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Throwing it all away

Some top high school pitchers try to do too much all year, and could cost them in the long run

May 07, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

It takes Brandon Villalobos a couple of deep breaths to rattle off the baseball teams he played for last summer.

The Long Beach Cardinals. The El Monte Dukes. The Seattle Mariners' scout team. The Anaheim Angels' elite youth team. An Area Code Games all-star team. A U.S. Junior National Team tryout in Joplin, Mo.

A lot of teams, a lot of games and, for Villalobos, a lot of pitches.

So many that the expected ace of the Glendora High staff this season has pitched only nine innings because of inflammation in his left elbow.

Doctors told him it was because of overuse, an injury that has plagued several top high school pitchers in the region. Experts say they might be throwing too much in showcasing themselves for college scholarships, and in some cases, six- or seven-figure pro contracts.

Of the 10 pitchers featured by The Times as the best in the region before this season, three have missed significant time because of arm injuries, and a top multi-position player, Delmon Young of Camarillo, recently had his pitching terminated for the rest of the season because of tendinitis in his shoulder.

In addition, the best sophomore pitcher in the region, Trevor Bell of Crescenta Valley, has missed significant playing time because of a sore right shoulder and senior Jeff Flaig of Placentia El Dorado, once a promising pitcher for the U.S. Youth National Team, has not pitched the last two seasons because of problems in his right shoulder.

The schedule for a high school pitcher can be brutal, particularly with the recent proliferation of off-season enticements. After three or four months of high school baseball, pitchers can play on travel teams, scout teams, Connie Mack or American Legion teams and in so-called "showcases" that are attended by scouts.

Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Angels' medical director, said the nearly year-round schedule is often too much to handle physically for a 16- or 17-year old.

"It pretty well dooms a lot of theses kids," he said. "Their bodies aren't strong enough, nobody's strong enough, to endure that sort of stress. It's kind of a sad commentary because a lot of these kids are extremely talented. You've only got so many pitches. Use them wisely."

The injury trend has caught the attention of major league talent evaluators who must assess potential draftees in a sport that took 18 high school pitchers in the first two rounds of last year's amateur draft.

As the financial investment in young pitchers becomes greater -- high school pitchers taken with the third and fifth overall pick last year each received $2.5-million signing bonuses -- it becomes harder to ignore overuse injuries.

"If there's a pitcher we like and there's a history of arm problems, it's going to hurt his [draft] status, no question," said Logan White, the Dodgers' director of amateur scouting. "I'm much more leery of a kid if he's had a shoulder problem. I run from him, to be honest with you. I run from him like the plague. A shoulder's a tough thing to fix. You have to have full range of motion. If you lose that, you're not nearly going to be that type of guy."

The lure of lucrative signing bonuses and college scholarships is what fuels many high school pitchers to perform in front of as many radar guns as possible. But how much is too much?

Lakewood High's Jason Wanamaker, who was 11-1 as a junior last season, has thrown six innings this season because of overuse injuries. Andy Beal of Rolling Hills Estates Peninsula, one of the top juniors in the region, had his pitching cut short less than halfway through the season because of a sore shoulder.

Villalobos' problem last summer wasn't an overabundance of innings on a weekly basis. Rather, it was from his throwing four innings one day, then another three within a day or two, enough to strain his arm without proper rest.

"I usually always said 'Yeah' when I was asked to pitch because I loved it," Villalobos said. "I thought I was fine and I didn't think anything of injuries because I didn't ever have any."

Despite only four appearances on the mound this season for Glendora, Villalobos has played well in the outfield and has accepted a scholarship to Long Beach State. But his days of playing for five or six teams in a summer are over.

"He definitely won't be making that tour anymore," said Villalobos' father, Brett. "Every other team calls you up, and the phone's ringing, and coaches and scouts are saying 'Hey, can you come out and do this, can you come out and do that?' These things with three and four teams are probably what's wearing everybody out."

Wanamaker's off-season wasn't quite as active as Villalobos', but his shoulder started hurting a month before the season. He rested for almost two months before he came back and picked up a win and a save for Lakewood, but his shoulder was done after that.

Now he sits in the dugout and keeps score during games.

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