An article in the latest issue of The Mag talks about the signing of 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michael Inoa by the A's, saying: "With his above-average curveball and a 93 mph fastball that's projected to pick up even more speed as he gets older, the 6'7", righthanded Inoa could be a once-in-a-decade talent…."
Wait. An "above-average" curveball? At 16? The kid must have learned to throw the pitch at, what, nine? We were always told not to even try to throw a curveball until we were in high school. Does Inoa's mastery of the pitch at such a young age spell danger?
Well, yes. And no. Dr. James Andrews, the world's foremost athlete surgeon, and his team at American Sports Medicine Institute have recently finished extensive studies they say prove, conclusively, that throwing a curveball enacts no more force on the arm than a fastball. That's the good news. The bad news? Throwing a curve early can lead you down a dangerous road.
"It's not the pitch that's the problem," says Andrews. "It's the fact that kids who are throwing curveballs at the youth levels are generally dominant because young kids can't hit it," Which means that the kids who throw curveballs at that age will be trotted out to pitch as much as possible—and to throw their 'out' pitch as much as possible.
"We've tracked Little League games right through the Little League World Series, and as the competition grows, the kids throw curveballs up to 70 percent of the time," said Glenn Fleisig, PhD, Director of Research, ASMI, who co-authored the study with Andrews. "It's good that Little Leagues have enacted rules on pitch counts, but for say, a kid in the Dominican, if you see an unusually developed curveball at an early age, who knows the mileage on that arm?"
And mileage is what it's all about. In short, the curveball isn't a dangerous pitch per se. The real problem is never one pitch. It's pitching, period. Or too much of it, anyway.
"Pitching a baseball is, to put it mildly, a torturous and self-destructive act," Buzz Bissinger wrote last year. He was paraphrasing Fleisig. "At the time of the ball's release, the forces acting on the shoulder are basically equivalent to the pitcher's body weight; they are akin to someone of similar size trying to yank his arm out of his shoulder socket."
Dr. Andrews has seen the results of overworked, pubescent arms and they're not pretty. "I'm constantly performing surgeries on the arms of kids between 14 and 20 years old," he says. With more competitive baseball being played, and thus more in-game, pitches being thrown, it's easy for pitch counts to add up, especially for dominant hurlers who will throw until they're told to stop.
"When you're playing baseball in the yard as a kid, you'll quit when you're tired or in some fit of pain," Andrews says, "but you ever see a kid in a Little League World Series game, when the coach comes out, hand him the ball and say, 'Yeah, I'm too tired coach.' Of course not. It's those pitches, the ones beyond comfort, that count."
Inoa's already-developed power and curveball could be a major warning sign. That said, Andrews agrees with Billy Owens, the A's Director of Player Personnel, who helped guide the signing of Iona.
"(Iona) has some incredible ability for his age. Smarts, size, composure and a great arm on a body you'd think could be a swimmer," says Owens. "To the degree that he can throw a curveball, and that it's some kind of warning sign, you'd really have to be looking for something that's not there."
By signing Inoa at 16, the A's can closely monitor his mileage, and assure themselves he's not doing what others have in those last couple years of physical development. Such as the cautionary tales like Kerry Wood.
The stories of Wood's High School workload are legendary. A couple days after the draft, Wood threw 146 pitches in the first game of a doubleheader, then started the second and threw 29 more. Wood had both an incredible fastball and an unhittable monster curve, a pitch he developed between his freshman and junior seasons. That's when the odometer on his arm took off.
Over the last decade, people like Andrews have been fighting to enact stricter rules for young pitchers, or at least recommendations on pitch counts. So now, when a Major League scouting department wants to get a feel for how a player's arm will hold up, they can rely on pitch counts tracked from the day the kid made a varsity team.
So the curveball isn't evil. Not really. But…
"My thought on it is you shouldn't throw a curveball until you can shave," Andrews says.
The A's can always buy Iona a Bic.Or, five million bucks richer, he could buy his own.