Will Pitch Counts Really Protect Arms?

I’ll open this can of worms by saying that when it comes to pitch counts, you’re being sold proverbial swamp land in Florida. It’s tragic because most of the baseball community is buying it and it comes at a cost of false hopes, a false sense of security, and continuing trauma that wrecks arms, destroys dreams and careers.

As a pitching researcher and pitching coach I have evidence that strongly contradicts the theory behind pitch counts as a means to protecting arms, and I’m going to share it here.
Repeatedly we’ve been told by leading doctors, researchers and trainers that pitching injuries are caused by overuse and repetitive motion. We’re being told that pitch counts represent the Holy Grail for protecting arms.
If pitch counts work, why is there a continuing parade of injured pitchers? Why is baseball still faced with an arm injury epidemic?
It might surprise you to know that pitch counts are derived only from a collection of opinions and have no basis in valid science. Technically, the idea behind pitch counts is a theory and not a fact. No one has examined how elbow and shoulder damage accumulates, one pitch at a time, so no one is in a position to say how many pitches actually damage arms, for a broad range of pitchers who all throw differently. So, it’s impossible to know how many pitches can be thrown, with some specified rest period between outings, before damage occurs. Pitch counts, as prescribed, are nothing more than a guess.
To further complicate things the leading proponent of pitch counts, Dr. Jim Andrews, renowned orthopedic surgeon and founder of the American Sports Medicine Institute, delivered a lecture in ASMI’s Injuries in Baseball Online Course where he stated, “The number one risk factor in injuries is still poor mechanics.”
Stop the presses! That’s headline news for anyone concerned about arm injuries! If the greatest risk factor is poor mechanics, why isn’t Dr. Andrews pushing ‘good mechanics’ as the solution?
Why are he and his colleagues in the medical and athletic training research fields ignoring this disconnect? Why do they continue to cite ‘overuse’ as the primary cause of pitching injuries? Why is Dr. Andrews a member of the MLB/USA Baseball Pitch Smart (pitch count) advisory committee? And why is Dr. Andrews still standing behind pitch counts if the numero uno risk factor for arm injuries is mechanics, and not overuse?
My experience has been it’s because none of these elite professionals in the medical and research communities know how to fix mechanics. They have studied how shoulder function and how mechanics change as pitching fatigue sets in (and more), but have not studied how differing mechanics impact these changes. They may be gaining clinical understanding about specific causes of elbow and shoulder injuries—‘poor mechanics’—but know little to nothing about ‘good mechanics’ that can prevent injuries, let alone how they can be taught.
My hunch is, in conjunction with MLB, they think there is a need for people to feel like something meaningful is being done to protect arms, whether it works or not. It’s almost as if pitch counts are part of a public relations effort.
Let’s dig in to this business of pitch counts and look at a better solution.
On one hand, overuse as an injury mechanism seems to make sense, because the more times we inflict damage to the elbow and shoulder, the more frequent and more debilitating the injuries. Because we’re hearing the word ‘overuse’ every time we turn around, we assume this is true.
On the other hand, what if the true cause of pitching injuries is not overuse?
If the root cause cause of pitching injuries is not overuse and repetitive motion, pitch counts will never protect arms.
Baseball’s long and storied history of pitching injuries is common knowledge, so we assume pitchers are going to get hurt at some point. Even casual observation bears this out. We hide arm injuries behind the familiar phrase, ‘pitching is an unnatural act,’ as if pitching is always destined to cause injury and there’s no way around it.
Therein lies the rub:
  • What if it’s a mistake to assume pitching is an unnatural act and MUST cause injury?
  • Regarding pitch counts, what if the opinions of surgeons, researchers and trainers are wrong?
  • What if describing pitching as an unnatural act is an excuse for not understanding the real problem, deflecting attention from finding and implementing meaningful solutions to arm injuries?
  • What if there are pitchers who can throw more than others…and they don’t get hurt?
It stands to reason that if there are pitchers who throw more than others, with high velocity and performance comparable to peers, and they aren’t getting hurt, the cause of pitching injuries is not overuse.
In every field discoveries are made that catapult progress forward. Baseball is long overdue for a breakthrough, and I’m going to tell you about a breakthrough I’ve made with arm injuries. Implementing these discoveries can begin right now, today, if people will pay attention. If we can put an end to the lion’s share of pitching injuries, this paradigm shift can rival the magnitude of Jackie Robinson breaking MLB’s color barrier. Baseball needs another Branch Rickey.
Here’s what I know:
I am 100% certain that the primary cause of pitching injuries is not overuse.
My students throw a TON and are staying injury free over many years of pitching. My students routinely exceed published pitch count recommendations, sometimes by as much as 500% in training. And they do this without taking lots of rest days between sessions. Our throwing volumes are so high that if anyone is going to have an ‘overuse’ or ‘repetitive motion’ injury, it’s my students. However, the opposite is true. Over the past 16 years I’ve had ZERO structural arm injuries in my program, and my students routinely, massively exceed published pitch count recommendations.
I am 100% certain that the primary cause of pitching injuries is MECHANICS that put the wrong parts of the body in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Here’s how I know this:
I’m able to keep pitchers healthy by teaching them how to use their arm and body differently from what’s always been taught. I replace mechanical techniques I know cause damage with mechanics that prevent injury. By making a few specific changes to technique—changing mechanics—that put the arm and shoulder in a safer place, with better timing, I’ve discovered a way to prevent injuries and systematically build pitching and throwing endurance…at the same time.
Putting the right parts of the body in the right place, at the right time, prevents injuries. Putting the right parts of the body in the right place, at the right time, also maximizes body efficiency, velocity, and control. Throwing at high intensity while throwing as many (or more) pitches as we throw in games develops stamina on par with gameday workloads.
My students are able to get stronger by doing extensive throwing and pitching, just like you’d get in shape to run a marathon by running increasingly longer distances at faster paces. I’m a huge believer in age-appropriate strength training, along with solid conditioning and agility work. Strength training certainly yields gains and addresses physical deficits, however, the best proficiency gains are made by training like we play—by pitching and throwing. This has other remarkable benefits.
Imagine how dominant pitchers can be if they train longer and harder, pitching more instead of less, without risking injuries as we now know them. They become much more skilled than counterparts who have to cut back on workload while fearing injury and dealing with pain that diminishes performance. Highly conditioned pitchers with excellent mechanics are perfectly capable of throwing complete games without risking injury.
By using the arm and body differently I’ve also been able to rehab guys from Tommy John surgery, shoulder labrum tears and other injuries, in dramatically shortened time spans. One of my TJ rehab guys was back on the mound throwing competitively six months after surgery (which typically takes 12-18 months), with higher velocities than he’d ever thrown. I start guys with more extensive throwing protocols, sooner than is typical. This sounds suspiciously like the way hip or knee replacement patients start walking the day of their surgery.
By conducting experimental pitching research no one else has done—looking at pitching through a different lens—I know conclusively that pitching and overhand throwing doesn’t need to be an unnatural act.
I’m positive that pitch counts are a red herring. My students throw exceptionally long bullpens on a regular basis. How long? Some of my guys routinely throw 100-150 pitch pens and then start games two or three days later. And they’re staying healthy over the long haul.
Trainers and otherwise knowledgeable baseball people have told me, verbatim, “that’s some stupid shit.” No it isn’t. It actually reveals what they don’t know. Their expertise and experience clouds what they believe and makes it difficult for them to learn something new. Clinically, that’s called ignorance. Practically, it’s caught up in a war of egos. Because they don’t know what they don’t know—even though they’re well intended—you’re being sold a bill of goods for arm care programs that don’t really care for arms and pitching instruction that ends up hurting pitchers.
I take that back. Based on my longterm experimental research, most arm care programs and pitching instruction are worse than worthless because they offer you tantalizing false hope. And because everyone is gravitating toward these programs and services, it appears that you or your organization should be following suit.
There is definite value in becoming stronger, better trained and more athletic, but if the emphasis of an arm care program isn’t on high intensity throwing AND high volume throwing with specific mechanical changes that protect arms, the program is fatally flawed.
If this article is making you nervous or you’re starting to think about new possibilities, you’re thinking straight. If this is making you mad, maybe it’s time to leave your mindset behind and think about the possibilities of doing something differently that actually protects arms instead of pretending to protect arms.
I’m not setting out to pick a fight with anyone in the baseball community. I’m simply telling you there’s a better way to use the arm and body, and I hope you’d want to know about it.
Pitch counts will never protect arms and they will never lower the current injury rates. It’s very simple to prove. If pitch counts worked we would never see MLB relievers on the injured list. They don’t throw that much. Total innings thrown by starting pitchers are going down and we rarely see long outings by starters, yet injury rates are still epidemic. If the pitch count solution worked, both of these conditions should have been reversed.
If pitch counts work, why are there studies like this one: Are the Current Little League Guidelines Adequate? A Single-Season Prospective MRI Study. This study revealed damage or abnormal MRI findings to 48% of youngsters who strictly followed Pitch Smart/Little League guidelines? And 28% experienced pain during the season. Even the title suggests that current guidelines aren’t tight enough. Pretty soon pitch counts will be so low the game will slow to a pitiful crawl while we change pitchers.
I recently had a former MLB general manager tell me he believes MLB is heading in the direction of using pitchers a maximum of two to three innings at a time, hoping to curb arm injuries. You’re starting to see it now with Tampa Bay and others using an ‘opener’ to throw an inning or two ahead of the starting pitcher. In an effort to protect arms, surrendering to pitch counts will damage arms by deconditioning athletes. This heightens risk of injury and damages the game instead of making it better.
These ideas are grasping at straws when the elephant in the room is actually technique. The real answer, the better answer, is found in making changes to how we use the arm and body. The real answer to understanding and eliminating pitching injuries is found in mechanics, not in limiting how much we throw.
These answers haven’t been found earlier because research efforts have been concentrated on documenting how pitchers currently throw. As a consequence we actually know much about stresses that wreck arms but little has been done to take that information and use it to find ways to limit injury causing stress. What’s really been needed is an experimental approach to examining technique and mechanics that disregards the status quo. I have spent the last sixteen years doing these experiments.
Until now NO ONE has systematically torn technique apart and rebuilt mechanics from the ground up. Based on what I’ve learned through 30,000 hours of research (some of it incredibly frustrating), I’ve hit on a simple set of technique changes that, WHEN USED TOGETHER, relieve damaging and unnecessary stress from the elbow and shoulder. (It’s beyond the scope of this article but these changes also address current injuries to pitchers’ knees, hips, obliques, and lower backs.)
These changes make it easier to teach and coach pitching because they eliminate guesswork from the teaching process. There are specific mechanics benchmarks we can observe and then help pitchers meet, giving them a fighting chance of staying healthy. This represents true coaching as opposed to opinion-based coaching that’s rampant in the game. It means you have to know EXACTLY what you’re teaching.
I teach pitching and I teach pitching to coaches, too. If you’re adept at understanding and teaching body movement, you can learn to teach these skills very quickly. Using my system, last fall a former college coach had a group of guys add an average 5.4mph in four weeks—while eliminating every sore arm. (Don’t take my word for it; if you want to talk with him I can arrange it.) It you’re a forward-thinking trainer or coach, there’s room at the table because you can apply your unique personal knowledge to the techniques and skill set I’ve developed.
It’s one thing to eliminate injuries, but I’ve found that boosting performance goes hand in hand with minimizing arm issues. When arms are healthy, then we see what pitchers are really capable of.
The technique changes I’ve discovered also make it easier to throw a better selection of pitches that are tough on hitters. I can prove it. My students, for example, led the entire state of Colorado in strikeouts during the spring of 2018 at almost every level of high school ball. One student, a 16 year old senior with a varsity 1.98 ERA, topping at 91mph, posted 98 strikeouts in 64 innings, coming close to breaking Colorado’s all-time record for 5A high schools. He was frustrated that his total outings were held down by pitch counts and mandatory days of rest, unlike the record holder from years past. I’m much more interested in his longterm arm health than setting records, yet we knew he was staying healthy.
It’s noteworthy that, as a high school junior, he had topped at 80mph and sat out the entire year because of arm problems. As we got started, entering his senior year, we quickly made mechanical changes and in less than three months he was sitting 86-88mph…with no arm pain.
This student, throwing his first complete year of college ball at age 17, moved on to become a 2019 starter in the nation’s number one ranked D2 program. This 17 year old, 6’-1, 155-pound kiddo topped at 94mph, posted a 7-1 win-loss record, winning games in the regionals, super regionals, and D2 World Series.
It would stun you to know how many pitches he threw last week preparing to head back to college for his sophomore year. Don’t take my word for it. Ask for his contact info and talk with him about his arm health and how it’s improved. He knows what it was like to be hurt and he knows exactly what’s he’s done to be healthy: throwing more than anyone would think wise, with specific changes to his mechanics.
Another of my former high school students moved on to the top of the 2017 ERA pitching charts in collegiate D2 ball. He accomplished this while throwing almost twice as many innings than anyone else on the leader board. He was drafted by an MLB team after his junior year.
These changes have produced velocity increases for everyone I’ve worked with. At the top of the list, one short-term student went from 93mph to sitting 99-102mph. (Yes, he’s now throwing in pro ball.)
This summer, 2019, I’ve had college pitchers advance from 82-83mph to topping at 90, and another 83-84mph guy is now topping at 89. Yet another has added more than 10mph in three months. They’ve been throwing at full intensity, day after day, with only occasional days off. The gains are real. Their arms don’t hurt and their breaking stuff is filthy.
My students get the credit for their hard work. Not me. But it’s no coincidence I’ve had seven students drafted, and my students have thrown for over 30 colleges and universities—with ZERO structural injuries or surgeries. Don’t take my word for it, you can read some of their testimonials here: coachbillpeterson.com/testimonials. Be prepared to spend time reading. These testimonials aren’t one-line snippets gleaned for marketing purposes, and they’ll paint a picture for you of who I am.
Because I’ve done what no other coach or researcher has done—conducting longterm experimental research that has revealed technique modifications which actually protect arms—I’m in a position to point out things no one else can.
There are measurable, identifiable minimums you need to know about how the human body is designed to work when pitching and throwing. Any program that doesn’t take these minimums into account, regardless of how sophisticated and glamorous a training program seems, is destined to wreck arms. Let me help you understand EXACTLY what these minimums are.
It’s time to shine this light on why pitch counts will never protect arms and help you understand real arm injury solutions. I’ve already done the hardest part of the work for you.
If you, someone you know and love, or your organization suffers pain and loss from pitching or throwing, shoot me an email ([email protected]) and I can help. You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. Let me prove to you I know what I’m talking about.
If you have high speed imagery of your delivery I’d be happy to review your mechanics and chat about changes you can make to stay healthy and boost your performance. It’s wiser to contact me now than wait until you’re hurt.
If you’re serious about ending arm injuries and lessening the economic and human costs for your organization, this represents an opportunity to lead. Challenging? Yes, and the rewards can be measured on a legacy scale.
If this sounds like your kind of challenge, let’s band together and put an end to the arm injury epidemic. The answer is not pitch counts.
I’m looking forward to getting acquainted.