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Trouble With The Curve

There has always been much debate over when a youth player should be allowed to throw curveballs for the sake of his arm.  Many leagues have rules in place where curveballs aren’t even allowed to be thrown until 11-12 years old.  Although the threat of damaging a boy’s arm by throwing too many curveballs at too young an age is a valid reason for holding back, the point of this conversation though has little to do with health and injuries.  The main thing I want to discuss is the affect it has in regards to developing that child’s arm and developing the fastball.

I like to ask the kids on my team, “What’s the best, most effective pitch in baseball?”  Although this point could be argued, most knowledgeable baseball guys would tell you that it’s the fastball.  All other pitches that are thrown hinge on the success of the fastball.  The answer I get often times though is that the curveball, or some similar pitch, is the most effective.  Although I would expect a kid to give me that response, because to them making a ball curve or a guy look silly is cool and funny, what’s frightened me is the amount of coaches who obviously agree.  There have been numerous times when we’ve played a team whose pitcher had an above average fastball, yet seemed to throw 25% or more curveballs.  This concerns me for a few reasons…

  1. The player isn’t being taught how to effectively use his fastball to get outs
  2. The player isn’t developing his arm properly
  3. The player isn’t gaining confidence to use a fastball to get the out

My guys ask me on nearly a daily basis, “Can I throw some curveballs tonight?”  My response is always the same.  I tell them that if they locate their fastballs and stay ahead in counts and prove to me they can throw strikes consistently, we may mix one or two in there.  ONE OR TWO.  So far this season in three games, I believe I’ve called 3 off speed pitches total (We’re 3-0). What I want my guys to learn is that having a breaking ball that can strike everyone out at 13 years old is cool and funny, but when you’re 17 or 18 and trying to pitch at the high school level, your fastball is only 80 mph, and guys start figuring out how to hit that curveball, you become useless.  I try to make them realize that they don’t need to throw 50% breaking balls to win a game or to get outs, but rather they would be better off learning how to locate their fastball, how to create movement with it, how to change speeds with it, and ultimately build velocity.

If a player is throwing a lot of curveballs, then they are going to develop a curveball arm.  Every player out there wants to have the strongest arm, yet also wants to throw a ton of curveballs.  Unfortunately for youth players, that just isn’t generally possible. If you want to develop a strong arm that will help you not only in pitching, but at every other position on the field, then you have to get out there and throw.  Players need to be throwing often, mixing in a fair amount of long tossing, in order to build those shoulder muscles and gain arm speed.

The problem I’m seeing though is that as coaches, we get so wrapped up in winning the game that we neglect the kids arms and the fundamentals of the game, just so at the end of the season we can say we were the league champs.  BIG WHOOP!!!  Don’t get me wrong, I love to win and will do everything in my power to do so, but not at the expense of improperly developing a player.  My number one focus is and should be to train and develop these players so that every year, every game, every day they are getting better and better.  We need to remember sometimes that these guys aren’t in the MLB against professional hitters.  Most the hitters in the leagues have trouble enough even hitting a fastball consistently.

As a result of all the curveballs being thrown, pitchers aren’t properly developing their arms and hitters aren’t learning how to hit.  Now we’re sending kids to high school who are throwing 80 mph and can’t hit.  But let’s not forget that time when we were 11 and won the league championship, right?  If your son or player is being asked to throw numerous breaking balls under 14 years old, I would advise you to kindly pull the coach aside in private and ask him if he would refrain from doing so.  Your child can have success for today, or he can learn to have success for later in life when it starts to really get exciting.

Feel free to chime in on your thoughts and experiences.

More reading and an article that goes more in depth can be found here.

Comments

Michael Coelho
Reply

Love the article and it brings up great points that I agree with. For the sake of playing devils advocate, I will add, that in three years of college baseball at William Carey I find that everyone can and prefers hitting the fastball. At the college level velocity becomes irrelevant and the pitchers that have a lot of success have exceptional breaking balls, and some pitchers, who can’t even throw 85 MPH, but have good offspeed (junkballers) give college hitters the biggest fits. So assuming that not every kid grows up with a 95 MPH fastball, shouldn’t we teach the offspeed pitch as an equalizer for kids who, like many others, won’t develop the electric fastball with age?

Zachary Magee
Reply

Absolutely. I don’t neglect the breaking ball altogether, but I rather use it sparingly at a young age. If I had a player who could locate his fastballs consistently and get outs, I’d likely be helping him develop extra off speed. As you well know, I was far from a hurler when it came to velocity, but I do attribute the little success I had to pitching smart and locating the fastball while changing speeds.

Lucas Gleason
Reply

As a coach and former player, I absolutely agree Zach. You should still use a breaking ball every so often just to let them know you have it, but Michael as much as I liked my curveball and slider they were actually the demise of my career. After I stopped playing I became a student of the game even more than I was when I played. In doing this I realized that as long as a fastball, even if it is only 85 to 87 mph, is properly placed then that will be your most effective/efficient pitch. It’s nice to throw the good breaking ball like Zach suggests every once in a while to keep the good hitters off balance as far as college is concerned, but at 13 as long as the pitcher is hitting a good location with a decent velo, then breaking stuff really doesn’t have to be thrown. Good article!

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