1 year ago

Smart pitching: UAB engineer investigates rise of the teen Tommy John surgery

The strain of throwing a Major League fastball, especially one as fast as Aroldis Chapman's, puts the arm and shoulder under constant pressure. (Contributed)
The strain of throwing a Major League fastball, especially one as fast as Aroldis Chapman’s, puts the arm and shoulder under constant pressure. (Contributed)

Glenn Fleisig, Ph.D., an alumnus and adjunct faculty member of the School of Engineering, has done pioneering research that is making baseball safer for Major Leaguers, and Little Leaguers.

As the epic 2016 World Series between the Cubs and the Indians wore on, there was one question on everyone’s mind: When will Aroldis Chapman’s arm wear out? (The answer: Game 7, 8th inning.)

When sports biomechanics expert Glenn Fleisig, Ph.D., an adjunct professor in the UAB School of Engineering and graduate of the school’s doctoral program in biomedical engineering, looks at fire-throwing pitchers like the Cubs closer, he sees a more fundamental problem: How can any human throw 100 miles per hour without his arm falling off?

Fleisig, the director of research at Birmingham’s American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), answered that question during a standing-room-only lecture at UAB’s Heritage Hall as part of the weekly lecture series hosted by the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Fleisig also encouraged the crowd of undergraduates to investigate the growing field of sports biomechanics research.

Ligaments strike out

“Baseball is in general a safe sport,” said Fleisig. Except, that is, for pitchers. As Fleisig pointed out, more than one-quarter of current Major League pitchers have already had a major elbow surgery known as “Tommy John surgery.” For decades, Fleisig has studied pitchers at all levels of the game, from Little League to the Major Leagues, compiling detailed biomechanical analysis on thousands of players in the ASMI database. He is a member of the Major League Baseball Elbow Task Force, a research collaboration established to find out what’s behind the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries among professional and amateur players. (See chart below.)

Tommy John, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in 1974 and was the recipient of an experimental UCL reconstruction surgery by Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe, M.D. (Fleisig noted that Jobe had been pondering the problem of UCL reconstruction since a torn ligament ended the career of Dodger legend Sandy Koufax a few years earlier.)

The surgery, and John’s successful post-surgery career, made the procedure standard practice. Still, “there were only about 5–10 Tommy John surgeries per year among professional (Major League and minor league) pitchers for 20 years,” Fleisig said. “And then it started going up and up. Then a year or two ago it went way up, to 100 per year or so.” As Fleisig pointed out, more big leaguers had the surgery in 2014 than in the all of the 1990s combined. This increase was obviously troubling to Major League teams. Despite the historic success of the surgery, and post-Tommy John careers for most pitchers, some 20 percent of players don’t return to their old level after the operation. And the increase in UCL reconstruction surgeries among youth and high school athletes was perhaps even more concerning.

Image courtesy of ASMI
Image courtesy of ASMI

Arms race

Fleisig and James Andrews, M.D., the noted sports surgeon who is a founder of the American Sports Medicine Institute, have led several studies looking into the problem. That includes long-term research following hundreds of youth and professional players, along with cadaver studies investigating the biomechanics of the joints and tissues involved. “We have data from testing of more than 2,000 pitchers at ASMI, including an elite database of more than 100 professional pitchers who throw greater than 87 miles per hour during testing,” Fleisig said.

Using a high-speed, three-dimensional, automated motion analysis system, the researchers computed kinematics (motions) and kinetics (joint forces and torques) to gauge the stress on the crucial elbow and shoulder joints during a pitch. During a critical instant when the arm is cocked back, the stress on a major leaguer’s elbow is 100 Newton-meters. He illustrated the concept with an analogy and a visual image: “That’s the equivalent of having five 12-pound bowling balls pulling down on your arm,” he said. “It makes sense that this ligament is near its maximum on every pitch.”

Beginning in spring 1999, Fleisig and Andrews followed 476 youth pitchers, tracking their innings pitched and injuries over a full season. “Then we called these same kids every year for 10 years,” Fleisig said. In a 2011 paper, they published the results, showing that athletes who pitched more than 100 innings per year had more than triple the risk of arm injury compared with those who pitched less than that threshold.



Fleisig summarized the results of all that research in a single slide. There are two main risk factors for baseball arm injuries, he said:

    • Too much pitching

    • Poor mechanics.

“This isn’t just a Major League problem, or a Little League problem, but a baseball problem,” Fleisig said. “So the solution has to be at all levels, too.” The ASMI research has had a significant impact, with numerous leagues adopting pitch limits for players. The Elbow Task Force also developed a website with Major League Baseball, called Pitch Smart, that summarizes its findings for coaches and players of all levels. The site includes detailed pitch counts and rest recommendations for players at various age levels. It also includes a step-by-step guide to proper mechanics.

That type of translational research, which is helping thousands of young athletes avoid injury and surgery, and improve the game he loves, is thrilling, Fleisig said. “Biomechanics is big and exciting and fun.”

He also welcomed any interested students to apply for internships at ASMI, noting its location just down University Boulevard from UAB. “You can tie in motion studies and cadaver studies and more to solve problems that are important to real people.”


2 hours ago

Alabama Senate delays vote on church ‘Stand your Ground’ law

The Alabama Senate has delayed a vote on a proposed revision of the state’s self-defense law to clarify that deadly force can be used to defend someone in a church.

Senators delayed a Thursday vote after at least one senator threatened a filibuster.

Sen. Bobby Singleton said that the legislation is encouraging people to get “trigger happy.”


Alabama already has a self-defense law that someone can use deadly force if they reasonably believe a person is about to kill them or another person. The bill adds that people can use deadly force if they believe a person is about to use physical force against a church member or employee.

Supporters pointed to deadly church shootings and said members need the legal protection to respond to a threat.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

2 hours ago

Debbie Long is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact

This summer, Debbie Long will call it a career at Protective Life Corp.

What a career it has been.

Long, who also is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, served as executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary of the insurance company before taking on a part-time advisory role this year. She is one of Alabama’s highest-paid female executives.


Long also has been a big contributor to her community.

Long told Business Alabama in 2012 that she always wanted to be a lawyer, although first she had idealistic visions of saving the world. After graduating in 1980 from the University of Alabama Law School and then clerking for a federal appeals court Judge Frank Johnson, she went to work for a law firm and practiced corporate law.

“Although I hadn’t initially wanted to practice business law, I found I loved it,” she told the publication.

Long left the firm along with several other lawyers to help form the powerhouse Birmingham firm of Maynard, Cooper and Gale.

In 1992, Long joined the board of Protective Life as general counsel of the insurance company.

Long told Business Alabama that her advice to would-be business leaders would be to stay open to opportunities that might come along at unexpected times.

“It’s very doubtful that someone’s going to come to you early in your career and say, ‘I want to be your mentor,’” she said. “It’s far more likely you will meet people along the way who will give you great advice if you are open to receiving it. Someone at a cocktail party might say something that could change your life.”

Long has been active in the larger business community. She has served as chairwoman of the Business Council of Alabama’s Judicial and Legal Reform Committee and also has worked on the Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, the Federal Affairs Committee and on the board of ProgressPAC — the lobby’s political action committee.

Last year, the BCA honored her with the Robert W. “Bubba” Lee Political Courage Award, given each year to someone who is willing to take the right position regardless of cost.

“She has shown through her support that she cares about the Alabama business community and she values the role we play and the jobs we create,” BCA Chairman Perry Hand said at the time. “She has been a distinguished member of the Alabama and Birmingham business communities for nearly three decades.”

Her charitable endeavors include Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham, the YWCA of Birmingham, Oasis Women’s Counseling Center, the Birmingham Museum of Art and Partners in Neighborhood Growth Inc.

In addition, she serves on the Alabama Women’s Commission and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, as well as The Fellows program of the American Bar Foundation.

“It is her commitment to excellence that has made her such a valuable asset to Alabama’s business community, and there are few individuals more dedicated to our corporate community, the rule of law, and the political arena than Debbie Long,” Hand said last year.

Join Long and special guests from across the state for a Birmingham awards event March 29 honoring the 20 Yellowhammer Women of Impact whose powerful contributions advance Alabama. Details and registration may be found here.

@BrendanKKirby is a senior political reporter at LifeZette and author of “Wicked Mobile.”

2 hours ago

Alabama Rural Broadband Act on governor’s desk

A bill that would provide grants to aid rural broadband expansion is on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

The legislation was delivered to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon after the Senate adopted changes to the Alabama Rural Broadband Act previously made in the House.

Originally conceived as a bill that would offer tax incentives to companies to provide high-speed internet services to some of the state’s more remote areas, the bill was changed to offer grants instead. Projects that would provide speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up would be eligible for $1.4 million per project, while projects providing minimum speeds of 10/1 could get $750,000 each.


The bill is expected to provide $10 million annually, with the program being administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Private providers and cooperatives would be eligible for the money, but government entities would not.

The sponsor, Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), wanted to give providers tax credits for providing broadband rather than cash. The bill still has safeguards in place – the money won’t be received upfront and a legislative committee would monitor the program for effectiveness.

Scofield couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Ivey is expected to sign the bill after speaking about the need for such programs in her January State of the State speech. The legislation sailed through the Alabama Legislature, receiving unanimous yes votes in the House on Tuesday and in the Senate concurrence vote on Wednesday.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), said grants are better for taxpayers.

“It’s more transparent and gives us more accountability,” he said.

In reality, both funding mechanisms have been dismissed by critics. The MacIver Institute said in a 2014 report that incentives can actually hurt economic growth, while Obama’s stimulus grant program was one of the more stark examples of grant largesse.

Alabama lawmakers hope their broadband plan goes hand-in-hand with a proposal from President Trump to spend an immediate $200 billion and long-term $1.5 trillion on infrastructure improvements. Trump hopes to spur more public-private partnerships – so-called P3s – with his proposal to help state and local governments shoulder more of the load. But his plan has faced criticism on both sides – Democrats aren’t fans of the president’s goal to put more costs on the states, while many Republicans say the plan calls for too much spending and haven’t exactly deemed it a high priority this session.

Some on both sides have criticized the lack of any guaranteed funds for broadband, although the plan cites high-speed internet as an infrastructure priority. There are concerns that federal broadband grants could accelerate the growth of government internet projects, which have largely been a sinkhole for taxpayer money.

3 hours ago

Alabama Committee approves ethics exemption for economic developers

An Alabama Senate committee has approved legislation, pushed by the state’s top industry recruiter, to exempt professional economic developers from the state ethics law.

The Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee approved the House-passed bill Wednesday on a 10-2 vote. It now moves to the Senate floor.


The proposal would exempt professional economic developers from the rules that govern lobbyists. The rules include registering with the state, undergoing yearly training and reporting activity.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield has said professional site developers, who help businesses decide where to locate, will not work in Alabama if they must register as lobbyists.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton has expressed concern about exempting a group of people, whose primary job involves interacting with government officials, from the state ethics law.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

Human trafficking bill that would impose severe penalties for obstruction is step closer to becoming law

Anyone who obstructs a human trafficking investigation in Alabama could be met with the same penalties as the traffickers if the governor signs a bill that passed the House this week with near unanimous support.

The bill, which already passed the Senate, increases penalties in place for those who obstruct, interfere with, prevent, or otherwise get in the way of law enforcement’s investigation into the practice that includes child sex trafficking.

Under current law, such obstruction is only a Class C felony and could result in just one year in prison. The new legislation would increase the maximum offense to a Class A felony, with a minimum jail sentence of ten years.


Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) sponsored the bill and said he is proud that the Alabama Legislature made this a priority.

“This week we’ve taken another crucial step in ending this horrific practice,” Ward said in a statement. “By increasing penalties for those who would aid traffickers, we will hold them just as accountable as the traffickers themselves.”

Human trafficking victims are often children who are trafficked into sexual exploitation at an average age between 11-14 years old, according to the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.

“Most people assume, ‘Well, that doesn’t happen in my backyard,’” Ward said in an interview with Yellowhammer News when the bill was first introduced. “…It’s everywhere in our state, but there’s low awareness as to how bad it really is.”

Just this week, a Decatur man pled guilty to child sex trafficking and other charges related to his plan to kidnap, rape and kill a mother and sell her 14-year-old daughter to a Memphis pimp, according to horrifying details reported by the Decatur Daily.

Brian David “Blaze” Boersma’s plan was thwarted because an informant, who Boersma recruited to help him with his plan, alerted the FBI.

“Oftentimes it’s like what we say with terrorism,” Ward said. “If you see something suspicious, tell somebody, because a lot of times, trafficking can take place right underneath our noses in our communities.”

The legislation to increase penalties for obstructing human trafficking investigations was delivered to Governor Kay Ivey for her signature Wednesday afternoon.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.