and that program does not include lifting weights.
So if any reader out there has a connection to a baseball team, tell them to get in touch with me. I am almost certain I can solve their problems.