MLB’s next frontier: Injury prevention Technology
Baseball’s most renowned innovators are of the opinion that the next major “data analytics” advancement won’t be about changes to on-field performance. Instead, the push will be in player safety and keeping them out on the filed.
Billy Beane, the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Oakland Athletics is one of the loudest voices calling for more focus on touting injury prevention technology leveraging data. Other teams throughout the MLB are gravitating toward such technology as it becomes available. As the salaries and contracts of players continue to rise, it is becoming increasingly fiscally intelligent for teams to invest in keeping them in better condition longer.
“Staying healthy is the No. 1 predictor of success,” Beane wrote in a statement, “and teams that use science and technology to do so will have a significant competitive edge.”
The gunshot has been heard, and the race to optimal player health is underway!
There is no shortage of injury prevention technology: we have radar systems to track velocity and release points, elbow sleeves to log the strain of each throw, functional movement screenings, and more. All of these delivering real time data to team physicians, coaches, and medical staff. Now comes the challenging part: turning the research and collected data into useful, meaningful information.
The Washington Nationals fell short of the desired playoff appearance primarily due to a roster chalked-full of injured players. General Manager Mike Rizzo re-organized the team’s medical staff and added an advisory board of sorts with Harvey Sharman, the former medical program at English football club Leeds United. Rizzo thinks this is the next frontier for advancement, “the next Moneyball,” he hoped, referencing the tale that brought Beane to fame.
It’s estimated that the baseball industry will soon breach $10 billion in revenue annually, bringing the average player salary to an excess of $4 million. If moving to more integrated injury prevention technology means that the first $400 million player to walk on the field can stay on the field longer, teams should have all the motivation required.
Prevention, not treatment
Doctor James Andrews, the internationally regarded orthopedic surgeon, and founder of the American Sports Medicine Institute has had a big hand in revolutionizing baseball health. Andrews’ mission had always been to put himself out of business by preventing injuries instead of fixing them.
At an annual baseball injuries seminar at ASMI, Andrews encouraged teams to send all pitchers for evaluations, not just the injured ones. Oakland A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson obliged and had some of his young pitchers go — Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, among others. That same year, Zito won the American League Cy Young Award.
KinaTrax, a medical tech company, has created 3D motion-capture programs to replicate the work of ASMI’s biomechanics lab in ballparks. KinaTrax is in discussions with 17 clubs to install the system. From the looks of things, the Tampa Bay Rays will be first on the list. KinaTrax is far from cornering the market, though. TrackMan radar, Motus Global wearable technology, and a few other competitors are all working toward the same goal: injury prevention through data.
Rest, recovery, and ‘fingerprints’
Fatigue is, according to the data, the leader in injury causation. Cincinnati Reds medical director Tim Kremchek estimates that fatigue alone is responsible for an astronomical 500% increase in injuries. Signs of fatigue are usually very subtle: so subtle they are imperceptible to most people. Tracking technology makes it obvious.
“When you fatigue, your biomechanics change,” noted Dr. Kremchek, one of the nation’s leading Tommy John surgeons.
There has been some success in a reduction in the number of shoulder injuries, due to a better comprehension of the mechanics. This accentuates the need for stretching the posterior capsule to avoid impingement and greater MRI resolution to detect things like inflammation.
Team medical staffs have exploded over the past few years. It used to be a single doctor and trainer. Teams now boast physical therapists, specialized trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, MRI technicians, and injury prevention technology.
“We have gone from — when I started with the Reds 20 years ago — cursory physical examinations in the spring and letting him play,” Kremchek said, “to now individualized, customized programs from them. It’s very sophisticated.”
Among the advances Kremchek noted, are an increased use of ultrasound. This allows medical staff to see muscles dynamically rather than static MRI images. Especially in younger athletes, the doctor said he is more likely to recommend platelet-rich plasma (PRP) or stem-cell therapies, and less likely to encourage a cortisone injection.
“We are very, very proactive in these types of regenerative medicine,” Kremchek said.
The stats and data of baseball are now poured over constantly by every MLB team. They are examined, dissected, and re-examined. Information is detailed and so easily available that differentiating factors are harder and harder to come across. Many clubs are now turning more money and attention to sports medicine to lower a very important statistic: their disabled list.