Can Baseball Personnel Predict Arm Injuries?

By Sawchik, Travis | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Can Baseball Personnel Predict Arm Injuries?

Sawchik, Travis, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Major League Baseball teams spent $1.7 billion from 2002-12 on pitchers on the disabled list, according to a presentation at the Milwaukee Brewers' medical symposium this offseason.

Of 360 pitchers who began this season on major league rosters, 124 -- more than one-third -- have had Tommy John surgery, according to Sports Illustrated injury expert Will Carroll.

Injury rates continue to rise as the failure to keep pitchers healthy remains the game's greatest market inefficiency.

But a growing number of people in the industry think pitching injuries can be reduced through predictive and preventative practices, thanks to advances in technology and an influx of open minds.

- - - - -

In spring 1989, Rick Peterson was in spring training with the Chicago White Sox, preparing to break camp as the pitching coach with Double-A Birmingham. The front office asked him to visit the then-new American Sports Medicine Institute laboratory of Dr. James Andrews when he arrived in Alabama.

The lab opened two years earlier to study sports-related injuries. Andrews, who recently had performed shoulder surgery on Roger Clemens, decided to first study pitching injuries.

Peterson knew injury well.

After graduating from Mt. Lebanon High School, Peterson attended Gulf Coast (Fla.) Junior College where, in 1974, he injured his right shoulder. Peterson was drafted in the seventh round by the Pirates that spring. His father, Harding "Pete" Peterson, was the Pirates' farm director and future general manager. But Rick Peterson's arm was never the same. He posted a 6-11 record and 5.68 ERA in an eight-year minor league career.

Fifteen years after feeling his shoulder pop, Peterson walked into the ASMI lab.

"It was an enlightening experience. It was the beginning," Peterson said. "I was the first person who got an analysis. (ASMI research director Dr. Glenn) Fleisig and I analyzed the high-speed film together. The next time I came, we started bringing our own pitchers in there and getting analysis. We also went back and looked at videotape and looked at film of Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, some of the best pitchers in the game but also pitchers that had longevity. We were curious if there was some common thread."

- - - - -

It was the beginning of biomechanics, a scientific approach to injury prevention.

At the ASMI lab, sensors are attached to various points on a pitcher's body that allow computers to map his movement, three- dimensionally, and measure force on critical areas of the body. They are compared to measurements from a database of 100 pitchers that are designated as elite because of their performance and durability. A biomechanical evaluation places red flags on certain mechanical traits.

Fleisig has studied more than 2,000 pitchers, including seven Cy Young Award winners.

"We found a consistent measurement among good pitchers and then thought about it medically and anatomically," Fleisig said, "and why this made sense about the laws of physics."

In 1998, the A's were searching for someone to put a new pitching program in place. They hired Peterson. Peterson said the A's were the first team to fully embrace biomechanics and take healthy pitchers to a biomechanics lab for preventative testing.

In 2002, A's starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle made at least 30 starts apiece.

In 2003, the A's top four starters again combined to average 31 starts.

In 2004, the A's had only six pitchers make starts the entire season.

- - - - -

For the past 20 years, astrophysicist Meredith Wills did what some said was impossible while researching for NASA: She developed a tracking system to monitor solar storms on the sun. Now she's interested in tracking something else considered impossible: predicting baseball injuries.

"I wanted to do something else, and I realize the skill set that I had developed in astrophysics was, in fact, applicable to baseball," said a Wills, a self-described baseball fanatic. …

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