There are five tools for a position player in baseball: Hit, Power, Arm, Speed, Field. Perhaps there will soon be a sixth, albeit unstated, tool: Health.
There are plenty of players that possess Major League-average levels in the five main tools, but always seem to be held back from their true potential by nagging injuries. A good example is the Colorado Rockies’ shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki. Every year he puts up MVP-caliber numbers until he inevitably goes down with a serious injury. Some players, like Jose Tabata in the Majors and Barrett Barnes in the minors, seem prone to muscle pulls and strains.
Every time a player goes on the Disabled List, that’s a portion of their yearly salary that is being wasted. At times, there are millions of dollars on the shelf, which can cripple a small-budget team like the Pirates. That’s why an interesting trend has been developing over the past three seasons. The Pirates have consistently been under the Major League average for cumulative days spent on the Disabled List by their players.
Last December, Hardball Times published an exhaustive review on injuries from the 2014 season. The whole article is loaded with charts and graphs on shoulder, elbow, hand, back injury breakdowns by team and by season. But this graph showing the cumulative days lost during the 2014 season is an eyebrow-raiser:
As per the article, the Pirates only lost 409 man-days to the DL in 2014. Take a look at the cataclysmic total of 2,116 days for the Rangers. That’s a sure-fire recipe to finishing in dead last.
Is this a one year anomaly or part of a trend? If it’s a trend, what are the Pirates doing differently? Further in the Hardball Times article, they show a chart of the past three seasons (2012-14) and the Pirates have the 7th best average days lost among all teams.
Whether it’s a case of cause equaling correlation or just random noise, that time period lines up with the tenure of Strength and Conditioning Coach, Brendon Huttmann. As per Huttmann’s bio on the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches’ Society page, Huttmann was hired after the 2011 season by the Pirates. He was the Dodgers’ Strength and Conditioning Coach from 2008-2011 and they showed up poorly in terms of days lost to the DL.
But perhaps between Huttmann’s evolving techniques, lessons learned from his Dodgers days, and the presence of new biometric tracking technology, the Pirates have tapped into a ‘market inefficiency’ to gain an edge on the competition. As detailed thoroughly in this Grantland article last September, the Pirates have been using a tracking device called the Zephyr Bioharness 3 to monitor caloric intake and workout metrics among certain players (Russell Martin was the main subject of the piece) and then adjusting their diet and exercise routines accordingly.
Injuries can never be fully prevented, but they can be minimized, especially ones that don’t result from impacts. Oblique strains, hamstring pulls, and back issues can all add up 15 days at a time. This doesn’t even touch on keeping players healthier from day-to-day as they manage the grind of a six-month season played out primarily in the summer months.
Pitchers are a trickier animal to attempt to minimize injuries because the whole motion of throwing a baseball at high velocity is an unnatural act for the human body. But there are companies, such as Driveline Baseball, that specialize in biomechanical analysis for pitchers. Driveline Baseball observes a pitcher’s motion with the use of high speed cameras and attempts to detect potential red flags that may lead to injury, plus trying to unlock a few extra miles per hour from the arm.
High speed cameras to analyze a pitcher are pretty expensive for you and I, but for a Major League team with pitching assets in the tens of millions of dollars, it seems like a sound investment. Whether the Pirates are doing this or not in the bowels of PNC Park, they aren’t saying, most likely to maintain an advantage over the rest of the teams. However, if just one rotator cuff or elbow surgery can be avoided every year or so, the investment in the equipment would be justified many times over.
Charlie Morton may have already made his annual pilgrimage to the DL, but he’s practically baked into the baseline of numbers at this point. It’s how the rest of the 25-man roster fares this season that bears watching. If the Pirates are again well below-average in terms of days lost, give thanks to the Strength and Conditioning staff headed up by Brendon Huttmann.
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