Saturday, December 19, 2015

MLB’s New Frontier: No Injuries in the Game

From the USA Today. This article was too good not to share. Enjoy!

Baseball’s most renowned innovator believes the next frontier of analytics won’t be about changes to on-field performance so much as simply keeping players on the field.

“I think that everybody's looking for a competitive edge,” Colorado Rockies manager Walt Weiss said, “and that's an area where you may be able to find one.” Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics executive vice president of baseball operations, has been among the loudest voices touting injury prevention and medical treatment as the next major data-driven undertaking — and that movement is accelerating across the league as medical technology improves and the investment in player contracts increases.

Training and nutritional programs are individualized based on baseline physical evaluations, as well as a player’s age, position and handedness; further customization takes the calendar — offseason, spring training, early season, late season — into account.

Radar systems track a pitcher’s velocity and release point to gauge fatigue. Elbow sleeves log the strain of every throw. Functional movement screenings are routine tests. Biomechanics data can be delivered in real-time. Medical research papers on the epidemiology of common baseball injuries and based on a league-wide injury database are nearing publication.

In November, after an injury-ravaged roster fell short of an expected playoff berth, the Washington Nationals introduced a revamped medical staff and first-of-its-kind advisory board with new executive director Harvey Sharman, who oversaw the medical program at Leeds United, an English soccer club where analytics are more in use. At the press conference, general manager Mike Rizzo called it “maybe the next Moneyball,” summoning the imagery of the book that made Beane famous.

Mets head team physician Struan Coleman, an orthopedic surgeon at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, said research is in the works about the risk factors and corresponding preventive muscle strengthening exercises to avoid injury absences. Someday, that could result in better elbow protection and Tommy John surgery prevention.

“That’s the kind of thing that we’re working toward,” Coleman said, “and I think we’re going to get there.”

In an industry where revenues approach $10 billion, the average salary exceeds $4 million and the first $400 million player may be just three years away, there's ample motivation.

Prevention, not treatment

James Andrews, the internationally regarded orthopedic surgeon, founded the American Sports Medicine Institute in 1987 and, along with Ph.D. research director Glenn Fleisig, have helped revolutionize the field. The mission has always been about injury prevention and recovery, but in 2002, they had a revelation.

“We looked in the mirror and said that we’re really doing a lot more on the treatment side than the prevention side,” Fleisig said.

At that January’s annual baseball injuries seminar at ASMI, Andrews announced that their biomechanics lab was open for all business — in other words, that teams were encouraged to send all pitchers for testing, even the healthy ones, and not just those rehabbing injuries.

Around that time, Oakland A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson sent a few young pitchers — Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, among others — for analysis in February. That November, Zito won the American League Cy Young Award. “That was good for business,” Fleisig said.

Ball clubs are far more proactive now in tracking pitcher data. Peterson — who is fond of saying, “In God we trust; all others must have data” — is now director of pitching development with the Baltimore Orioles and has all of his minor league pitchers tested.

“The Orioles pitching development program is based on research and science from Dr. Andrews and Dr. Fleisig,” Peterson said, “and our motivation is to fully help every pitcher in this organization to bridge the gap between potential and performance.”

The company KinaTrax has developed 3D motion-capture technology to replicate the work of ASMI’s biomechanics lab in major league ballparks. KinaTrax is in discussions with 17 clubs; the Tampa Bay Rays will be the first to install the system, which dovetails with the progressive ethos of the organization’s medical and training staffs.

“They stay innovative — they are constantly at seminars,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They are constantly trying to learn. They don't get in the mold, well, I've been doing this for 15 years and this is how we did it then. They challenge themselves daily to provide the most for our players.”

Motus Global uses small motion-sensor chips embedded in small pockets of compression clothes to track swing and throwing mechanics. The elbow sleeve measures torque in Newton meters while also logging arm slot, arm speed and a shoulder’s external rotation. Motus is used by 27 of the 30 major league clubs. (Fleisig sits on its board.)

The TrackMan radar that powers MLB’s StatCast data collection also plays a role in injury detection and rehabilitation.

“We know teams will shut players down if they see certain changes,” TrackMan Baseball general manager John Olshan said, adding that, conversely, some clubs will hold back a player in rehab until their pitching measurements reach a certain threshold: “They might not know why that’s happening, but they know that somehow the player is compensating.”

ASMI has also been at the forefront of instituting pitch counts in Little League and endorsing other safer arm-care guidelines through Pitch Smart, a joint effort of Major League Baseball and USA Baseball. With elbow injuries rising, that movement has received universal embracement.
“I watch TV — politics or sports — and how often do you say something and everyone agrees?” Fleisig said.

Rest, recovery, and ‘fingerprints’

The No. 1 cause of injuries is fatigue which, Cincinnati Reds medical director Tim Kremchek said, leads to a staggering 500% increase in their likelihood. Fleisig said a pitcher’s fatigue is often marked by stride shortening and elbow lowering. Th
ose changes can be nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, hence, all the tracking technology.
“When you fatigue, your biomechanics change,” said Kremchek, a leading Tommy John surgeon.
Many medicals staffs previously reacted to injuries and only gave lip service to the realization of baseball’s marathon season. That’s why, Coleman said, the HSS team made a big push on prevention by instituting more rest and recovery days in 2007 which, he said, “substantially” reduced the number of days Mets players missed to injury from one year to the next.

Diagnosing injuries early is essential to avoid worsening. That requires vigilance by the whole staff, as well as having a player’s healthy medical records on file, too.

“Each player has his own signature, baseline motion and strength analysis,” Coleman said. “It’s like a fingerprint.”

Starting with those thorough examinations, medical staffs can work on prospective studies by following players longitudinally.

“If someone has, say, decreased range of motion in their hip,” he said, “are they more likely to have a hip injury or a hamstring injury during the one season, during five seasons or in 10 seasons?”
Coleman said there’s been recent progress in reducing the number of shoulder injuries, due to heightened understanding of the joint’s mechanics, the need for stretching the posterior capsule to avoid internal impingement and improved MRI resolution to detect inflammation.

Medical teams have grown from a doctor and a trainer to dozens of physical therapists, trainers, strength and conditioning coaches. Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame player from 1978-1998, said teams didn’t even have weight rooms when he started playing.
“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 said, are increased use of ultrasound to view muscles dynamically rather than static MRI images and more natural healing approaches. Especially in younger athletes, he said he’s less apt to use cortisone than platelet-rich plasma (PRP) or stem-cell therapies.
“We are very, very proactive in these types of regenerative medicine,” Kremchek said.

The statistics of baseball performance have been so finely studied and dissected that it’s becoming harder to find differentiating factors, so clubs are turning further attention to the field of sports medicine to minimize one particular statistic: disabled list stays.

MLB Hopes for Spring Training Games in Cuba in 2016

Major League Baseball started a mission to not only expand the sport of baseball but to expand the brand of Major League Baseball last year when Commissioner Rob Manfred took the reins of the sport from Bud Selig. Manfred has done just that and was aided a bit by the announcement from President Barack Obama that the United States and Cuba would begin discussing certain things with Cuba including lifting the embargo and working on diplomatic ties between the two countries. Immediately the MLB fan base wondered how this would affect the slew of players defecting from Cuba and coming to the United States to play MLB and how it could potentially affect games and/or franchises being there, even if it were just spring training games to start.

Major League Baseball acted quickly when learning of the news and now hopes to have spring training games in Cuba as soon as March of 2016. MLB has already sent ambassadors to the country including former Yankees manager Joe Torre and will also send a three-day goodwill tour there to begin talks for games and such in Cuba. The league has already gone as far as to say that the Tampa Bay Rays would be one of the teams selected to play in what would be a two-game series in Havana, Cuba’s capitol.

MLB hasn’t played a game in Cuba since 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played two games against the Cuban national team. Cuban born players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig have joined the tour back to their native countries and will conduct clinics for children and a charity even with Caritas Cubana, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to the elderly, children, people with disabilities and people battling HIV and AIDS, while back in their native countries.

I cannot explain how excited I am for this. No words. 

Remembering Yankees of the Past: Scott Proctor

I was going through some emails that we receive from our awesome readers, hat tip to Betty for the idea for this article, and I opened an article about Scott Proctor. Proctor was one of the many arms that then Yankees manager Joe Torre “ruined” out of his bullpen. Remember, towards the latter part of his tenure with the club the Yankees were not winning World Series Championships annually like they did in the latter part of the 90’s and into the 2000’s and George Steinbrenner was livid. Steinbrenner was writing the biggest checks at the time and demanded greatness and in his mind that greatness started with the manager. Torre was managing every game for his job and stuck to using the relievers and players he trusted, one of those arms was Proctor. With that said we remember the Yankees reliever who threw in 80+ games multiple times in his career, the reliever that loved to hit Kevin Youkilis in a Red Sox uniform and the reliever that battled alcoholism for much of his ride along the way. Remembering Yankees of the Past, this is Scott Proctor.

Scott Christopher Proctor was traded to the New York Yankees along with Bubba Crosby for Robin Ventura on July 31, 2003 and New York immediately stashed their new weapon in Triple-A. Proctor was a closer for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers and was seen throwing 100 MPH or higher there which caught the eyes of the Yankees brass and manager Joe Torre. Proctor ended up making his MLB debut on April 20, 2004 against the Chicago White Sox as a mop up man. Proctor pitches 2.1 innings of relief and allowed two earned runs. Proctor’s results that season were not ideal but he quickly became a trusted weapon for the Yankees and even more quickly became a mainstay inside the Yankees bullpen.

Proctor pitched in just 26 games in 2005 before becoming the everyday guy we all remember in 2006 under Torre. Proctor led the league in 2006 with 83 appearances and often pitched for more than one inning or on consecutive days. Proctor joined Brian Bruney and Kyle Farnsworth as the Yankees bridge to Mariano Rivera. Proctor crossed the 80 appearance threshold again in 2007 leading GM Brian Cashman to confront Torre and Proctor about his overuse. To make a long story short Torre would ask Proctor if he was okay to pitch and Proctor would always say yes. Cashman wanted Proctor to be more open and honest with Torre before it was too late for his right arm, but it already was.

Proctor’s career took a turn for the worse after 2007 and it landed him off the Yankees and with the Atlanta Braves before the 2009 season. Proctor stayed with Atlanta through most of the 2011 season before the Yankees brought Proctor back on a new minor league deal. On August 13, 2011 the Yankees re-signed him and sent him back to Triple-A with the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders before calling him up on September 1st. Proctor pitched sparingly for the Yankees in 2011 before electing free agency and before he ended his tenure with the Yankees.

Proctor’s tenure with the Yankees was a roller coaster ride of sorts to say the least. Proctor caught some heat specifically with the Yankees after being accused of intentionally throwing at batters with the intention for retaliation, ask Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox. On June 1, 2007 Proctor plunked Youkilis in the shoulder after two Yankees batters had been hit. Youkilis was the fifth batter to be hit in the game and Proctor was ejected after both benches cleared and Youkilis had to be held back by then Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Proctor protested that he did not intentionally hit Youkilis but was still suspended by the league after the incident for one-game. In other instance Proctor threw behind Seattle Mariners infielder Yuniesky Betancourt after his teammate Josh Phelps was hit by a pitch. Phelps was only hit after the Mariners catcher Kenji Johima was hit so Proctor incited another rally that had seemingly already been handled by the unwritten rules of the game. Another retaliation pitch and another suspension for Proctor.

When the Yankees and Scott Proctor knew he had a problem was on June 30, 2007 when he was seen lighting fire to his equipment on the field. Proctor has taken the loss in each of the last two Yankees games and was visibly upset after pitching poorly against the Oakland Athletics. It was then that Yankees closer Mariano Rivera too him under his wing and Proctor realized he had an alcohol problem. Proctor revealed in 2009 that he was a recovering alcoholic and credited Mariano with urging him to straighten his life out. Proctor began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and seemingly turned his life around, although it was too late to save his career.

When all was said and done Proctor pitched for the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves and the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization but he definitely made his name for himself and his mark with New York. Today we remember you Scott, hope you’re well. 

The Starting Pitching Market is Still Stacked

The big boys are starting to come off the free agency board from the starting pitching department and most of the huge checks have been handed out. The Boston Red Sox have already given David Price the largest contract for a pitcher in Major League Baseball history and the Arizona Diamondbacks gave the two largest contracts in the history of their franchise to Zack Greinke, who also has the highest average annual value in MLB history, and Johnny Cueto but that doesn’t mean all the big names are gone. For every Jeff Samardzija taken off the board there are two or three guys left to replace him, do any of them intrigue the Yankees?

By my unofficial count at least 10 teams are still looking for top of the rotation type starters and want to contend in 2016. That list includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Miami Marlins, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox (as scary as that is for Yankees fans to hear), the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. There are probably another ten or so teams that are still looking for another starter to fill out their rotation before spring training while teams like the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers to name a few will let their prospects battle it out in spring training competitions. That’s a whole lot of competition for New York who are said to be in the market for another starter, the good news for Brian Cashman is there are still plenty to choose from.

It was almost a foregone conclusion that the Yankees would acquire Mike Leake at the trading deadline last season. That didn’t happen and he ended up going to the San Francisco Giants where he pitched well despite an injury. Since Leake was traded he will not be linked to draft pick compensation and he’s still on the right side of 30-years old. Leake is not your ace and is not likely going to lead your team to the World Series but if you need a durable guy that can keep an offense like the Yankees in every single game and give you 200 innings over the course of a season, Leake is your man.

The same can be said for the free agent market, the Yankees and former Baltimore Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen. Many linked the Yankees to Chen and expected them to sign the lefty away from their AL East rivals but New York seems willing to hold onto what they have in order to keep their (currently) 20th overall draft pick in the 2016 draft. Chen was the ace of the Orioles and according to reports he wants to be paid like an ace both in terms of years and dollars but he wouldn’t be the ace in New York. At best, at very best mind you, he is a #2 starter with the Yankees. No thank you, not for five or six years and not for $100 million plus a draft pick.

Scott Kazmir is the left-handed starter that the Yankees have been coveting the past couple of seasons. The starting rotation has become very right-handed heavy, especially when (not if) CC Sabathia is injured, and Kazmir could be the perfect complement in the rotation. Kazmir would not require draft pick compensation and would likely lead the second-tier of available starting pitching. He’s been durable with the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics but I wonder if pitching in traditionally pitcher-friendly ballparks may have been inflating his stats just a tad. I worry about him inside Yankee Stadium, but he may be a risk worth taking if the Yankees are willing to open up their purse strings just a bit.

Ian Kennedy, the former Yankees farm hand turned 20-game winner with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kennedy has not been able to replicate his 20-win success with either the DBacks or the San Diego Padres but he has been durable and has given his team consistent innings over the years at the top of every rotation. Kennedy is not an ace though, not lately and definitely not in New York, but he would be intriguing back in the Bronx. Kennedy was thought of as the 3rd best starter in the group with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes and may have turned out to be the best of the three, it may be time for Brian Cashman to right a wrong here.

Cliff Lee has been cleared to pitch in 2016 and his elbow has finally been donned as healthy. Brian Cashman and the Yankees have coveted Lee for quite some time now and almost acquired him multiple times during his career either in free agency or via the trade market. There were hiccups along the way, Lee worried about him and his wife in the New York environment and Cashman didn’t want to part with certain prospects in another trade but Lee is a free agent once again. The Yankees have a tendency of getting their man a few years too late, see Carlos Beltran, and lightning may strike twice with Lee.

Mark Buehrle is likely going to retire but until he does he remains an option with all teams. How ironic would it be for Buehrle to join the team that has kept him up at night for his entire career? Ironic, yes, but likely? No.

I’m going to be frank and honest here, I never saw the fascination for some with Yovani Gallardo. He’s consistent but he’s never great. He’s durable but overall has been unreliable. Despite it all he received a qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers this season. The fact that he is linked to a draft pick is an automatic “no” for me. I’ll happily give up the pick for an ace, Gallardo just isn’t an ace to me.

Doug Fister Starring in “The New Adam Warren”

Earlier today on the blog I went into the available list of free agent starting pitchers and cherry picked a few that may or may not fit what the New York Yankees are looking for. I was going through the list showcasing the Wei-Yin Chen’s and the Yovani Gallardo’s of the world when I ran across the name Doug Fister and a light bulb went off. I was going to list Fister in that post but I thought he deserved his own post because he could potentially fill a much bigger role on the team, the role that Adam Warren vacated when the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs in the Starlin Castro deal. Could Doug Fister, the once great starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals, come to the Yankees and become the Yankees swingman? Why not!

Fister had a terrible 2015 season, let’s not beat around the bush or equivocate, and was delegated to the Washington bullpen for much of the second half of the campaign. For that reason the Nationals decided against offering Fister a qualifying offer and seem unlikely to be interested in bringing back him and his services for the 2016 season. The Nationals loss can be the Yankees gain because Fister redeemed himself a bit in his time in the bullpen. Fister pitched well out of the pen for Washington in a small sample size and showed that his problems he had earlier in the season were likely due to something mechanical or physical, he did battle injuries last season as well, and not just him falling off the face of the Earth like many pitchers do.

This would be the ultimate “buy low” and lightning in a bottle type signing for the Yankees. Fister can pitch out of the pen, he’s proven it. He’s a veteran arm and the 7th inning or 6th inning in the Bronx is not going to fluster him. If a starter goes down, and lord knows the Yankees rotation is littered with its question marks, Fister could easily fill in for a 15 day DL stint or for a month at a time without getting exposed too much. Hell he may even thrive off of a change of scenery and getting out of the mess of a clubhouse and organization that we now know the Washington Nationals were. You never know until you sign the guy.

So a veteran arm without a ton of mileage that can excel at both starting and relieving, Fister sounds more like an Adam Warren mold than a replacement. Either will do for me though so get it done Cash before someone else catches on. 

Former Yankees Update: Garrett Jones

The New York Yankees had high hopes for their bench in 2015 when they showcased Brendan Ryan, John Ryan Murphy, Chris Young and Garrett Jones. Ryan was expected to play all over the infield, Murphy was the backup catcher, Young was the 4th outfielder and Jones was expected to play right field and back up Mark Teixeira at first base. Ryan is gone, he was traded along with Adam Warren to the Cubs for Starlin Castro, and so is Murphy after being traded to the Minnesota Twins for Aaron Hicks. Chris Young is gone and replaced by Hicks and now calls the Boston Red Sox his home team for the next two seasons and this week we learned the fate of Garrett Jones. He’s going west…. Real west.

Garrett Jones, who was designated for assignment twice by the New York Yankees last season, is signing to play baseball in Japan next season with the Yomiuri Giants. Jones will earn $2.8 million next season in the Nippon professional Baseball League and can earn more via incentives, although those have not been released at this time.

I’m glad to hear that Garrett found a job and I hope Cassie enjoys Japan. Be well Jones’s!

This Day in New York Yankees History 12/19: Enter Eovaldi

On this day in 2014 the New York Yankees and the Miami Marlins hooked up for a trade that would change the face of both franchises for the 2015 season. The Yankees sent RHP David Phelps and second baseman Martin Prado to the Miami Marlins in exchange for RHP Nathan Eovaldi, outfielder Garrett Jones and RHP Domingo German.

Also on this day in 2006, in an absolute knee jerk reaction to the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing with the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees signed Kei Igawa. The posting fee was $26 million and Igawa would sign a five year deal worth $20 million to become AAA's all time wins leader in the Yankees system. The Yankees later admitted to not even knowing what pitches Igawa threw at the time of the signing. Live and learn.

Finally on this day in 2002 the New York Yankees signed 28 year old outfielder Hideki Matsui to a three year deal worth $21 million. Matsui is coming off a season in Japan where he posted a .334 with 50 home runs and 107 RBI's. Godzilla is a three time Japanese League MVP and turned down the Yomiuri Giants four year deal worth $33 million.