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Are fast-pitch softball pitchers overdoing it?

Youth baseball leagues often have fairly strict limits on how many innings pitchers can pitch, or how many pitches a player can throw. But for girls playing fast-pitch softball, such guidelines are rare. One reason is that softball pitchers throw underhand, a motion thought to stress the arm less than the overhand throws seen in baseball.

But researchers in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that although fast-pitch softball may be less risky, the potential for injury still exists. In a pair of recent studies, sports medicine specialist Matthew V. Smith, MD, and his colleagues evaluated more than 100 athletes, ages 14 to 18, to understand the risks faced by softball pitchers. They reported their findings in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Studying pitchers in highly competitive softball leagues, Smith, an associate professor of orthopedics, and his colleagues found that 40 percent had some type of shoulder or arm injury during the season. And when the researchers looked more closely, they found that part of the reason may be that softball pitchers frequently pitch several games in succession, particularly during tournaments. Smith’s team recently evaluated pitchers before and during two- and three-day tournaments and found progressive increases in shoulder pain, fatigue and weakness. Smith described his team’s findings:

Why doesn’t fast-pitch softball have pitching limits?

The dogma involving throwing athletes is that the underhand pitch is thought to be safer, but there have been biomechanical studies in recent years indicating that the stresses on the shoulder are very similar, regardless of whether one is pitching overhand or underhand. The idea that we should protect these softball pitchers hasn’t really caught on. Because there aren’t as many pitchers on most softball teams as there are on baseball teams, coaches tend to “ride” the ones who are successful. Most don’t realize they’re putting the pitcher at risk, but it turns out that the windmill style of pitching that girls use isn’t as safe as some might think.

Why are pitchers more vulnerable to injury than players at other positions?

On a fast-pitch softball team, the pitcher is the player doing most of the throwing. She’s throwing 70 or 100 or 125 pitches in a game. Meanwhile, the center fielder may only throw at peak effort four or five times in a game. Our study focused on pitchers because they are the ones who most commonly come to the doctor’s office with injuries. There is some data suggesting that fatigue is a precursor to injury. If we limit pitches, get them more rest and give them more time to recover, it’s logical to think the injury risk will decline.

What did you find when you went to softball tournaments and evaluated pitchers as they pitched consecutive games on the same day or multiple games in a few days?

We used a device called a dynamometer that allows us to test strength. They push against it, and it gives us an objective measurement of strength. We also asked them how they felt, how tired they were and how much pain they were in. We can correlate objective measures of strength and associate those with how the athletes say they feel. Usually during a tournament, we compare these things at the beginning of a day of playing to these same measurements at the end of the day. Then we ascertain their strength levels at the start of the next day and determine whether they recover their strength.

Do the girls recover their strength?

No. What we have seen is that as pitchers pitch more and don’t get as much rest between games, they get weaker. They don’t recover. But we need to do more research because we don’t really know how long it takes to regain strength to the degree it’s safe to pitch again.

What can pitchers and their coaches do to protect their arms?

Posture is definitely a factor in baseball and softball. You have poor posture for the majority of the day, and then you try to go out and throw a ball when your shoulders have been hunched forward most of the day. That makes it hard for the muscles in the back to operate efficiently. We need the muscles in the back and shoulder to brace the shoulder when a pitcher is throwing, so we often prescribe physical therapy and conditioning exercises to get the shoulder prepared to throw. We also found that the majority of injuries among the pitchers we studied occurred during the first six weeks of the season. That suggests part of the problem may be that some pitchers go from doing a little bit of training — or maybe nothing at all — to throwing a great deal in a short period of time. And many break down.

Baseball pitchers get elbow injuries, such as ligament tears that require Tommy John surgery. What brings softball pitchers in to see you?

Usually it’s biceps problems. They’re putting their arms behind their bodies with a lot of tension on the shoulder joint, and so they start having discomfort in front of the shoulder, which is where the skinny portion of the biceps runs through the shoulder joint. We need to teach pitchers to have their shoulder blades tucked around the chest wall to take tension off of the shoulder. But what happens is that as the pitcher gets tired, she starts to use different muscle groups to generate velocity, and that’s when injuries are more likely to occur.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine


Is old-school fastpitch softball dead?

There was a time in fastpitch softball, not long ago, when getting down a sac bunt was as important as hitting a line drive.

When slapping, stealing a base, and executing a hit-and-run were integral parts of the game.

When scoring two or three runs against a hard-throwing pitcher was a major accomplishment.

So, what has happened? Where have all the dominant pitchers gone? Why the incredible upswing in offense?

One look at high school and college softball scores over the past few years is all it takes to know that the game has changed drastically. And according to a number of local coaches, the reasons are many.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that, at the prep level, moving the pitching rubber back from 40 feet to 43 feet in 2011 made things markedly tougher on pitchers and easier on hitters.

"The No. 1 thing, in my opinion, was moving the mound back three feet. That's huge. That three feet is huge. That makes a big difference," said Midland High coach Robin Allen. " ... Back when (former Freeland standout Stacy) Delaney was throwing, imagine (facing a pitcher) throwing in the 60s three feet closer."

Former longtime Bullock Creek coach Darren Kalina agreed.

"The mound goes back to 43 feet, and that gives kids more time to react and see the ball," Kalina said. " ... At 40 feet, it was pretty tough to hit when a kid's throwing 60 miles per hour. You get that extra three feet and (the pitcher) puts it on the white (part of the plate), it's going to go a long way."

Longtime Meridian coach and former standout pitcher Jamie Smith said that pitching, in general, is experiencing a downturn — from any distance.

"It's been really bad, I would say, for the last four (years). It's just declining," she said. "Pitching's tough. You've got to be an athlete, and you have to be someone who's going to put the time in (to be dominant). If you don't put the time in ... you're not going to be successful.

" ... You're just not seeing the kids who throw super hard (lately)," she added. " ... I think ever since they moved the mound back, the pitches are just slow. You don't see the big throwers now. You look at a lot of these pitchers now, and they're like 5(-foot-)6, 5-7. They're not these big kids, like I was, who are 5-11."

Northwood University coach Gregg Sauve theorized that perhaps not enough pitchers are being taught the proper mechanics at the youth level, while also noting that young girls have so many athletic and social options available these days that zeroing in on pitching year-around is becoming a rarity.

"They're limited to how much (time and work) they devote to just softball, because they're playing other sports," he said.

Jason Bartel, writing for the Arizona Desert Swarm in a story titled "How the game of softball has changed in recent years" on May 21, 2014, opened his piece by noting, "Remember the old days in college softball where it seemed like every game was a 1-0 pitchers' duel? Those days are long gone."

Bartel goes on to point out that, in 2001, only eight NCAA Division I softball teams finished the season batting above .300, while, by 2013, that number had jumped to 44 teams, and, by late May of 2014, that number had climbed to 56 teams.

Former University of Arizona star pitcher and, later, pitching coach for the Wildcats Alicia Hollowell noted in the article, "I think a lot of it is the technology that's been introduced to the game — from bats getting hotter to a lot more video being used (to improve hitting techniques).

"The core of the ball is a lot livelier (than it used to be). The bats are a lot hotter," she added.

Allen agreed with that assessment 100 percent.

"The bats, holy cow," Allen said of the improved technology in today's bats. "We've got kids hitting home runs on check swings. That's crazy. When I first started (at Midland High in 2011), we'd be at practice and have hardly any homers. And we had good hitters.

"Now, it's nothing for a girl to put 10 balls out (of the park) in a single bucket," he added. "The bats are just hot, just really thin-walled."

"The bats are so lively now. The ball just jumps off of them, and that affects the game," Sauve concurred.

And Sauve would know. Having coached in the GLIAC with Northwood the past few years, he has witnessed first-hand the increase in offense. The numbers over the past 13 years, in particular, are striking.

In 2005, the last time NU won a GLIAC championship, the top-nine pitching teams in the conference allowed a total of 1,131 runs all season. By 2018, that number had risen to 2,125 runs surrendered by the league's nine remaining teams. That's an increase of 89 percent.

Kalina asserted that, in addition to moving the rubber back and using highly-engineered bats, today's hitters also have the advantage of better instruction.

"A lot of these kids are playing softball year-around, so they're going to (instructors) who know how to hit, and they're getting taught proper mechanics," Kalina noted. "Hitting is entirely different now. Girls swing like everyone else.

 "Back in the day, we used to say, 'You swing like a girl,'" he added with a chuckle. "And now, the girls swing better than a lot of the boys."

In Bartel's article, legendary Arizona coach Mike Candrea echoed Kalina's assessment.

"I think the hitters have progressed," said Candrea. "When I first got in the game, kids had no concept of hitting, whereas these kids (now) have grown up with better information, better instruction ... and so on a pitcher's side, it's made the game tougher."

According to Kalina, the strike zone has also shrunk in recent years, which is obviously to the hitters' advantage and to the pitchers' disadvantage.

"It started in the NCAA when the strike zone was mandated to be smaller, because they wanted more offense, and it has (trickled down) to high school," Kalina said. "Kids are getting more (good) pitches to hit now."

Yet another factor, according to Sauve, is that girls are becoming perhaps a bit too diversified in their approach to pitching instead of mastering one or two pitches.

"In the women's game, they all throw five or six different pitches instead of being a specialist in two or three of them, and I think that affects things, too," he said. "If you work on two pitches and perfect them, you can be a more dominant pitcher.

"Everyone wants to throw screwballs and curves, but those stay on the same plain as the bat when it's coming through the zone," he added. "But if you work on drop(balls) and rise(balls), you change (the batters') eye levels, and you also have to change speeds.

"If your pitches stay on the same plain (as the bat), it's easier to square those up."

Asked if she foresees a time in the near future when old-school pitchers' duels once again become the norm rather than the exception, Smith replied without hesitation, "I don't. ... I just don't see kids working at (pitching like they used to).

" ... I don't see the 1-0 (games) coming back," she added. "I think it's going to be like this (for the foreseeable future)."

Allen, for one, thinks that's a bit of a shame, while Kalina is all for it.

"I like the way the game has changed," said Kalina, adding that the days of regularly beating out slaps and bunts instead of swinging away seem to be a thing of the past.

"You can't just hit the ball on the ground and run like heck and hope you get a hit now," he said. "These girls (now) can field, and they can throw. It's incredible how many kids are playing at that high level (defensively) these days."

Meanwhile, Allen, asked if he thinks pitcher-dominated softball will ever return, replied, "I don't know. I hope so. I liked it. To me, it feels more pure."

Source: Midland Daily News


Balancing Development and Winning



How to Develop a Pitcher

Adults far and wide have heard variations of a sentence that begins with “Please make me a …”

Sometimes it is directed at a parent and is followed by a simple request such as “sandwich.’’ Other times the youngster has a desire to have even more on their plate.

For those adults who are hearing phrases such as “make me a pitcher,” here are some guidelines to safely develop and prepare girls’ softball players for a happy and healthy experience.

“You’ll have fathers and mothers who have a child who has expressed an interest in pitching and a mom and dad who make sure they go to the extremes (in good and bad ways),” says Ed Steele, coach of the Broad Run (Ashburn, Va.) team that in 2008 completed an undefeated season and finished No. 1 in the final USA Today/NFCA Top 25 High School Softball Poll. “The best (pitchers) I’ve had, they want to be out there. The trick is to let the kid be the kid. Knowing if they have a knack for (pitching) and making sure they know that if you’re a pitcher you can’t just go to practice a couple of times a week and get really good. But trying to push a kid into being a pitcher is the worst thing you can do.”

It doesn’t have to be quite so serious when they first start out, which according to Susan Seaver, tournament director of the Little League Softball World Series, should probably be in the 8- to 10-year-old range.

“Eight, 9, 10 years old,” is a good time to begin, Seaver says. “We’re playing fast pitch and teaching them just a straight fastball to try to get them to get it over the plate. Just play catch with the catcher to start them out. Sometimes the kids won’t ever do a windmill, they’ll just reach back and throw it.” Later on, in the 10-12 age group, a softball pitcher can add an off-speed pitch followed by another pitch or two through the years.

Barry Haftel, a vice president of the 2008 World Series finalist Robbinsville (N.J.) Little League and an assistant district administrator for softball tournaments in New Jersey, agrees that early preparation and lots of positive reinforcement are keys to good pitching.

“In Robbinsville Little League, we start our pitchers at age 8 whenever possible and encourage anyone interested in pitching to start no later than 9,” Haftel says. “Reason is, it takes a good six months for a player to grasp the concept and become capable of pitching in a game.”

The consensus says that there are certain kids who are best suited to become pitchers. “It’s an attractant,” says Steele, who led his team to back-to-back state championships in 2007 and ‘08. “One parent said (to his child), ‘You can be the pitcher or the catcher,’ that’s where the action is. It attracts some people. You have to have a special personality.”

“It takes a bit of a special person,” Seaver concurs. “All eyes are on you. Usually you’re a leader-type person even at that young age. You’re an outgoing type one who says things like, ‘Let’s go do this or that.’”

Softball pitchers need lots of practice and a high tolerance level to accept and overcome setbacks. “It’s pretty rare that you’ll find a pitcher who can throw strikes consistently at a young age,” Seaver says. “Sometimes you get a 9-year-old with a lot of natural athletic ability.”

“Most players need to pitch at least 2-3 times per week for an hour at a time in order to progress at a rate that will keep them pitching for years to come,” says Haftel, who notes that even the good pitchers hit plateaus along the way. “The better pitchers work through (plateaus and frustration) and continue to go on to be top pitchers in the league.”

Seaver reminds that good girls’ softball programs have rules to combat overuse of young arms by limiting the number of innings pitched. “It’s a good rule in Little League, to avoid injuries and also to get coaches to get other kids to pitch,” she said. “But, the injury factor is not so high in softball (due to the reduced stress on the arm and shoulder) because that elbow and wrist injury factor is not nearly as great in softball as in baseball (an underhand vs. overhand throw).”

“Because of the natural arm motion used in softball, less stress is put on the shoulder and elbow as opposed to the stop and start violent mechanics with baseball,” Haftel says.

A lot goes into making a pitcher, some of which they are born with and some of which they acquire through proper instruction and hard work.

“It’s an art to learn how to do it,” Seaver says. “It’s something they really have to want to do to do it well.”

Source: Play Sports TV