The ulnar collateral ligament is a thick triangular band located in the elbow. Baseball playersm, most notable pitchers, who damage this must undergo Tommy John surgery. -- Photo illustrated by the Daily Journal
The ulnar collateral ligament is a thick triangular band located in the elbow. Baseball playersm, most notable pitchers, who damage this must undergo Tommy John surgery. -- Photo illustrated by the Daily Journal

Archived Story

Awareness of UCL injuries on rise [UPDATED]

Published 11:10am Friday, July 18, 2014 Updated 11:13am Friday, July 18, 2014

By David Schneck

Daily Journal

Baseball is a popular sport in Fergus Falls, as it is in many others towns. There are several local youth teams that play in both the spring and summer, so young players get many hours of baseball and get countless throws in. Kids as young as age five and six start throwing and playing. Through the years of fun, however, there is a high risk of over-usage and injury if throwing arms are not cared for.

Tommy John pitched in the MLB from 1963-1974 and again from 1976-1989. He was a four-time All-Star pitcher and boasted a career record of 288-231, career ERA of 3.34 and 2,245 career strikeouts. These stats were almost less impressive, though: John permanently damaged his Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his pitching arm in 1974. However, he had a revolutionary surgery and recovered for the 1976 season. He had the ligament in his pitching arm replaced with a tendon from his right forearm. Tommy John was the first of many to have the Tommy John surgery.

According to BleacherReport, the number of Tommy John surgeries has been increasing over the past few years. From 1991-2001, there were only six TJ surgeries done in the major leagues. However, from 2002-2013, there have been 118 cases of TJ surgery in the MLB. The increase in the number of cases could be due to the increasing “necessity” of specialized athletes. Kids that set out to be a pitcher from a young age throw so much that they they are more likely to hurt their arm and their chances of making to a professional level. Big name pitchers to have the surgery in the 2013 and 2014 seasons include Jose Fernandez from the Miami Marlins, Matt Harvey from the New York Mets and Jarrod Parker from the Oakland A’s, among numerous others.

Trevor Larson, coach of the Fergus Falls Post 612 VFW team, utilizes several different techniques to watch for elbow injury for his pitchers. First, he has his players do a lot of band exercises that stretch and strengthen all the muscles around the elbow. After each game, Larson has his pitchers run to get soreness out of the arm.

“One of the biggest reasons Tommy John surgeries are happening more often is because kids start to throw curve balls earlier than they should,” Larson said.

Another major thing he watches for in his pitchers not just throwing pitches with their arms. A correct hard pitch is generated with “legs and the torque that a pitcher’s hips and torso create.”

Other local coaches are very weary of injuries in their players. Under their watch, they feel obligated to keep pitchers and players as healthy as possible. Few coaches from the area about Tommy John surgeries, they expressed their opinions and gave advice in regards to injury prevention and awareness.

Darin Stanislawski, coach of the Fergus Falls Legion team, is very careful with his pitchers. He says the biggest thing he does to keep track of his pitchers is to take a pitch count both in games and in practice. He also watches for the form of his pitchers. Correct form helps decrease wear on areas of the elbow and shoulder. Stanislawski says that “mechanics of a pitcher could be a warning sign” for possible injury in the future.

Mark Aho, head coach of the Otter varsity baseball team, says there are a couple of things he does to watch his pitchers arms, mostly pertaining to innings pitched and number of pitches thrown. Aho always keeps track of pitches in both games and practice. There is MSHSL rule that a high school pitcher can only throw 14 innings in three days, but Aho never allows any of his pitchers to meet that limit. He says it is “simply too much.”

Ryan Hendrickson, coach of the Ottertail Central Legion team, has been a longtime baseball player and pitcher. Hendrickson marked a lot of innings on the mound when he was younger, and “like a lot of pitchers, [he] really just fought through a lot of pain, especially in the elbow area.”

As for his team now, Hendrickson says he does what he can. He states that injuries are usually caused by two things: form and overuse. So, Hendrickson tries to cut down the number of pitches, he watches his pitchers’ forms carefully and he gives his pitchers strengthening bands. Hendrickson states that arm care is at least a nine-month process, but he doesn’t see his team year-round.

“What the athlete does outside of practice and outside of games is up to them. I stress the importance of stretching and icing, but while they are under mom and dad’s care it is all their responsibility to take care of themselves as best as possible,” Hendrickson said.

Coaches are actively trying to prevent any type of injury to their players. They watch for form and overuse and try to strengthen throwing arms. However, the science of Tommy John prevention is still inconclusive. There is not one way to actually prevent the surgery, but there are things to watch for to lessen the chance of injury.

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