By John Habyan
Pitchers of all levels need to take some time off to rest their arms after a spring and summer of playing baseball. These days it seems there are more and more factors intervening that either prevent pitchers from resting properly or make them feel that they can’t take the time to rest properly.
We’ve all heard about the young professional pitchers who throw a full season of minor league innings, progress to the fall instructional league and then play winter ball before heading to spring training and starting all over again. Often times we read about these young up-and-coming players getting “dead arms” or developing arm problems the following season that can haunt them off and on throughout the rest of their careers or even prevent them from advancing to the next level.
Just like starting pitchers need three or four days to rehab their arms after a starting assignment during the season, pitchers of all ages need to set aside time in the off-season to take a break from throwing and strengthen their shoulder muscles, specifically the rotator cuff, for the season ahead. This absolutely must take place during the off-season, because once the season begins and young players are practicing and playing several times a week while going to school and trying to have a social life, there really is little or no time for strength or conditioning work outside of what is done on the field. Once the new year rolls around, most pitchers will be concentrating more on their baseball training, so the strength and conditioning work that they do in the off-season has to last them, in reality, up to six months.
In this age of specialization and increased opportunities, however, many young pitchers don’t get much of a chance to rest. As a high school coach, this really scares me.
At the pre-high school levels, more and more travel teams are holding fall tryouts and playing in fall – and even winter – tournaments. Once players get to the high school level there are fall teams to play on and “showcase” events for those who hope to get seen by college coaches and professional scouts.
Parents of young players – and the players themselves – worry about missing out on opportunities, falling behind and losing spots on competitive teams. No young person wants to sit at home while his friends are playing in a baseball tournament somewhere. This may lead young pitchers to feel the need to throw often and at 100 percent throughout the fall and into the winter.
Pitchers at the high school level also don’t want to get left behind and hope to expose their talents to as many college coaches and pro scouts as possible. This quest may lead them to pitch in many highly competitive fall games or to attend as many “showcase” events as possible.
I know from experience that it is best for young pitchers to take at least two full months off from throwing. That is the time that they should be working on the strengthening exercises that can help them rehabilitate their arms from the previous season and help them prevent injuries in the season ahead.
Fall tryouts and “showcase” events can really create a dangerous situation for young pitchers, because many times they will go into these events cold after having not thrown for many weeks. Mid-summer “showcase” events are fine, because the pitchers are still in their normal throwing routines. Even “showcases” in August or September are okay, because the pitchers can keep throwing after their seasons in preparation for those events. Their rest period can come after they participate.
On the other hand, tryouts or “showcases” that occur in October, November or even December can be very dangerous to a pitcher’s health. While the need for pitchers to allow their arms to rest some in the off-season is well-documented, a pitcher who rests for a month or more and then tries to throw at 100 percent for a weekend tryout or event is risking injury. Coaches should make sure that pitchers prepare for at least three weeks leading up to these events by long tossing, doing flatwork and having three or four mound sessions. Young pitchers also should be instructed about how to warm up properly at the showcase or tryout, because many times they are shuttled through a line and have to pitch cold.
It’s okay for pitchers to keep throwing through the late summer into September and early October, as long as they are able to take two months off to rest their muscles and train them adequately for the year ahead. That rest time, or “active rest,” should include a mixture of distance running, sprinting, exercises to strengthen the legs, exercises to strengthen the core, flexibility work and rotator cuff exercises.
John Habyan has been Ripken Baseball’s lead pitching instructor for 13 years after pitching for 11 seasons at the big league level. He is the head coach at St. John the Baptist High School in New York.
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