With triple-digit pitching speed as a high school senior, Lucas Giolito was one of the region’s top baseball prospects. But the same year the Santa Monica native was taken 16th overall in the MLB draft, he needed elbow surgery.
Tyler Skaggs, too, showcased potential as a Santa Monica High School pitcher and made his debut in the majors in 2012. About two years later, surgeons were operating on his left elbow.
The ironic thing is that they’re considered the lucky ones.
Giolito and Skaggs are still working to make careers of the sport they’ve been playing since early childhood, but their stories underscore the risks of athletic specialization in an era where experts believe youth sports injuries have become far too common.
The stories of the two local hurlers certainly would have resonated with former MLB pitcher Tommy John, who on Tuesday evening was part of a panel on athletic development and injury prevention at the Elevate physical therapy and fitness center on 11th Street in Santa Monica.
The panel also featured former Detroit Tigers player Anthony Ware, former pro reliever Tom House, Kansas City Royals scout Gene Watson and Tommy John III, the famous pitcher’s son.
By hosting the event, Elevate co-owners Meredith Soelberg and Brooke Mitchell hoped to raise awareness about health risks and promote proper development of young athletes.
“As former college athletes and physical therapists, not to mention moms to our own youth athletes, we are particularly passionate about injuries to this population,” the co-owners said in a statement. “These injuries often come at a critical juncture in these kids’ lives, dashing their hard-fought dreams of becoming college and professional players.”
The panelists at Elevate lamented, among other trends, the proliferation of club teams and select squads that encourage year-round competition for children whose bodies are still maturing.
They said parents should seriously consider the long odds of their children reaching the upper echelons of their respective sports before pouring thousands of dollars into team fees and travel. According to House, only about 20 of the 1,000 or so young baseball players who participate in the Little League World Series each year in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, actually make it to the big leagues.
“It’s great to have skill,” he said, “but that’s no indication of being able to play past high school.”
Added Watson, the pro scout: “It’s a borderline miracle.”
Watson said teams for young children should focus on the basics of their sports and other skills like leadership and teamwork, not strength training. He added that quality players don’t need to shell out big bucks to play on club squads because they will be discovered in high school.
“If everybody plays ‘select,’ then who’s doing the selecting?” Watson said.
The increase of sports injuries at the youth level is particularly troubling to John III, a chiropractor and trainer who specializes in sports rehabilitation. He said the American system is harming athletes before they’re able to reach their performance peaks.
“Is it going to be fixed by this panel? No,” he said. “We have to start with the youth. Kids coming up now are overstimulated but less aware … overcoached but less developed.”
It’s a cause with which he’s intimately familiar as the son of the pitcher after whom the revolutionary Tommy John elbow surgery is named.
John, who grew up playing baseball between basketball seasons in Indiana, recalled in detail the medical treatment he received as he tried to overcome excruciating pain in his throwing arm. He said he was willing to do whatever it took to return to the mound.
But John doesn’t want today’s young athletes to have to endure what he did decades ago.
“Your body,” he said, “will tell you what it needs.”