The BIG Debate: Curve Balls, How Old?

The BIG Debate:  Curve Balls, How Old? thumbnail
Share & Comment

I probably receive this question as much as any other.

I am firm in my beliefs about the curve ball and most seem to agree that a curve ball should not be thrown because it can hurt the arm.

That’s not my reasoning and I will get to that in a minute.

Several studies advise against throwing the curve ball. Not this one. The following is an excerpt taken from “Risk of Serious Injury for Young Baseball Pitchers : A 10-Year Prospective Study,” Glenn S. Fleisig, James R. Andrews, et al., Am. J. Sports Med. (2011):

The relationship between pitch types (particularly curveballs) and injuries in young baseball pitchers is less clear and more controversial. Sports medicine experts have been warning since the 1970s that throwing curveballs at a young age can lead to elbow injury.1,2,17 The theory is that more stress is exerted about the elbow when throwing a curveball than when throwing a fastball and that the skeletally immature elbow of a youth pitcher cannot withstand the higher stress. A 1996 survey by USA Baseball supported this longstanding belief, showing that experts recommend that the curveball be learned at 14 6 2 years old.1,15 Lyman et al11 did find associations between breaking pitches and arm pain; however, it was (unexpectedly) the slider that correlated with increased risk of elbow pain and the curveball that correlated with increased risk of shoulder pain. Three biomechanical studies subsequently investigated whether a curveball is more stressful to the elbow than a fastball. A study of college pitchers showed no difference in elbow varus torque between the curveball and fastball.4 The other 2 studies showed less elbow varus torque in the curveball than in the fastball in high school pitchers and youth pitchers.3,13 All 3 biomechanical studies showed the least varus torque in the changeup. In the retrospective study by Olsen et al,14 pitchers were asked questions about when and how often they had thrown curveballs. There was no difference in the percentage of breaking pitches thrown during their most recent season (approximately 25% of pitches thrown) nor in the age they began throwing breaking pitches (approximately 13 years old).

Thus, the true risk of serious injuries to youth baseball pitchers is unknown, and the risk factors leading to these injuries are unproven.

Well if it hasn’t been proven to increase the likelihood of injury, what’s the problem?

Pitcher’s never learn the importance of the fast ball and how to use it. They never develop:

  • Location & Feel
  • Speed changes
  • Movement
  • Velocity

And most importantly, CONFIDENCE IN THROWING THE FAST BALL!

While recruiting, it’s common place to see high school pitchers that are 13-2 or 12-0 and have no chance of pitching at the college level. They are prime examples of pitchers developing a dependency on the curve ball.

Their thought process becomes to show the fastball and use the curve ball. Basically, the curve ball is their #1 and the fast ball is #2. As you can probably guess, both their command and velocity end up being below average. I don’t know, but I have to think these guys learned a curve ball at an early age, experienced success, and it was down hill from there.

Every curve ball thrown by a young pitcher equals one less fast ball. Pitcher’s that throw more curve balls will develop a curve ball, pitchers that throw fast balls will develop a fast ball. You choose.
If you watch enough baseball, you will find there’s a lot of hitters that struggle with breaking balls. It’s evident at all levels, even more evident with younger age groups. Therefore, the pitcher achieves instant success. And let’s face it, it’s pretty cool being able to make the ball “curve”.

The youth pitcher’s intent becomes more focused on a better curve ball.

He doesn’t try to throw the ball harder very frequently and in doing so, drastically decreases his chances of learning to throw the ball harder.

Meanwhile, he becomes dependent on the curve ball for success. The curve ball becomes a part of his repertoire and trickles into his everyday routine. He he doesn’t learn the importance of pitching off the fastball. The pitcher doesn’t have to worry about throwing the fastball for a strike, he can do that with the curve ball and besides if it isn’t a strike, they will swing anyways. The development process is stunted! The next step in the process, wait until he fails!

Most players aren’t willing to make a change if they are experiencing success with what they already do.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Because most of the mechanics and movement patterns are formed in our earlier years. The older we become, the harder it is to change or alter these patterns. Everything you do is a pattern and throwing a curve ball creates patterns to benefit the curve ball. The same is true for the fast ball.

Pitcher’s throw hard because more than likely they have always tried to.

So the problem isn’t necessary the risk for injury but the risk of slowing the development process.

If it is more important for 10 yrs old to be the highlight of his career, then throw the curve ball. If not, developing the fastball should be the top priority for all youth pitchers and youth leagues.

Why is there such an urgency for the curve ball and instant rewards? Travel ball! It seems there is a need to win right now in the world of travel ball and the development process is secondary at best. It’s all about winning. The pitcher wants to make the team, he wants to WIN and believes the curve ball will be the answer. Personally, I think the breaking ball is an easy pitch to learn so why rush it now?

Take winning out of the equation and place development first.

The youth pitcher should learn:

1. The fastball is the most important pitch in baseball.

2. If he wants to throw harder, he has to try and throw harder.

3. Learning to feel the difference between balls and strikes is more important than throwing a secondary pitch.

4. The first off-speed learned should be a secondary fastball.

5. Learn to pitch off your fastball at an early age and you will be a step ahead of the competition into the high school years and beyond.

The curveball is a very easy pitch to teach and there should be no rush to learn. Take winning out of the equation if it means having to throw the curveball. Teach the pitcher the importance of throwing the fastball and the importance of the intent to try and throw it harder. Sooner or later, he will be evaluated by his fastball if his plans are to pitch above the High School level.

Right or wrong, the radar gun plays a big part in the way pitchers are evaluated and recruited.

 

©2014 Baseball Think Tank and Lantz Wheeler

About the Author
Lantz Wheeler

Lantz coached college baseball for 8 years. He served as the pitching coach for St. Catharine College, Lipscomb University & the University Of Louisiana Monroe. He currently trains over 20 professional pitchers and 7 of his current players are pitching in MLB. He also consults with numerous NCAA D1 programs and 43 college teams use his Pitching Mechanics MasterMind System.

Free Registration

Take the Conversation Further

We’d love to know your thoughts on this article.

Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Terry Ray October 31, 2012, 3:08 am

    Thank you for confirming what I have been telling young pitchers for 40 years! Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Lantz October 31, 2012, 3:14 am

      Terry,

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I think we could all learn something from the old school pitching approach.

      Reply
  • Zita Carno December 24, 2012, 9:27 pm

    I was eleven years old when I discovered that I had a natural sidearm delivery—and what came attached to it was a natural curveball. I figured, well, I have a curveball, let me see what I can do with it. I never had a fast ball to speak of, but I threw hard and used a slide-step. I experimented with that curve and found that it was most effective when I threw it with a sharp karate-chop wrist snap, which gave that pitch a very nasty break, and a bit later I found a good knuckle-curve (which became my second-best pitch) and acquired a palm ball—my first changeup and a good one it was. Later on I learned the slider, which became my strikeout pitch, and I picked up a nice assortment of changeups…and then, quite by accident, I got myself a pretty good 81MPH four-seamer which my incredible pitching coach told me was, for a finesse pitcher like me, a fastball.
    There are those who insist that a young pitcher should not throw anything resembling a breaking pitch. I disagree. If a pitcher 11, 12 years old has a natural curve or other breaking pitch and can throw it comfortably and with good command, let him/her throw it and show him/her how to take full advantage of it. There really is no hard-and-fast rule regarding this.
    Season’s greetings.

    Reply
  • Chris February 26, 2013, 5:38 am

    I’m with you all.

    The point on intent is my key. If the player is throwing always with proper explosive intent and has learned and trained to execute any given pitch to attack their opponent, I’m in favor. (The above is conditioned upon that player knowing how to throw that pitch safely.)

    Breaking balls and change-ups are attack pitches, thrown with fastball mechanics and mental processes. The movement / surprise element of these pitches comes from the inefficiency associated with the way that force or impulse is imparted to the ball, producing spin and velocity characteristics.

    Are there different mechanics to these pitches? Maybe. Ask a pitcher. But from a coaching perspective, I ask my players to get a feel for the pitch. We call it ‘getting your touch on the pitch’ and we practice in blocked sets with concentrated mental rehearsals of the feeling of driving that throw down into it’s target. If it produces variations in release points etc., these things are completely within the pitcher’s ‘touch’ domain.

    If still done as an attack with explosive intent, it’s never different. Fastball, curveball… they’re both the same throw: vicious. But by the way, we spend most of our time learning to recruit every drop of our body’s force to throw and locate fastballs. Once a player has that, they experiment with other nasty things they can do. ;-)

    Chris
    http://www.PitchersWorkshop.com

    Reply
  • Tom Cahill February 1, 2014, 3:12 am

    Lantz :
    1. Most major league pitchers with outstanding curveballs began throwing
    the pitch in their early teens. Don Sutton & Burt Blyleven come to mind.
    I feel that, if thrown correctly, the curveball poses no more danger to the arm than any other pitch.
    2. You are dead on re: your thoughts about the fastball. I first heard the saying
    about “if you want to throw hard, practice throwing hard” from Rick Knapp,
    who was at the time the Twins minor league pitching coordinator.
    3. What’s the point of trying to develop multiple off speed pitches, especially
    in youth baseball if a kid hasn’t mastered his fastball ? Better to excel at one thing than to be mediocre at 3.
    I hope that your message is heard & taken to heart.
    Good stuff.
    Tom

    Reply
  • Lantz February 2, 2014, 5:03 am

    Tom,

    I agree on all points. The issue with a properly thrown curveball is that most aren’t taught to throw it properly.

    I head that Blyleven learned to throw the breaking ball by listening to the radio announcers describe the action of the breaking ball. Based on his perception of what he visualized, he came up with his unique grip.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Tom.

    Lantz

    Reply
  • Tom February 6, 2014, 1:33 am

    Hi Lantz:

    Thanks for your article. I have a son, an 11U, trying to develop his pitching. It seems that his peers on the select and All-Star teams are already pitching curves. They pitch well and consequently, our son doesn’t get to pitch because he only can pitch a fastball and a change up. But his peers successes are tempting us to develop the curve for our son as well. However, we’ll stick with the further developing of his fastball and change up and stay away from breaking balls. Thanks, again.

    Reply
  • Larry June 3, 2014, 11:50 am

    My oldest son is 13 and he’s been fastball change up only. There were other kids in town who threw much harder than him when they were 9-10-11, most of them threw curveballs too and most were better than him. He started catching up to them last year and now he’s passed most of them (it helps that he’s 6’1″).

    It just seemed intuitive to me that if you relied on your curve at 11, when even a bad curveball is pretty effective, for the offspeed nature as much as for the break, you wouldn’t work as much to throw harder. It’s nice to read something to reinforce that.

    Overemphasizing winning at young levels does so much harm in so many ways.

    Reply
    • Lantz Wheeler June 4, 2014, 1:15 am

      Hey Larry,

      Love your thought process, need more parents like you! Keep up the good work and thanks for commenting.

      Lantz

      Reply
  • J P June 10, 2014, 1:44 pm

    Lantz,
    My son was taught the curve at 11 by one of the most respected mlb pitching coaches. He said he was ready and I figured he should learn to do it right. The first season he did not have any problems but he missed most of his 12 year old season with a hurt elbow. His fast ball was in the high 60s at 12. He has not thrown a curveball for 2 seasons. He is now 14 and has been able to hold even the best teams to a few runs this season with only a fastball. He is the only pitcher in his league I have seen not throwing a curve. The problem with having a curve, is that the child or parent has no control over how many are thrown. All pitches are called by the coaches on every team here in Ga. If you have a good curve, the hitters can not hit it and the coaches over use it. I am reluctant in having my son throw one again because of this, but he is going to need it. I really do not know how to handle it or when to start.

    Reply
  • Greg Maxwell July 2, 2014, 4:35 pm

    People take the path of least resistance. If a kid can get batters out throwing breaking balls, he will. And your ability to locate the fastball is not developed fully. Most youth pitchers pitch too much. They are on their LL teams and also these AAU/travel teams. Throw in fall ball and winter training and these young arms never get to recover.

    Reply
    • Lantz Wheeler July 2, 2014, 11:06 pm

      Greg-

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I like many of your points and you make it hard to disagree.

      Thanks,
      Lantz

      Reply
  • Patricia Martin July 6, 2014, 2:27 am

    Interesting information. I come from Papua New Guinea, a country where Baseball is not played. What got me interested were two movies I watched, both had something to do with baseball. One was titled “42” and another “Trouble with the curve”. I like watching and reviewing movies and so I kept thinking about the “curve-ball’ and decided to read further which lead me to your article. Is there something significant about the ‘curve-ball’ for it to be an important and determining aspect in the film ‘Trouble with the curve’?

    Reply
  • JCM August 18, 2014, 1:24 am

    Wow. Very enlightening. I learned something big today and convinced on the fastball development over the curve ball. Articles like these make us better coaches.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Next Post:

Previous Post:

Get Free Updates

Paul Nyman Resources
Read previous post:
how to increase ankle mobility
3 Reasons Baseball Players Are Prone To Ankle Injuries

We are beginning to see more and more athletes with less than optimal ankle mobility. There are plenty of reasons...

Close