More high-profile major league baseball pitchers have been sidelined by season-ending elbow injuries this year than ever before. But this epidemic is not just a big league concern. Young players, lured by the fastball, are getting hurt, too.
Three years ago, just before outfielder Bubba Starling from Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kan., was taken by the Kansas City Royals in the draft, the Baltimore Orioles chose Dylan Bundy from Owasso, Okla., the best high school pitching prospect. Bundy was described as a “can’t miss” major league prospect who touched 100 miles an hour on the radar gun and threw strikes.
But after one professional season, including two appearances in the big leagues, the 21-year old Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery, named after the former big league pitcher whose elbow ligament in his left pitching arm was replaced by a tendon from elsewhere in his body.
Dr. Donna Paccica, an orthopedic surgeon at the Center for Sports Medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., has performed Tommy John surgeries over the past eight years.
“We’re definitely seeing more on the way of overuse injuries where kids are coming and basically have overused and tore their ulnar collateral ligament and need surgery to reconstruct it,” says Paccica. “The more common kids I’ll see is going to be the high school age, but I mean I’ve seen kids that are coming in who are in the precursor stage, who are 12 or 13 years old, which is really disturbing.”
Brad Stoll works with 12 and 13-year-olds at a baseball camp in Lawrence, Kan. He’s also the baseball coach at Lawrence High School and is closely watching this week’s baseball draft. One of his players, Bryce Montes De Oca, is expected to be selected Friday in the third round or later. At one time, De Oca was projected to be a potential first-round pick. But that was before he had Tommy John surgery.
“He’s a 6'8, 260-pound right-hander, who throws 97,” says Stoll.
Therein lies one of the problems.
"You really didn’t hear a lot about all these pediatric elbow problems before the radar gun,” says Paccica. “Now all of a sudden everybody starts wanting to see how fast Johnny can throw and I think this becomes a real big issue because these kids are going to throw fast in whatever means they can do it and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re throwing it the right way.”
As someone who also scouts part-time for the Milwaukee Brewers, Brad Stoll admits that scouts and college coaches pay close attention to radar speeds. It’s hard not to when you see a kid at 15-years-old hitting 92 mph.
"You’re like, ‘Omigosh, that’s two miles an hour faster than a major league average fastball and he’s 15,’” says Stoll.
As De Oca moves forward, he’s fortunate enough to have a choice between the major league team that will take a chance on him or baseball on scholarship at the University of Missouri. For other kids, elbow surgery is where the baseball dream ends.
Paccica says it’s up to the adults to be more responsible.
“As an adult or a parent, you’re in control of what the kids are doing whether you’re parent or a coach,” says Paccica. “It’s really important to take that responsibility seriously to be able to read your players and to be able to say, ‘No, you’ve got to sit out.’”
The number of major league injuries prompted the American Sports Medicine Institute of Birmingham, Ala., last month to release a position statement. Among the warnings it conveys to adolescent pitchers: Avoid pitching while fatigued and stay away from the radar guns.