Science gives Crew edge in keeping arms healthy
Injury prevention for pitchers is focus of team's unique three-day medical symposium
MILWAUKEE -- For nearly a decade, the Brewers quietly have been on the forefront of injury prevention, particularly in the pitching department. Now they are speaking up about it.
So medical director Roger Caplinger invited two of the club's regular beat reporters on Friday to the first day of the Brewers' annual medical symposium, a three-day event that included all of the club's key front-office officials, plus doctors, athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coordinators from every level of the Minor League system. They covered a wide array of topics, but one essential question dominated the discussion:
Can science keep pitchers healthy?
"Probably 60-70 percent [of the symposium] is about pitching," said Dr. William Raasch, the Brewers' head physician and an expert on biomechanics.
"It's all important," assistant general manager Gord Ash said, "but certainly pitching is [at the forefront]."
General manager Doug Melvin and Ash took over a franchise in late 2002 that had a poor reputation for keeping pitchers healthy and set out to gradually change that. There were setbacks and learning experiences along the way -- Ben Sheets owning the highest-profile, oft-injured arm -- but over the past 10 years only the White Sox have had fewer disabled-list days than the Brewers. Sports Illustrated's injury expert, Will Carroll, who was to make a presentation on Saturday, said Major League teams paid $1.7 billion to disabled pitchers over the past decade.
The Brewers are trying to limit their contribution to that pool, and their symposium, Carroll said, is unique in baseball.
"Nobody else has a one-day symposium," he said. "Occasionally they'll put everybody together, but you'll never see if where the Minor League guys are here, the Minor League doctors are here. ...
"There are teams that think a dollar not spent on payroll is a dollar wasted. Here, it's very clear they think a dollar spent on medical is probably a dollar you're doubling or tripling the value of."
A key component of the Brewers' effort is biomechanical analysis of pitchers, a process by which eight cameras and dozens of electrical sensors capture a player's throwing motion and measures stresses on individual body parts. Over the last decade, in a partnership between the Brewers and Froedtert Sports Medicine Center, Raasch has gathered about 350 such analyses. They represent about 150 pitchers in the team's system, some measured multiple times."What we've done is try to perfect it," Raasch said. "It's one thing to collect the data; it's another thing to figure out what to do with the data. ... With any database, you have all these numbers and these forces and these stresses, but it means nothing unless you have some sort of a baseline to compare it to." The Brewers' baseline comes from the fact they can compare the data to real-world results over time. This has been particularly useful, Raasch said, for pitchers like Yovani Gallardo, who has been analyzed multiple times over a series of seasons. Gallardo, for what it's worth, scores very well in his analyses, Raasch said. "We know that baseball, with the forces that it generates, is going to break tissue down over time," Raasch said. "So what we're looking at, basically, is risk assessment." The Brewers assess that risk on a five-point scale, with one being "pristine" and five being "stay away." In at least one instance last winter, the Brewers were right on the cusp of making an offer to a free agent when Caplinger's medical assessment convinced them otherwise. Ash declined to name the player. The Brewers are applying the same assessment to potential Draft picks and signees. Ash described it as "proactive insurance."
"Rather than go to the insurance company for some kind of protection, we can do some of this ourselves," Ash said. "This is how deep this [symposium] goes -- the insurance guy is here, too."
The weekend was not all pitching.Carroll and astrophysicist Meredith Wills were to make a Saturday presentation about their new field tracking system, which would allow a team to measure and analyze every movement on a baseball field. An example: A shortstop moved a certain distance at a certain speed to field a ground ball, 'X' seconds to transfer the baseball to his hand and 'X' more seconds to throw the ball 'X' feet at 'X' mph to first base. Over the course of time, the system develops maps that could aid in defensive positioning while also noting subtle changes in players' performance, potentially predicting injuries before they occur. It could also help teams quantify whether or not a rehabbing player is ready to return to action. "It will end up somewhere. It would be nice if it ended up here [at Miller Park]," Wills said. "I would say that whoever goes with this first is going to have an advantage. Even back at the Winter Meetings when this was still in development, I had people in baseball saying, 'Oh, you've got Moneyball 2.0.'" Whether or not the Brewers invest in that particular technology, they will press on with their injury prevention efforts. Other teams are taking notice, Ash said. "Doug got several calls this year saying, 'What are you guys doing? We see your model as being very effective,'" Ash said. "So, obviously you can't replace a lack of talent. But if you have talent, that ability to keep them on the field is a competitive advantage. I don't want to be too cooperative with our competitors, because I think we are unique."