Youth Single-Sport Specialization in Professional Baseball Players

Orthop J Sports Med. 2020 Mar 20;8(3):2325967120907875. doi: 10.1177/2325967120907875. eCollection 2020 Mar.


Background: An increasing number of youth baseball athletes are specializing in playing baseball at younger ages.

Purpose: The purpose of our study was to describe the age and prevalence of single-sport specialization in a cohort of current professional baseball athletes. In addition, we sought to understand the trends surrounding single-sport specialization in professional baseball players raised within and outside the United States (US).

Study design: Cross-sectional study; Level of evidence, 3.

Methods: A survey was distributed to male professional baseball athletes via individual team athletic trainers. Athletes were asked if and at what age they had chosen to specialize in playing baseball at the exclusion of other sports, and data were then collected pertaining to this decision. We analyzed the rate and age of specialization, the reasons for specialization, and the athlete's perception of injuries related to specialization.

Results: A total of 1673 professional baseball athletes completed the survey, representing 26 of the 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) organizations. Less than half (44.5%) of professional athletes specialized in playing a single sport during their childhood/adolescence. Those who reported specializing in their youth did so at a mean age of 14.09 ± 2.79 years. MLB players who grew up outside the US specialized at a significantly earlier age than MLB players native to the US (12.30 ± 3.07 vs 14.89 ± 2.24 years, respectively; P < .001). Additionally, MLB players raised in the US recalled a significantly higher incidence of sustaining an injury attributed to specializing in baseball than MLB athletes raised outside the US (27.7% vs 20.6%, respectively; P = .05).

Conclusion: This study challenges the current trends toward early youth sport specialization, finding that the majority of professional baseball athletes studied did not specialize as youth and that those who did specialize did so at a mean age of 14 years. With the potential cumulative effects of pitching and overhead throwing on an athlete's arm, the trend identified in this study toward earlier specialization within baseball is concerning.

Keywords: baseball; injury; sport specialization; youth; single.