I might ruffle some feathers with this, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it. I believe that most young pitchers should learn to throw a good curveball.
This may be surprising to some, so let me explain. I believe the curveball has gotten a bad rap. Over the years, the curveball has been blamed for countless youth pitching injuries, surrounded by the fear that throwing it would doom a young pitcher to a trip to orthopedist or even the operating table.
But here’s the thing…
There’s mounting evidence supporting what some of us have suspected all along. The curveball isn’t the problem… too much competitive pitching is the problem. Kids pitching year-round for three different travel teams is the problem. Our youth sports culture is the problem…
But that’s a whole other can of worms, and not what I mean to tackle with this article. Instead, I just want to shed some light on what the research says and why I believe most pitchers should learn to throw a good curveball early in their development.
Now, before I go on, let me just clarify what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about 8 and 9 year olds throwing nasty hooks. When asked when a young pitcher should start throwing a curveball, here’s my pat answer:
“When he’s ready.”
And that vague sort of guideline isn’t meant to be annoying – it’s just the truth.
Commanding good old # 1 should be the first priority.
Pitchers should develop good mechanics and demonstrate an ability to command their fastball before wasting time working on secondary pitches. That doesn’t mean you need to have pinpoint accuracy – I’m not saying:
“Once you can hit the outside corner with your fastball 50 times in a row, then you can start working on your off-speed pitches.”
That’s just unrealistic. If that was the approach guys took, nobody would ever develop a good curveball, changeup or anything beyond a fastball, for that matter. But you should be able to work the ball to each side of the plate fairly consistently. And, perhaps more importantly, you should have a good enough feel for you fastball and your mechanics to be able to make an adjustment within one or two pitches if you miss your location.
In most cases, this means waiting until a pitcher is 12 or 13 before introducing the curveball, but it could be sooner, could be later.
Let me also clarify, I’m specifically talking about “introducing” the right way to throw a curveball. We’re not talking about throwing it 30 times a game or anything even approaching that. Overuse can take a lot of forms – throw too many curveballs on the mound and you’re more likely to fatigue your arm, and as Dr. Andrews with ASMI has stated repeatedly, pitching with fatigue is the number one risk factor for youth pitching injuries.
Introducing the curveball means showing the young pitcher the right way to throw a curveball so that he can work on it and develop it into a good pitch as he gets older.
It may seem like a contradiction, but I still firmly believe that for young pitchers the vast majority of your pitches in a game should be fastballs.
Okay, so now that we’re clear on what I’m talking about with young pitchers learning to throw a curveball, let’s look at what the research says. In recent years, numerous studies have come out showing that the curveball may not actually be the big threat to young arms that many have feared. In fact, the studies were not able to find any link between throwing curveballs and an increase in injuries, and actually indicate that curveballs place less stress on the elbow than fastballs.
The studies themselves are worth diving into and dissecting, but again, that’s a bigger topic and beyond the scope of this article (this post is getting long enough as it is). For a list of studies and some of the best articles I’ve found on the topic, see the notes at the end of this post.
To be fair, the studies are far from complete and shouldn’t be seen as an “all clear” that curveballs are somehow a “safe pitch” for young pitchers.
In a New York Times article, Dr. Andrews himself expresses concerns with the studies:
“It may do more harm than good — quote me on that,” Andrews said during an interview in his Birmingham clinic. He fears that parents and coaches may interpret the findings improperly, as a license to teach kids to throw too many curves or begin when they are too young. “There are still some unknown questions.” – read the full article here.
When you’re going through rapid physical development and growth spurts, the growth plates are most vulnerable to injury. For this reason, Dr. Andrews still recommends pitchers waiting until they start shaving to begin throwing curveballs. That said, while curveballs may place a different sort of stress on the elbow (due to the skeletal structure of the arm and the different wrist and hand position), the growth plates issue is something to keep in mind for all young pitchers whether they’re throwing curveballs, fastballs or any pitch.
So it may still be best to wait until you’re physically more mature to start throwing curveballs regularly in games. But learning to throw a curveball the right way and throwing it repeatedly at full intensity in games are two very different things.
Okay, so after that very long preamble, I’ve hopefully clarified my stance. I’m not, not, not saying kids should all go out and start throwing a million curveballs in games. But in most cases, they can benefit from learning to throw it early on. So without any further rambling from me, here you go…
4 Reasons Young Pitchers Should Learn to Throw a Curveball:
1. They’re going to throw it anyway – why not teach them the right way?
Whether you teach them or not, kids are going to mess around with different grips to try to get the ball to move. Most of the time, kids think throwing a curveball involves aggressive twisting, turning or snapping the wrist. There’s even a conventional coaching cue that tells kids to “turn the doorknob” – this is a pretty awful teach.
When kids throw a curveball this way, aggressively turning or twisting, they aren’t going to get the best break on the ball, and they likely put their arms at greater risk of injury than had they learned to throw it properly. To throw a true big league curveball, you want your hand and wrist on the side of the ball (supinated) at ball release, but there should be no active twisting going on.
2. The older you get the tougher it is to learn.
Will waiting until you’re 18 reduce the risk of getting hurt throwing curveballs when you’re younger? Sure, but as the research shows, the greatest risk for youth pitchers isn’t throwing curveballs… it’s too much competitive pitching – period. Pitching is an inherently unnatural act – the human elbow was simply not designed to handle the stress of throwing a baseball at high velocity. The best way to stay injury free would be to just sit on the couch and never pick up a ball.
If you decide you’re okay with the risk/reward of pitching, it makes sense to learn something that can make you a better pitcher. On top of that, the advantage of learning young is that you’re relatively malleable. You’re not fighting years and years of old muscle memory and ingrained movement patterns. Learning to throw a good curveball takes time and lots of practice. Wait too long, and you may never develop a good one.
3. It may actually place less stress on your elbow than the fastball.
More studies need to be done, and there are still the growth plate concerns, but there’s one thing the research shows pretty clearly – the forces on the elbow that lead to UCL tears (think Tommy John surgery) are greatest with the fastball. In my opinion, this is partly because the curveball is generally not a max-effort pitch. You just don’t need to throw it with the same force you do your fastball for it to be effective.
On a personal note, I battled UCL issues in my career (mainly due to poor mechanics, overuse and lack of preparation when I was young), but while I know what elbow pain feels like when throwing a fastball, I never once threw a curveball that hurt my elbow.
4. A good curveball can lower your pitch count when you’re older.
A good 12-6 curve (or 1-7, or 2-8, whatever it is based on your arm slot) can be a great weapon in your pitching arsenal. Being able to command it effectively (in the zone and out) can really keep hitters guessing and give you a put-away pitch, leading to more strikeouts and shorter innings.
Summing up: So that’s my stance on young pitchers learning to throw a curveball. Again, I still think job #1 is commanding the fastball. But once a pitcher is ready, learning to throw it the right way when they’re young can give them a nasty curveball they can use in games when they’re older.
For more advanced Curveball Training, head over to CurveballMastery.com for a complete system for learning how to throw a big league Curveball.
Kinetic Comparison Among the Fastball, Curveball, Change-up, and Slider in Collegiate Baseball Pitchers – 2005
A Biomechanical Comparison of Youth Baseball Pitches – Is the Curveball Potentially Harmful? – 2007
Risk of Serious Injury for Young Baseball Pitchers – A 10-Year Prospective Study – 2010
Some articles worth checking out:
Studies Show That the Curveball Isn’t Too Stressful for Young Arms
UPDATE: this post has been updated since it’s original posting. A more recent study further supports this… FB/CB/SL showed no difference in stress on the arm, with changeup being the lowest stress.
Biomechanical Comparisons Among Fastball, Slider, Curveball, and Changeup Pitch Types and Between Balls and Strikes in Professional Baseball Pitchers