Sometimes, even the finest firearms misfire.
Just ask Kaleb Roper, a recent Archbishop Rummel graduate who has signed to pitch for the University of Arizona baseball team. During a pre-district start earlier this year against Hahnville, Roper was displaying the kind of pop that made him a highly-recruited hurler. He was throwing in the upper 80s and dispatching Hahnville batters with relative ease.
Then, the Rummel star felt the “pop,” but it wasn’t the inspirational sound of his fastball smacking the leather of his catcher’s mitt. Instead, it was that kind of “sick” sound that pitchers talk about when their elbows blow out. Within minutes, his right arm grew heavy and the velocity of his pitches diminished greatly. A few innings later, the enormous promise of his senior season vanished.
Not long after that game, Roper was on the surgeon’s table and undergoing Tommy John surgery.
It was an unexpected turn of events for the talented 18-year old. By all accounts, he had done everything right. He was in peak physical condition. He had not overworked his arm as a youth and displayed the kind of multi-sport talent as a young player that kept him from “overpitching” his right elbow.
But nevertheless, there he was, wracked with pain and with fears that his best pitching, even as a teenager, might be behind him.
“I kept pitching that day, but it kept hurting more and more,” Roper said. “I took myself out.”
Fast forward approximately three months from his March 25 surgery and Roper is ahead of schedule with his rehabilitation from a fractured growth plate and Tommy John surgery. His doctor and his physical therapist have him on a routine that was supposed to include “pre-throwing” drills this week. They hope he can begin a long-toss routine by the time he leaves for Arizona later this summer.
Everyone concerned called Roper’s injury “atypical.”
“There’s no way to predict in (Kaleb’s) case what happened,” said Andre’ Labbe’, a physical therapist who directs Total Package, which is part of the Big Easy Sportsplex in Elmwood where Roper is rehabbing. “The reality of the situation is with elite pitchers, if you throw over 80 miles per hour, you have a chance every time you pitch to blow something out.”
And therein lies the heart of the problem, or so say the team of experts at Big Easy Sportsplex and others facilities like it.
Arm injuries are a growing problem, and a myriad problem, that people like Labbe’ see all the time. In a world that asks young players to physically perform at high levels, arm injuries are increasingly commonplace. The Big Easy staff works with 20 athletes, some as young as 11 years old, who require post-surgical, arm-care rehab. There are 300 more who are on hand regularly to learn techniques with the hopes they don’t suffer future sports injuries.
“What we notice is that there has been an epidemic of adolescent (sports) injuries across the board,” Labbe’ said. “Why? Our children are being coached at a higher rate, by better coaches, and they are (performing more physically) aggressive at a younger age. They become one-sport athletes, one-trick ponies.”
And many times, that can be a problem.
Joey Cabeceiras was the type of player that he would take under his own wing these days.
The former Jesuit and UNO baseball star was the kind of pitcher who didn’t mind, as he said, throwing 11 consecutive innings, or tossing “200 pitches a game.”
After all, the diamond is where he thrived. And despite his slender frame, he threw hard, and he threw often.
“I never had surgery, but I certainly had a bad wing from about 15 or 16 (years old) until my second year of college,” he said. “If I threw 50 or 60 pitches, I was dead in the water.”
After college, Cabeceiras went into the pharmaceutical industry. He now works in the orthopedic hardware industry, so he gets a first-hand look at what rebuilt arms look like, literally, from the inside out.
It’s one of the reasons he opened Big Easy Sportsplex two years ago and “Decel Baseball” along with it. The influx of kids who are suffering from baseball-related arm injuries these days tells him it was the right decision.
But it’s not easy to determine the problems behind the injuries. The mechanics behind proper ball-throwing techniques are unique and intricate. They can involve arm slot placement, hip strength, core muscle strength, the player’s age, maturity, pitch velocity, pitch load, and a host of other factors.
There are, however, certain things that Cabeceiras and Labbe’ believe to be at the root of the problem, and there is plenty of evidence to support their science. Think of it as a combination of persistent pitching, aiming for a high velocity, physical immaturity in some subjects, and an overwhelming need to impress that makes the situation worse than maybe ever before.
“The big thing is don’t pitch (competitively) year round,” Cabeceiras said. “You wouldn’t buy a car that has 12 miles on it then take it straight from the lot to Earhart Boulevard and drive 1,000 miles per hour. You’ll kill the engine. You have to break it in. The arm is the same way. You want to create the ‘eccentricity’ of the muscle, flexing it and stretching it. Pitching is like Pilates or yoga. But so many are fighting against themselves because they’re training the wrong way.”
The “Catch 22,” in most cases, is that the faster the velocity, the more likely the player is to be recruited by travel ball teams, colleges, and perhaps even the professional leagues. Cabeceiras said it’s unfortunate, but true, that pitchers who have pinpoint precision but lesser velocity have to prove themselves to a greater degree.
“The kid who throws 90 miles per hour gets the college scholarship,” Cabeceiras said. “He’s the guy that goes to the big leagues.”
Across the plate
The Big Easy Sportsplex is a 71,000 square foot warehouse just off a service road in an industrial area of Elmwood. The facility has numerous areas for players to strengthen every muscle in the body, but there is a wall exclusive to people going through arm rehabilitation.
That wall is not only for pitchers, but a wide group of athletes in various sports who have undergone surgery, specifically of the elbow or shoulder. Those people with baseball arm injuries are the ones that after getting back up to speed with Labbe’, then work with Cabeceiras to learn the proper mechanics of throwing.
Tyler Roberts is a 16-year old infielder for Ecole Classique High School. He injured his arm at a showcase camp in Alabama when he threw a speed-recorded ball from shortstop to first base. He felt a pop on his first throw in the drill and then missed his entire sophomore season after having partial Tommy John surgery.
“The thing with Tyler is he’s not so much the aberration as the rule,” Cabeceiras said. “He’s at a showcase. Who knows if he warmed up enough? When they pull the gun out behind first base, something comes out in a kid that normally would only come out in a game. He fielded a ball, probably crow-hopped to light up the (radar) gun.”
It’s a scenario often confronted at Big Easy, and at other facilities like it across the U.S.
Cabeceiras said there is no need to “demonize” youth baseball or travel baseball, the latter of which can see kids playing throughout the year. However, it’s about learning the proper throwing, and/or pitching skills, to alleviate stress on young arms, regardless of the competition — Little League or Major League.
“As a baseball community, we don’t throw enough, but we pitch too much,” he said.
“But you can’t demonize the game. It’s a competitive game….I think the way we tackle this is there has to be a performance-load evaluation. How many pitches can a kid handle? That’s really more important than pitch count. There has to be development of other pitchers. There have to be rules that say you can’t just use the same pitcher in every game. I know you want to win the game, but that kid has already pitched today. He needs to rest. You can’t reignite him.
“Really, we’re all trying to figure it out.”