The overall ramifications of COVID-19 are much larger than the effects it has had on the baseball field. While life is far from normal, states and counties are slowly re-opening to allow for outdoor activities, including baseball.
After going through a significant disruption to the rhythm of a conventional baseball year—off-season, practice, games, and then ideally rest — the question remains, how do we return to play safely when the time arrives?
We can anticipate that the drive to make up for lost games will be strong; players want to play, coaches want to coach and for older players the ability to play and showcase their skills may, to a degree, determine whether or not they progress to the next level of competition.
Not Just a Pitching Problem
The risk of compromising a player’s health in the rush to return to competition will be unique to each level of play and position on the field. That said, in the same way, that it is generally suboptimal for players to get on the pitching mound without first building up their throwing workload, there should be a similar concern for position players going from relative dormancy to high intent throwing in games. The same holds true for batters who may go from no swinging at all directly into high intent swings in competition. All players—pitchers and position players—will share these concerns from a strength, conditioning, and mobility standpoint; ideally, they will not be asked to go from “couch shape” to “baseball shape” in a constricted amount of time.
This is a problem with no perfect answer. What we can, and will do below, is give some examples of what we believe are preferred return to play guidelines coming out of this unique period of disruption. They focus around two ideas that we’ve discussed many times previously: on-ramping, and utilizing the depth of a youth roster. Our suggestions are boosted by our recent acquisition of Motus, enabling us to dive deeper into pitcher workloads.
While there are a number of factors that will influence how a youth pitcher may return to baseball, establishing their throwing workload is an key factor of their readiness. We understand that pitch counts are an imperfect measure of a player’s workload, but they are still commonly used as guidelines that can effectively be understood and implemented by coaches, players, and parents.
Arm Health and Returning to Pitching
One of the most significant benefits of holding practices before starting to play games is that it gives players an opportunity to progressively build up their arm health—both the volume of throws and their intensity— before going into game competition. On the other hand, moving directly from a period of comparative inactivity directly into high intent play is a recipe for increased risk of injury. This is unquestionably applicable to baseball in general and the throwing motion specifically for several reasons.
Despite the rising popularity of travel and select youth baseball, the largest single pool of players remains those who play in recreational youth organizations – Little League, Pony, and others. Often, because these players only play at the recreational level and not with an organization that may do any kind of off-season training, these players are highly likely to go into their recreational league season after a period of not throwing very much, if at all. And as such, these players are in even greater need of a throwing regimen that progressively builds up their workload in practices, which means they need some duration of practices before games to build up their workload and arm fitness.
This practice time will be just as important—if not more so—once baseball starts again this year, as players are more likely than usual to have been completely dormant during this time away from the game due to restrictions to the use of facilities, parks, playgrounds, and fields. The need to progressively build toward the season is conceptually similar and frankly even more important for older players, because they—being bigger, stronger and faster—produce more raw force than youth players.
For recreational league players and older serious amateur athletes, a vital part of the normal structure of a season is pre-season practice, and a vital aspect of those practices is simply throwing a baseball after an extended time away. Whether these practices involve progressive arm care and arm fitness training with Jaeger Sports J-Bands, Driveline PlyoCare balls & Wrist Weights in conjunction with either our Youth Intro to Arm Care program for athletes 9-12, our free 8-week Weighted Ball program for athletes 13 and up, our Youth Baseball Development Certification, free athlete and team training programs in TRAQ or simply picking up a baseball and throwing it, getting players to acclimate to the stimulus of throwing again before they are playing and pitching games is a good and necessary thing.
If, however, we take this period of acclimation away from players and drop them directly into games, we are taking them from an undertrained state into an overly stressed state over a very short period of time. That is not good.
Specific to pitching, the MLB Pitch Smart guidelines provide a good basis for recommendations for a variety of scenarios and levels of amateur baseball, both in the comparatively longer-term (number of innings in a calendar year, duration of time off from throwing) and the short term (number of pitches in a single day, number of days of rest between outings based on pitch count), all based around player’s age ranges.
Released in 2014 and updated in 2017, Pitch Smart serves an incredibly important function by providing this type of structural guidance for coaches, parents, and players. Pitch Smart has also aligned themselves with some of the largest organizations and leagues in the world, in doing so ideally driving compliance with these guidelines for huge numbers of players.
Our primary concern for all pitchers—or youth players who will be both pitching and playing in the field—is that by coming out of this period of forced inactivity and rushing back into games, the Pitch Smart recommendations for pitch counts and rest will not be well-calibrated to the reduced levels of throwing fitness that all players—pitchers and position players alike—can be expected to re-enter competition with if not given adequate practice time beforehand.It certainly would be ideal if we could wave a magic wand and ensure that, globally, all players at all levels will be adequately prepared through individual work conducted while sheltering in place to go directly from inactivity into games, but this simply is not likely or realistic.
The average amateur player could be prevented for any number of reasons from being able to check this box to the degree that it is accomplished in a normal, structured schedule of practices as overseen by a coach.
Crafting A Revised Plan For Youth Pitchers
Knowing how important it is that players have time in practice in order to develop their throwing workload—and that some leagues may be inclined to rush directly into competition, thereby neglecting the time for practice—we need to give leagues and coaches:
- A set of recommendations for practices,
- A modified recommendation for pitch counts
In crafting these revised recommendations, we at Driveline have the opportunity to leverage a huge volume of existing data on throwing that we have via the motusTHROW sensor, which on a per throw basis measures arm slot, arm speed, max shoulder rotation, and peak valgus torque (stress) during the throw. The motusTHROW sensor also enables workload tracking through the calculation of Daily, Acute, and Chronic Workloads, which gives us much more insight into throwing fitness levels rather than simply looking at pitch counts.
By using the resulting Acute:Chronic Workload ratio, we have a good heuristic for creating a return to throwing program. For the purposes of these revised recommendations to both improve throwing readiness and minimizing throwing while fatigued we utilized a group of 20,000 throwers and 627,925 throws that were made in a specified “Long Toss” mode at various distances for this purpose.
Because we know that players in game are going to be pitching from a specific distance (46’ for most players 12 and under, 60’ 6” for 13 and up) we can model the specific volume workload of this in game activity for different “average” size and age players at each stage, then work backwards and lay out a plan for the days of practice, and number of throws from what distances necessary in practices that should, over time, develop throwing fitness levels to a point that the in-game workload should be safely tolerable. Ideally this structure helps to raise players to a level of throwing fitness that would minimize their individual exposures to conditions and scenarios where they would potentially be at higher risk for injury when pitching in games.
In essence, we are combining five things for these pitch count recommendations:
- Our belief that athletes of all ages need to on-ramp before a season
- Youth teams should spread innings around as many pitchers as possible
- Our available database of youth long toss Motus data
- Research showing that youth baseball pitchers underestimate the number of high output throws they make
- Research showing that pitch counts are only a part of a player’s workload.
While pitch counts obviously only account for in-game data, we are using data from non-game throws to recommend modified in-game pitch counts, based on different pre-season lengths. These recommendations are also based around work on acute to chronic workload (A/C ratio), which suggests that workload stays between 0.8-1.3 during training. While it is not a perfect measure, as there is no one perfect measure that solves all issues, it provides some guidance and the pitch counts listed below keep athletes within the recommended A/C ratio.
On an individual basis, the value of the motusTHROW system is the highly personalized information it provides on the throwing fitness of a single player and the opportunity to create a truly individualized throwing program. Some players have been able to throw, while other haven’t, which obviously complicates a coaches job on how to program their pitchers. Our usage here—using a substantial data set that drives us toward a re-evaluation of existing per game pitch counts—is by no means perfect. Workload is an important piece of keeping a player healthy but not the only one, it’s simply one that we have just recently been able to measure in a more in-depth manner and provides more insight than simply tracking pitch counts.
It is a data-informed analysis of the kind of conditions we want to put our players in and the kind of conditions we should attempt to avoid. And even if this recommendation is done in a non-individualized, broad strokes fashion, it can still give us tremendous quantified guidance on how to navigate this specific scenario of getting back to playing baseball in a responsible fashion that does not put the Wins and Losses column above the health needs of millions of baseball players.
Factors not considered in the recommendations below are how active a player may have been before practice started, what kind of activity they were able to complete, and individual differences in strength. Of course coaches will have to take in these factors, along with our recommendations below, to make the most informed decisions that they can.
Driveline Recommendations – Youth Pitching
Our strong recommendation for youth players and youth leagues is that youth players of all ages get 4 weeks of 3 practice sessions per week before playing games. In these practices we are recommending that players engage in a throwing progression that expands in both the volume of throws as well as the distance of throws for the first two weeks of resumed play. In addition to this progression of throwing distance, our model recommends that players will get an approximate 20 other throws at an unspecified distance as part of their team defensive practice. For the first 2 weeks of practice players should execute this same throwing program.
In weeks 3 & 4 of our return to play throwing progression, we take our youth team of 12 players and break them into 3 different four-player groups. We then have each four-player group (Groups A, B & C) throw one bullpen per week of 20 pitches. This should get every group—and every player on your team—two bullpen sessions before the season commences. You can see how this works for our 11 and 12-year-olds here:
You can find our complete Youth Practice Throwing Progression Program here and our Youth Workload Guide with pitch counts and rest days here.
Having all players on the team get some experience pitching in practice is important, because once games do resume we will create a pitching rotation where every player on a youth team is going to pitch. This is not only ideal, as we do want to encourage all youth players to feel like pitching is something that they can do, but it is also necessary; we will need all the players on a team to be available to pitch in order to navigate the reduced pitching counts that we will deal with in our first month of games.
This pitch count progression for youth players who are able to get 4 weeks of 3 practices a week before playing games looks like this:
Playing Games With A 2 Weeks of Practice
For leagues who choose to restrict pre-season practices to only 2 weeks of 3 practices a week before beginning to play games our recommendation is that you follow the throwing progression for the first 2 weeks of practices, but in-game pitching counts must be reduced for the first 4 weeks of play.
To mitigate this as best as possible we are recommending that players who pitch up to their 35 pitch limit are restricted to 1 pitching appearance over the course of a 5 day period for the first two weeks of games. In our small sample analysis of a local Little League’s seasons worth of data for their entire Majors five-team division (10 to 12-year-old players) they averaged 22.15 pitches per inning. This means that getting through a 6 inning game -on average-is going to require the distribution of 132.9 pitches, which requires appx 4 players per team to pitch, and all 12 pitching if teams are playing games 3 times a week.
Playing Games With A Week Or Less of Practice
This specific scenario, youth players pitching in games with a week or less of practice, is one that we would suggest that leagues try to avoid. Having players go directly into competition in this scenario will obviously lead to the most significant sharp increase in workload.
These issues are so significant that if you keep players to a modified 35 or 50 pitch limit for the first month it still is a terribly risky pitching environment for players.
A week of practice and distributed pitch counts still makes it difficult to both build and then manage workloads. Especially considering that youth players are often two-way players, and there is workload being expended when these players are not pitching that isn’t going to be counted.
Does it mean that any and every player that is playing games in this scenario is guaranteed to be injured? No. There are of course a number of factors that parents and coaches need to consider including whether a player was able to throw before practice started, amount of sleep, and other activities they may be participating in. But if leagues elect to execute this schedule then the best course of action is to acknowledge the limited time to establish pitching workload with reduced pitch counts.
How To Individually Improve Your Situation
If you read all of this and suspect that your league may be inclined to choose one of the schedule configurations that we’ve already outlined could be problematic, or simply want to help your player get the most out of this unusual season as possible, what kind of choices do you have to try to individually improve the situation?
Help them find a way to keep playing.
In these unusual times we can afford to think a little less about constructing a perfect developmentally ideal training environment and instead orient more toward strategies that simply put players in a better place. In this specific instance that means…just being a kid.
Certainly if you are looking for more structured programming and advice we have tools to assist that process. Between free athlete programs in TRAQ to a more guided training program like our Youth Online Baseball Development training program, we can offer any number of ways to help your youth player not only avoid some of these more problematic scenarios outlined previously in but also pursue opportunities for player development. But given these unusual circumstances there are also much simpler strategies that can prove effective.
Let them be a kid. Give them the freedom to engage with the game on their terms. Again, if families and players are inspired to take this time away from structured baseball practices there is an opportunity to capitalize on this time for development, but also simply allowing players the freedom to do the things that they enjoy the most on their own terms is just as valid. These types of simple games:
- Catch in the yard with a parent or sibling
- Hitting off of a tee in a garage
- Playing wall ball
Can both help players avoid some of these undesirable scenarios we’ve previously identified when it comes to being completely underprepared when games start again, in addition to building their relationship with the game of baseball in a fashion that they are in control of.
Youth Pitching and Returning To Play – Final Thoughts
The throwing programs, modified pitch count and rest recommendations we’ve created, all relative to the amount of time that leagues allocate to practice prior to playing games, are designed to make the best of these unusual circumstances.
Successfully navigating this situation not only means revisions to guidelines and progressions, but it also means revising our approach to youth pitching in total.
Most youth teams do not pitch all of the players on the team, so guidelines like MLB Pitch Smart are only effective at controlling the in-game usage of the players who do end up pitching. These revised guidelines that we are proposing as a means to distribute the total pitching workload more broadly will have all players on a team pitching, so it is important that the adults (coaches and parents) involved have their expectations calibrated appropriately.
For these youth players who are too intimidated by the challenge to pitch, or they don’t believe they could be successful at pitching from the standard 46’ distance, this is a great opportunity to break our binary attachment to either succeeding or failing at a specific pitching distance and instead give them a pathway toward success. Take our 20 pitch bullpen and break it into a game with levels:
Keep track of their scores, encourage them to throw with intent, and then mark their improvement over time.
At the end of the day, there is only one single thing that can happen on a youth baseball field that will definitively impact a youth player for the rest of their lives.
It isn’t the dream of winning every game.
It isn’t the nightmare of losing every game.
It’s losing the love for the game.
If we keep it fun, help them feel capable, put their successes and failures into proper context and help them find a pathway to deepening their love for baseball the game should be in a good place, and so will it’s players. Each parent, coach, and player is going to have to make their most informed decision on how their son or daughter can ramp up to playing speed safely, hopefully, these guidelines help that process.
By Deven Morgan