The Little League World Series and the Taney Dragons have captured the hearts of so many around the nation. They kept nearly everyone in the Philly area intrigued and watching the games from the edge of our seats.
However, while watching the Little League World Series, I couldn’t help but notice the number of curveballs being thrown. It seems like 1/3 of all pitches are curveballs. Should 11 and 12 year olds be throwing curveballs, and if not, at what age is it safe to throw them?
Let’s start with the research. Studies by Flesig et al. and Dun et al., both out of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), did not find an increased injury risk for youth pitchers when comparing curveballs to fastballs1,2. Neither study found that curveballs were safe, they simply did not find a correlation to injuries. Both studies were performed well, but limitations of the studies may have contributed to their findings. Dun did not test pitchers in a game nor when pitchers were fatigued2. Flesig’s injury definition only included surgery or pitchers who “retired” due to an injury1. This certainly limits the number of pitchers’ injuries recorded. Only recording surgeries, and not recording injuries that prevent a pitcher from throwing or pitching for a significant time greatly reduces the number of overall injuries. A recent study by Yang et al. found an increased risk of pain of 1.66 when comparing curveballs to fastballs in youth pitchers3. Although significant, throwing curveballs presented only a small increased risk compared to pitching with “arm tiredness” which demonstrated an increased risk of injury 7.88 in the same study3.
Although co-authoring the studies by Flesig2 and Dun2, Dr. James Andrews (renowned orthopaedic surgeon and medical director for the Andrews Institute) recommends that youth pitchers refrain from throwing curveballs until they have mastered the fastball and change-up and are at least 14 years old4. This comes from his decades of treating baseball pitchers from youth leagues to the majors.