A big issue for coaches in all levels of baseball through the high school level is the time available to get your pitcher’s arms in shape for the season. Combine that with the cold weather that plagues many locations in the early spring and you have a recipe for sore arms and potential arm injuries.
Given that those two items are things we don’t have any control over, let’s talk about what we can try to control to protect young arms.
Communicate and Have a System
First we need to make sure we talk to our young pitchers (and parents) and make sure they understand how to get prepared for the season. Many young players will go out on that first day of spring practice and throw the ball as hard as they can. They feel good and really don’t understand the danger of not building up their throwing arm.
Rather than just telling kids once that it’s important to build their arms up over time, I try to put a system in place that I can use each practice. I apply it to all players in an attempt to keep all arms healthy before the season starts.
So for example, let’s say we have 2 practices a week for 3 weeks before the start of the season. The first practice I’ll tell the kids that we are only going to throw at 3/4 speed at any time, no matter what we’re working on. If you have kids on the side working on pitching then the fastest speed they should throw is 75% of their maximum speed. For younger players I will hand out a catch card for playing catch at home. Make sure you put the maximum percentage that they should throw on the card, in this case 3/4 speed for the first week.
The second week will move the team up to 85% and 90% (Practices 3 and 4). Modify the catch card to have that new level of effort.
The third week have the kids throw 100% during practice. If you have your pitchers throw, let them only throw at 100% for a few pitches. So let’s say you have a pitcher throw 30 pitches, have the first 10 at 90%, the next 10 at 100%, and the last 10 at 90%. For the catch card at home, keep the maximum at 90% and tell the kids that you don’t want them throwing hard on those days.
This is not a specific routine, but rather a guideline to help you try and make sure kids build up their arm strength over time. The other thing to be aware of is that it puts more stress on the arm to throw off a mound then it does to throw off flat ground. So don’t rush kids to the mound to work on pitching and when they do work off a mound have them throw less than 100% to take off some of that stress.
Have a Plan for the Games
Little League and other leagues have introduced pitch count rule for pitchers. The problem I have with these rules is that often they treat a cold game in March the same as a hot day in June. I’ve had 12 year old pitchers that could easily go over 85 pitches in June after a season of playing ball. I would never think of having those same kids throw 85 pitches early in the season.
So as you work to build up their arms early in the season, be aware of the weather and how many games you have played as you determine how long to let a pitcher throw early in the season. Always error on the side of caution and make sure you have someone tracking the number of pitches a pitcher has thrown.
Early in the season you really need to be prepared to make pitching changes at various times. A pitcher that is struggling to find the strike zone may only be able to pitch an inning or two. Don’t plan your game plan around a pitcher pitching a certain number of innings. You need to instead have it focused on how many pitches you will allow a pitcher to throw and then stick with that. I let my kids know before the game what the pitch count is and I let them know that I’m not going to be talked into letting a pitcher stay in longer than that. The only time a player will go over is to finish up a batter, I would prefer to have a new pitcher start with a new batter and no count.