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Do baseball pitchers throw too hard?

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Do baseball pitchers throw too hard?

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In recent years, the average speed of pitches in Major League Baseball, the US baseball championship, has grown more and more. This progressive increase has made the game more spectacular, and has complicated the task of the batsmen, who must try to hit the ball thrown by the pitcher with the bat. Even pitchers, however, are suffering damage from their own improvements, because arm injuries are constantly increasing: there seems to be a fairly certain correlation between the speed with which they throw and the frequency with which they get hurt.

The pitcher in baseball is the one who, in fact, throws the ball towards the batter, with the aim of eliminating him directly with a strikeout (that is, throwing a ball that is too difficult to hit three times) or of slowing down the progress of his teammates in the bases , making him hit the ball with difficulty, in order to facilitate the defense’s play in recovering it.

A long one in-depth analysis published this week by Devin Gordon in US magazine The Atlantic linked pitching velocity to the increase in pitching injuries, wondering if pitchers aren’t throwing the ball today too forte.

“The simple answer is yes, certainly in medical terms, at least,” Gordon writes. According to statistics from FanGraphs analyzed byAtlantic, the average pitch velocity in MLB was 93.3 miles per hour in 2002, 97.4 in 2012, and 90.6 in 2022 (an increase of more than 5% in twenty years). Last year, the pitcher who threw the hardest on average was Jhoan Duran of the Minnesota Twins: his pitches went at an average of 163.8 kilometers per hour.

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“In parallel with the speed of the ball, the frequency of catastrophic arm injuries has also increased, with tears of the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow being by far the most frequent,” says theAtlantic. The ulnar collateral ligament is a complex structure of the elbow that involves the humerus (the arm bone) and the ulna (one of the two bones of the forearm): it has a triangular shape and is, essentially, what allows move the elbow joint.

Looking at the data, in 2010 Major League Baseball pitchers missed a total of 241 games due to injury. Last season, the number of missed games more than doubled to 497. In early April, two major league pitchers, Shane Bieber and Spencer Strider, they got injured at the elbow.

Shane Bieber, lanciatore dei Cleveland Guardians (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The main problem for throwers concerns the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow, which is highly stressed by the very fast movement they perform when throwing the ball. It is an injury for which there is a not too complex operation, from which it is usually possible to recover completely, but in a fairly long time, which often forces pitchers to miss the entire season.

In baseball parlance it’s called Tommy John surgery (Tommy John operation), named after the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who was the first to successfully undergo it in 1974. According to Devin Gordon, this operation has now become a habit, almost a rite of passage for pitchers, who they resigned themselves to missing even an entire season, at a certain point in their career, to have their ligament fixed. Japanese Shohei Ohtani, one of the best players in the world (as well as the highest paid), in September 2023 he submitted at the second Tommy John surgery of career.

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Shohei Ohtani plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers as both a pitcher and hitter (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

This type of injury occurs for various reasons: it can be associated with wear and tear, i.e. continuous stress on the ligament, or with an incorrect shooting movement or poor physical preparation. In recent years, however, very high launch speeds seem to have become the primary cause. The director of the biomechanics department of the American Sports Medicine Institute, Glenn Fleisig, told theAtlantic whereas a dozen years ago the quantity of throws was the main reason for the many injuries, now it is the fact that they always throw at maximum strength.

However, this increase in injuries is unlikely to lead to changes: “Good luck if you want to convince someone to throw slower, for a very simple reason: throwing hard works,” Gordon wrote. Of the 27 launches which last year exceeded 164.5 kilometers per hour in MLB, only two were hit by the batter: even if they are central pitches and without particular effect, it is really difficult to hit a ball that reaches those speeds. The problem, however, is that if injuries continue to increase, baseball risks losing us, because more and more pitchers will miss more and more games.

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