26 October 2011

An Interview with an Arm Injury Researcher, Part I

by Will Beaudouin
Will is a freelance writer who has written for Camden Depot previously.

Hayden Penn is now a Chiba Lotte Marines in JPL
Remember how we all used to pencil Chorye Spoone into future Orioles’ rotations? Can you recall the excitement surrounding Hayden Penn after he struck out 120 batters in 110 innings at Bowie? These were guys who were going to anchor the next great pitching staff in Baltimore. Unfortunately, both of their careers were hindered by various arm and shoulder injuries. Penn, along with falling down a set of stairs and being impaled by a broken bat, had elbow issues and went under the knife in 2007. Spoone suffered a labrum tear that appears to have ended any expectation of him becoming a Major League starter. If Penn and Spoone had stayed healthy, who knows what would have happened--it really can’t be over emphasized how important it is to keep your young pitchers healthy. Fortunately, there’s hope on the horizon that pitching injuries, as we know them, could be greatly diminished in the future.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, is considered an expert in the field of pitching biomechanics and was kind enough to grant us an interview. At ASMI, Dr. Fleisig works with various pitchers—both professional and amateur—to correct flaws in their pitching mechanics with the ultimate goal of reducing injury. It’s his work that’s giving baseball fans hope that their favorite pitchers may soon have longer, healthier careers. A world in which a pitching prospects future is defined solely by their ability, rather than hearing the constant refrain of TINSTAAP (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect)? I’d take that.

In the past you’ve worked with pitchers from the Mets, A’s, and Red Sox. What sort of information are you able to provide them?  How prevalent is it that teams request services like yours?

Pitchers of all levels – from youth league to Major Leagues – come to ASMI for biomechanical evaluation.  The purpose of the visit is usually two-fold: to minimize the risk of injury and maximize performance.  The pitcher’s biomechanics are compared against elite pitchers previously tested at ASMI and then we use our biomechanics knowledge to identify areas for improvement.  We are pretty much measuring motions and forces such as those discussed in [scholarly research] papers, but explaining it to the pitcher in coach in a much clearer way, with videos, pictures, and descriptions.  You can see what the process looks like at this link.

Several professional teams send players to ASMI, but we do not disclose the names of the teams or players to protect their privacy.  The team or player is welcomed to disclose that they came to ASMI, if they wish.  This is our privacy policy for professionals and for amateurs.

The key to successful evaluation is the coach (pitching coach and strength coach).  The biomechanical analysis is simply an evaluation of what is wrong and what should be fixed.  The evaluation is a diagnostic tool for the coach, as the coach is the one who works with the athlete.  I view this as analogous to an MRI for an injury.  An MRI doesn’t fix an injury; an MRI gives information to the medical professional who is the one who treats the injury.

What’s the future for the field of baseball and biomechanics?

Behind the scenes, many professional teams are now trying to use biomechanics to keep their pitchers healthy and successful.  Some of the teams work with ASMI on this, and others work with our biomechanists.  Biomechanics is helping some teams and some players, and I predict that this effort will continue to grow.  Think of this as “Moneyball, Part 2.”  As you know Michael Lewis’ Moneyball showed how the science of statistical trends can improve the performance of players and teams.  The science of biomechanics is now being used to improve the performance of players and teams.  “Moneyball, Part 2” is actually a very appropriate name for this phenomenon, as the Oakland A’s were the first pro team is use biomechanics as part of their program.  The A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson started bringing pitchers like Barry Zito and Tim Hudson to ASMI in 2002 (the season featured in the Moneyball movie). For more details of how this started in pro baseball, read this old interview.

So, to answer your question, I think biomechanics is being used more by some MLB teams than people realize.  I think the impact will become even greater in the near future.  I think the success depends on the following three issues:

1. The ability of biomechanists to clearly explain findings to coaches.
2. The ability of coaches to make changes in the mechanics of pitchers.
        3. The convenience of biomechanical testing. 

Note: up until now, a pitcher had to come to ASMI for an evaluation.  Pitchers still come to ASMI from all across the country, but ASMI now also has the capability to bring its lab to a team’s spring training facility.

In Part II we’ll talk about specific types of injuries, along with a look into some of Dr. Fleisig’s—and colleagues’—published research.

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