Baseball Brains Believes Two Important Things About Curveball Training:
There is a constant debate in the world of pitching, particularly youth pitching, about when kids should learn to throw a curveball. I've heard a lot of points from both sides of the argument, and read a great deal of research on the subject.
My thoughts on this issue are not as black and white as you may have hoped when you came here to read this, but they boil down to two primary beliefs:
- I firmly believe that 13 or 14 is a great age for a kid to learn to throw a curveball correctly.
- Just as firmly, I think it's imperative that the fastball and change-up make up the vast majority of training.
Let me be clear about Baseball Brains' priorities when we're coaching pitchers; we teach the proper way to THROW a curveball early, but we don't PITCH with it during the early ages.
I actually don't believe that a curveball that is thrown correctly is more harmful to a kid's arm than any other pitch. In fact, studies have shown that it may be less stressful, due to lower velocities and thus less force being applied through the arm.
However, there is a HUGE "if" in this information: IF they are throwing the curveball CORRECTLY.
While I believe that a pronated curveball, being thrown with 12 to 6 spin with a firm wrist, will not be harmful to a kid's arm, I also have read a tremendous amount of research indicating that a slider is not so friendly...in fact positively damaging to young arms.
Why we MUST teach the correct curveball
Do most young kids know the difference? Do they know how to throw these pitches, and the subtle differences which make them more or less healthy? NO
Are kids going to try to make the ball curve? Are they going to play with grips and try to spin the ball different ways to make it do different things? ABSOLUTELY
If you don't think that young kids are going to try to make the ball move during catch or any other time they're throwing the ball, you haven't been coaching very long.
If you are saying that they can't because you'll put a stop to it, you're either wrong or you have incredible access to all of your players and you're watching them throw far too often. No coach can monitor every throw that every player makes on the field and off; no way, no how.
This is precisely why I believe we MUST teach them the PROPER way to spin a baseball forward.
I understand that this is not a perfect argument, but it is a REAL argument. Would we be better off if curveballs didn't exist until a kid turned 18? Probably yes. But that is not reality, so we must make our players aware of the right way to do it, and the wrong way to do it.
Teach it, but keep its' use under strict control during training
Now back to the second point; just because we teach kids how to THROW a curveball, doesn't mean we allow it to take over their training. Some coaches pounce on the first point and say things like "Teach them to throw before they pitch!" or "Ability first, skill later!". These are great arguments that we agree with completely.
We write about these things all the time, so if we are ever accused by any coach of putting the cart before the horse, we know they are not fans of ours. If they were, they would see volumes of writing dedicated to points which are in agreement with those ideas.
Like this one: Teach Kids To Throw Before They Pitch
The exact amount of curveballs our kids throw is mostly based on a kid's physical maturity level, and the level at which he's training to compete.
How old a pitcher is in years (chronological age) actually tells us very little, which is why using age as a guide for training can be tough, if not foolish. Some kids develop very quickly and some do it at a much different pace. Every training protocol we work with is based on the individual kid, not numbers or cookie cutter guidelines.
None of our youth pitchers throw more than 10-15% breaking balls in any given week of training. Those that can't throw them correctly don't throw any of them on a mound or at full distance until they can.
Is health the only reason to teach a curveball?
I will also add that I think it's imperative for pitchers to have a good curveball by the time they get to varsity high school baseball. Yes guys, I think the fastball is king and the change-up is the queen; but our varsity pitchers won't pitch unless they can throw a hard, down-breaking curveball.
Here's an article on How To Throw A Good Curveball
In summary, I don't think the science is settled in terms of the safety of breaking pitches, and may not be for a long time. Kids WILL hurt their arms with cutters and sliders and bad curveballs if we do not train them the correct way to throw them.
This must be done at the earliest age where their hands are big enough to control it and their wrists/forearms are strong enough to support the pitch. 13 or 14 years old is almost always appropriate.
At the same time, the curveball still needs to be a distant third as far as priorities go in terms of pitch training. Fastball command is always first priority, and we must allow the vast majority of practice to develop that.
Teaching a kid how not to destroy his arm doesn't mean you have to disrupt proper training principles. The thinking that you can't teach how to throw a curveball because they need to learn a fastball, is flawed and shortsighted.
Here is a great system for Curveball Mastery from Coach Rosengren at Better Pitching. If you're wondering what the "right" way to throw the pitch is, this is a great investment for you to make.