When John Smoltz is inducted in the baseball Hall of Fame later this month, he will be making a little history.
Not only is he the only pitcher in the game to win more than 200 games and save 150 games, but the former hard-throwing right-hander, who went from being a starter to being a closer and back to being a starter, will be the first pitcher in baseball history to make the Hall of Fame after having Tommy John surgery.
Smoltz spent 20 years with the Braves (1988-2008) and then split his final season with St. Louis and Boston. He compiled a 213-155 record with a 3.33 ERA and had 154 saves. He was an eight-time all-star, a Cy Young Award winner and the only pitcher who won 20 games in a season and saved 50 games in a different season.
He is one of thousands of pitchers who have undergone the famous surgery named after the famous left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.
Today, it’s a widespread problem for pitchers from youth to the majors.
In 2014, there were 31 surgeries, and 30 of them were performed on pitchers. Of the 31, 11 were do overs. Since 1999, 235 pitchers have undergone the surgery, and 32 of those players have had the surgery twice.
It is caused by overuse and poor mechanics, according to Smoltz, hall of famer Greg Maddux and Dr. James Andrews, who performs the surgery. They were on a conference call earlier this week to promote the 26th annual American Century Championship at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course July 17-19.
All three celebrities feel that player, parents and coaches alike need to be educated on the perils of pitching too much. The trio also feels that the push and pressure of trying to get a college scholarship is at the heart of the problem, and it starts at the youth baseball level.
“Having coached high school baseball last year (at Bishop Gorman High School) I kind of understand what’s going on right there,” Maddux said. “I think you have to educate the parents as best you can.
“And I think the problem is these kids actually throw too much in high school. I think if they should play other sports and just play baseball during baseball season, I think if they’re athletic enough and they’re fast enough, they’re going to get their scholarships regardless. So I would just — I would always suggest to the players on my team, when it’s time to take a break, take a break, and baseball will be there a few months down the road.”
Maddux, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, said it’s a tough sell for the parents.
“Now it’s hard to get the parents to do that because obviously they think their kid’s the ticket, he’s going to get a scholarship and all that and they have to play year round.” Maddux said. “But it’s just trying to convince them that that’s really not that necessary.”
Smoltz said it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big leaguer or a doctor doing the talking.
“They’re (players and doctors) are giving the formulas for success and no one’s paying attention,” Smoltz said. “Because the business of baseball and youth baseball is so great, that people feel like they’re being swept up in a wave of, ‘I’ve got to catch up to the next generation of people.’
“Kids do not throw enough. They pitch too much. Meaning I threw a lot when I was a kid in Michigan, which is seasonal change, allows me to play other sports but I didn’t pitch a lot. There’s a difference. I played strikeout, we played backyard baseball. We did things that kids don’t do. Everything that a kid does today is organized and pressured into a pitch to impress,” Smoltz said.
Andrews, the most famous orthopedic surgeon in sports today, equated the problem to the tail wagging the dog.
“In other words, the systems are telling these parents and these young players what they have to do to play baseball, and until we get control of the systems, even at the high school state athletic federations and get that under control, we’re going to continue to have an epidemic of injuries, of arm injuries in baseball.
“We recommend obviously that they have at least two months off each year where they’re not playing competitive baseball. We’d rather three to four months.”
In Nevada, high school pitchers can throw 11 innings a week; no more than 33 outs in any four consecutive days.
At the youth level, the two biggest issues have been overuse; throwing too many pitches. There is also talk about at what age a youth pitcher should throw a curveball.
Little League has established pitch counts — 75 for the 9-10 age group and 85 for the 11-12 age group. It isn’t ideal, but it does protect the players more than ever before.
The negative part is that it’s a number that everybody, no matter how you have matured, has to live with.
Joe Tierney, whose son, Eddie, is an 11-year-old all-star in Carson City, isn’t a huge fan of the pitch count but he understands why it was done.
“There weren’t enough good coaches,” said Tierney, who coaches Little League and is an assistant at Carson High School. “They don’t know the proper mechanics or they wanted to win a game and they would throw a kid too much.
“A hundred pitches for 12-year-olds? Most definitely that would be a fair number.”
Smoltz, who said he never had to deal with pitch counts when he was a young boy, had an interesting thought.
“One suggestion I would have is if Major League Baseball is trying to find a way to get their foot in the door it’s going to have (to be) a reverse curve, and I would think youth baseball needs to start with a 1-1 count,” he said. “That’s one way to help not have a kid just pound the pitches every game. Just start it with a 1-1 count and limit it that way. But we’re trying very hard to fix an issue that nobody’s paying attention to the information.”
Tierney thought it was an interesting proposal.
“That’s cool,” he said. “That would speed up the game. It would be good for pitchers (more so than hitters).”
“That would help the pitcher more than the hitter,” said CHS assistant coach Matt Morgan, whose sons play Little League.
Maddux said he always tries to stress safety.
“You know, I just did what I can to teach them how to pitch,” he said. “I tried to teach them routines and safety was a big part of it.
“I think if one of my pitchers threw more than 30 pitches he couldn’t pitch the next day. If he was under 30 he could. He couldn’t pitch two days in a row. And then I just got him on throwing programs between starts with the starters and all that stuff. Just kind of basic, common sense type stuff that I learned in the minor leagues basically I tried to pass down to the high school kids.”
Throwing a curve has historically been one of the great debates in youth baseball.
“As far as throwing a curveball, you know, the old adage was you shouldn’t throw it before the age of whatever,” Smoltz said. “But that varies for people and their body and their growth.
“I think the biggest thing is the curveball, which properly thrown, probably, and Dr. Andrews can speak to this better than I can, is probably a little easier on your arm than the slider, but how many people know how to throw it properly at 12 and 11 and 10? All you’ve got to do is watch the Little League World Series, and you’ll see four to five pitches that these kids have already. I just don’t understand it.”
Andrews injected some levity with his response.
“As far as throwing a curveball, it’s pretty simple,” Andrews said. “Our recommendations for throwing a curveball is when they shave. That takes out the age differential. That just means when they go through puberty.
“Now, the problem with a curveball, if you throw it with proper mechanics, we’ve proven in our lab that there’s no greater forces across your shoulder and elbow throwing a curveball properly with good mechanics than throwing a fastball. The problem is for me at least is a curveball is a highly developed neuro muscular control pitch that most kids can’t throw with good mechanics.
So that’s basically where we are with that.”
Neither Tierney and Morgan allow their kids to throw too many curveballs.
“Until this year, Kobe threw a fastball and change-up, and it wasn’t a very good change-up,” Morgan said. “If he throws 80 pitches in a game, he probably throws eight or nine curveballs.”
“I’ll let Eddie occasionally throw a curveball,” said the elder Tierney, who pitched on the 1988 team that finished just short of qualifying for the Little League World Series. “I threw a lot of curveballs when I was younger; really snapped it (the elbow) down, and I was done pitching by the time I was 15.”
The one regret Smoltz has is that he never learned to throw a change-up.
“If I could go back in time and do one thing, I would have learned the change-up,” Smoltz said. “Two greatest examples on my baseball team with Maddux and Glavine, and I never could learn a change-up. I would teach fastball/changeup until 14 or 15, whatever the league, and that’s what I would do.”
“The best pitch in the game is the change-up,” Tierney said. “It’s the best pitch in Major League Baseball, too.”