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Trenton’s Chris Marlo seeks to improve high school baseball arm care

Trenton Head Coach Chris Marlo instructs his players on how to properly use the Connection Ball, one of the training tools his Tigers use. Marlo uses his expertise in physical therapy and his coaching experience to educate high school and travel ballplayers on proper arm care techniques. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
Trenton Head Coach Chris Marlo instructs his players on how to properly use the Connection Ball, one of the training tools his Tigers use. Marlo uses his expertise in physical therapy and his coaching experience to educate high school and travel ballplayers on proper arm care techniques. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

Tommy John troubles have increasingly plagued Major League Baseball, including a rash of UCL injuries at the start of this season. The rise of UCL reconstruction has renewed the importance of arm care education at the game’s lowest levels.

Jordan Marlo was warming up before a ballgame in August 2021 when he heard the pop.

He was tossing a baseball with a teammate when it happened. It had been nothing out of the ordinary for Marlo, then a 14-year-old Dixie County High School freshman. Soon after, his fears were confirmed: a partial tear in his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).

UCL bracing surgery followed in December 2021. He rehabbed for four months and returned for the end of his freshman season. Over two years later he is now a junior at Trenton High School, suiting up for the Tigers and his father, Chris, who is in his first year as Trenton’s head coach.

Jordan’s story is just one blip in the grand scheme of UCL injuries at the high school level.

While Jordan was able to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery that typically signals a moderate to complete UCL tear and 12-14 months of recovery, the prominence of the procedure for prep players has seen a sharp increase.

A 2016 Columbia University Medical Center study showed that 444 patients underwent UCL surgery between 2002 and 2011, an increase of 200%. While the median age of the study was 21, almost all of the growth occurred in the 17-18 and 19-20 age groups.

Tommy John troubles have increasingly plagued Major League Baseball, including a rash of UCL injuries at the start of this season. The rise of UCL reconstruction has renewed the importance of arm care education at the game’s lowest levels. 

Fortunately for Jordan, 17, his father was more than prepared to lead him through his recovery, which lasted less than half the time of the average Tommy John patient due to the nature of the injury and Jordan’s role as an infielder instead of a pitcher. 

Chris, 43, is also as a physical therapist. He earned degrees from the University of Florida and a master’s in physical therapy from the University of Central Florida in 2007. Marlo also coaches for Power Baseball, a Winter Garden-based travel program, and has been coaching travel ball for 23 years.

He has an established reputation as “the pitching guy” in his high school, collegiate and travel ball circles. Marlo has helped guide several pitchers to the collegiate and professional levels. When his son went under the knife, the questions came flying his way.

Was Jordan throwing too hard? Was he playing too much?

“My son isn’t even a pitcher,” Marlo said. “It was just a freak accident; he felt a pop and he had a little tear in his UCL…sometimes kids are more susceptible to it.”

Marlo is in rare company among coaches that can understand this issue from both a baseball and scientific perspective.

He is methodical in finding the proper workload balance for each young arm on his high school and travel rosters and has brought advanced training methods with him to Trenton.

There's a scar on Jordan Marlo’s right elbow following his UCL bracing surgery in December 2021. Jordan said the ordeal taught him a great deal about arm care. “I learned the importance of not going out there just to throw, the importance of stretching and strengthening my whole body. It helps with everything else on the baseball field,” Marlo said. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
There's a scar on Jordan Marlo’s right elbow following his UCL bracing surgery in December 2021. Jordan said the ordeal taught him a great deal about arm care. “I learned the importance of not going out there just to throw, the importance of stretching and strengthening my whole body. It helps with everything else on the baseball field,” Marlo said. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

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Thwack.

Thwack.

The collection of Trenton throwers take their turns hurling pitches toward a pair of propped up targets 60 feet six inches away.

Using a duo of bullpen mounds down the left field line of Trenton’s baseball field, eight Tigers pitchers are instructed to focus on location, not velocity. Their mentor has requested 75% effort from their arms, no need for stress.

Marlo stands off to the side, brown boonie hat blocking the setting sun during a late April practice. He barks corrections when he feels the need and keeps the objective at the forefront.

“Remember guys, no max effort days back-to-back,” Marlo says.

“Max effort” refers to when a pitcher is giving their all in every pitch they throw. Marlo’s philosophy is to give pitchers the rest they need and to educate them on how to properly maintain their arms.

“Kids need to understand you don't want to go through two max effort days back-to back,” Marlo said. “They live by that at the college level, which I think is a good rule and I've had a lot of success keeping arm injuries to a minimum.”

Trenton eighth grader Logan Marlo pitches in a practice bullpen alongside the entire Tigers pitching staff. Chris Marlo encourages his young arms to avoid throwing with max effort on back-to-back days, especially if they pitched in a game the day prior. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
Trenton eighth grader Logan Marlo pitches in a practice bullpen alongside the entire Tigers pitching staff. Chris Marlo encourages his young arms to avoid throwing with max effort on back-to-back days, especially if they pitched in a game the day prior. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

Near the third-base dugout, freshman pitcher Noah Owens is experimenting with an unorthodox training companion. A fluorescent rubber ball, slightly larger than a standard kickball, is pinned between his left elbow and torso. He fires a baseball with 50% effort into the fence five feet in front of him, keeping the sphere tucked into his body.

This is the Connection Ball, and Owens is using it for the first time. The intended drill for the young right-hander is to prevent him from opening up his front shoulder during his pitching motion and promote a more fluid delivery.

Trenton freshman pitcher Noah Owens conducts drills with the Connection Ball to improve his pitching mechanics. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
Trenton freshman pitcher Noah Owens conducts drills with the Connection Ball to improve his pitching mechanics. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

Trenton sophomore pitcher Ty Moses stretches with the Crossover Symmetry system prior to a game. The rubber bands help players warm up their arms and shoulders and help to reduce the injury risk. (Courtesy Chris Marlo)
Trenton sophomore pitcher Ty Moses stretches with the Crossover Symmetry system prior to a game. The rubber bands help players warm up their arms and shoulders and help to reduce the injury risk. (Courtesy Chris Marlo)

Another contraption is strapped to the fence adjacent to the bullpen. Four rubber bands comprise the Crossover Symmetry system, a customizable accessory aimed at helping improve shoulder and rotator cuff strength and stability, two key areas for pitchers.

Freshman pitcher Brant Bivens was introduced to the new equipment once he got to Trenton.

“It's been a lot different than what I've had before,” Bivens said. “[Marlo’s] had a lot more stuff to go with it. More of the band stuff, the crossover symmetry. It's been a lot more actually doing stuff with arm care.”

Mason VunCannon is another freshman arm who has picked up a few tips and tricks under Marlo’s tutelage.

“He’s taught us some great strengthening and conditioning techniques like the bands and medicine balls. I feel like it's really strengthened my arm and kept it from becoming injured,” VunCannon said.

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The pride of Marlo’s arm care prowess is his perennially low pitch counts.

Marlo pulls out his cell phone and navigates to the GameChanger app, a handy reference for high school baseball statistics.

“You’re going to find this interesting,” he says.

Marlo brings up the box scores from recent games. He scrolls through the pitching numbers indicating his players’ pitch counts. Most reside in the 60s and 70s or lower, nowhere near the century mark limit.

A further look at Trenton’s 2024 regular season pitching numbers found that the average maximum pitch count per game for a Tigers hurler was 67.4 across 21 games played. Only twice did a pitcher eclipse 90 pitches. Both times it was Bivens, who tossed a seven-inning complete game against Dixie County on March 12 and six innings versus Chiefland on April 11.

The average maximum pitch counts for each month and the full 21-game regular season. The highest Trenton pitch count from each game was recorded and averaged. The average for April appears higher due to Marlo leaving his pitchers in for longer, reflecting his desire to build them up over the course of the season. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
The average maximum pitch counts for each month and the full 21-game regular season. The highest Trenton pitch count from each game was recorded and averaged. The average for April appears higher due to Marlo leaving his pitchers in for longer, reflecting his desire to build them up over the course of the season. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) provides a set of pitch count limits for specific age groups and corresponding days of rest. For the 17-18 age group, the maximum pitch count per game is 105 and requires four days of rest. The FHSAA enforces this rule with fines for coaches who violate it.

The Florida High School Athletic Association’s pitch count policy has been in place since at least the 2017 season. The age 13 through 18 rows apply to the high school level. (Courtesy FHSAA)
The Florida High School Athletic Association’s pitch count policy has been in place since at least the 2017 season. The age 13 through 18 rows apply to the high school level. (Courtesy FHSAA)

While pitch counts are important, Marlo says they are not everything.

He believes coaches should be paying more attention to pitches per inning, rather than the full game. He used an off-field analogy to illustrate the point.

“If I try to do 100 pushups straight through, that's pretty tough, but if I do 10 sets of 10, that's a pretty light workload,” Marlo said. “Sometimes the pitch count gives you a false sense of security when it comes to protecting a pitcher.”

Marlo noted how he has seen high schools Trenton has played against this season at times use pitchers carelessly, often surpassing 90-100 pitches even in the season’s opening weeks.

He cautioned other programs to factor in pregame bullpen sessions when managing arm workloads and discouraged them from utilizing catchers as pitchers in the same game.

“In arm care it’s kind of like weight training, you have to gradually build up,” Marlo said. “It's just a shame a lot of these kids are throwing max pitches every game starting from the first week of the season.”

Bivens appreciates Marlo for keeping his pitch count down early in the season and allowing him to go deeper into games as the season rolls along.

“I feel like it's a positive thing because if you stay below the pitch count at the beginning of the year you can go farther in the games,” Bivens said. “Your arm will be more conditioned for the playoffs, so you can make a better run.”

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When Marlo does see arm injuries happen, it’s typically in the fall before the spring slate gets underway. He attributes this to pitchers being overworked in travel ball programs.

“It's kind of a common thing, unfortunately. I will say in the fall of this high school season, I battled it a lot more because a lot of kids were playing travel ball for other teams, and they were being abused on the mound,” Marlo said.

He underscored the importance of proper communication between high school and travel ball coaches and travel programs being smart and ethical with how they use their arms.

“The problem is a lot of time when these kids are experiencing their arm injuries or arm pain when they're high school players, the damage has been done when they were playing 11, 12 or 13U baseball,” Marlo said.

“There’s kids that have all played at local high schools that I watched pitch when they were 11 or 12 years old, and their coach was running them out there 120 pitches.”

While the demand for velocity has been a major concern and easy factor to blame for the rise in arm injuries at all levels and especially Major League Baseball, Marlo places more emphasis on pitching mechanics.

“I definitely think it's multifactorial when it comes to arm injuries,” Marlo said. “It could be from overuse, it could be from poor mechanics, it could be from just weakness. The kids are not physically ready to be throwing that many pitches.”

The most important thing parents can do, Marlo says, is find a program that will prioritize the right things.

“Parents have got to find programs and coaches that are invested in their child's health and development, instead of just winning that one tournament,” Marlo said. “There's no scholarships ever given out at a 12U tournament.”

There are two provisions Marlo would like to see implemented to help change the arm care culture. The first is a creating a certificate or license that all youth baseball coaches, travel or otherwise, must earn in order to give personal lessons or hold positions with programs.

This would prevent just anyone from charging a pretty penny for lessons and allow coaches to be held more accountable, he said.

“Parents need to do their research on who they're taking their kid to. Just because a player's played baseball or pitched in college doesn't necessarily mean they know how to teach it,” Marlo said.

As for the second provision? This is where the therapist in Marlo shines through.

Not all UCLs are created equal, Marlo says. He wants to see players screened before they reach the high school level to determine the thickness of their UCL. If a player’s UCL is thinner, create a plan to limit their workload.

“Is there a way to prescreen kids, where maybe we can say, ‘Okay, this guy is more susceptible to a tear because of the thickness of his UCL?’, Marlo said. “That's something that is next that we need to start looking into is preventing that by kind of doing some more prescreening with tissue types.”

Marlo said it’s possible that such screening could have prevented Jordan’s injury, and that screening of the internal and external rotation of the hips and throwing shoulder would be a solid addition at a minimal cost.

At the end of the day, Marlo hopes he can educate and elevate north central Florida youth and prep baseball to increase the number of players that move on to the college ranks. He mentioned the Orlando area as a hot bed of baseball talent in Florida and wants to see Gainesville and its surrounding towns reach the same status.

“There's really not a lot of kids in this area that go on and play collegiate baseball, maybe because they're not being taught the right actions when they're young kids,” Marlo said.

Perhaps the Marlo Method will turn the tide.

Ethan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.