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How Safe Is A Curveball?

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reescurveRecent studies by the ASMI have shown that throwing a curveball places less stresses on the arm than throwing a fastball does.

So are curveballs safe to throw?

I’ve always stood by my philosophy that curveballs, although less stressful to the arm, if thrown incorrectly with the slightest variance in arm or wrist angle may cause serious damage.

Here’s an analogy:  Theoretically, walking across a tightrope or crossing a bridge will still get you over a river full of alligators without getting eaten, but if attention isn’t paid to walking across the tightrope carefully, you’re still in greater danger.

With that said, it isn’t the curveball itself that will destroy the arm, it is the manner in which it is taught and thrown which will cause damage to the arm if incorrect.  Many youth coaches ages 12 and under love teaching or calling curveballs because of its ability to dominate younger hitters that are just learning the swing and are not as experienced in hitting off-speed pitches.  However, these same coaches that love the curve so much aren’t as proficient in teaching and monitoring proper curveball execution as they are in calling them.  Herein lies the problem.

Solutions?  Well most experienced coaches have made it a blanket rule that curveballs are not to be thrown until the pitcher reaches the age of 13 at the earliest.  Most leagues are now instituting “curveball pitch limits” that limits the number of curveballs that pitchers can throw in a game.  But simply waiting to allow curveballs to be thrown until the boy is bigger and stronger doesn’t mean the curveball he will begin to throw is any safer for him now that he’s bigger and stronger.  If the curve is still thrown using improper technique, the threat of damage to the arm runs just as strong.

How curveballs can be dangerous

To throw a curveball properly, force must be applied and driven OVER THE TOP of the baseball.  This force application pulls the seams into a tight forward spin, causing the ball to drop on its way to the plate.  The tighter the grip, the more friction is created, the more friction, the tighter and faster the baseball spins.  The biggest problem with younger pitchers is that their hands and fingers are too small and not yet strong enough to create this friction and over the top force, so they try and create this rotation by turning the wrist inwards upon release.  This motion is called supination.

Hold your arm out in front of you with the palm of your hand facing the ground.  Now rotate your wrist so that the thumb of your hand rises towards the sky.  This motion is called supination.  If you rotate your wrist so that the thumb of your hand points towards the ground, this is called pronation.  

In order to slow down your arm after you throw the ball, the arm naturally pronates (thumb down) upon release.  Supinating the wrist slams the arm to a stop before the arm can naturally slow itself down.

Here’s another analogy:  Imagine driving a car and coming to a stop sign.  Gently applying the brake, bringing your car to a slow stop resembles pronation.  Coming to a stop sign and slamming down the brake, stopping forcefully resembles the force that supination causes.  After a while, which car is most likely to break down and need new brakes?  Now apply that same logic to a young pitcher’s arm.  It’s easy to see the dangers when it’s explained like that.

Other factors in creating more stress would be:

Too little or too much angle with the forearm, upper arm.
Improper grip, not enough pressure
Throwing a “one-fingered” curveball

What Can We Do As Coaches?

It is only through information and education that we can teach coaches and parents not only the dangers of throwing a curveball improperly, but also how to properly teach and maintain a proper curveball.  I do not harbor any illusions that pitchers and coaches will refrain from throwing the curveball, but perhaps I can help educate those coaches and pitchers the proper method and mechanic to throw them.

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