For major league pitchers, tech revolution not yet ready-to-wear
David Price’s prized left elbow receives seemingly constant care. In between starts, he’ll wear an array of sleeves that offer compression, heat, and vibratory stimulation to the joint that jeopardized his 2017 season. In the dugout, he has been seen employing a tool that looks like a medieval torture implement to massage his wrist and forearm.
The handle-with-care approach by the Red Sox lefthander is understandable. After all, forearm issues limited Price to 11 starts last year and created curiosity about whether his elbow was a time bomb ticking toward Tommy John surgery.
While Price has avoided that fate, the scare crystallized his desire to avoid the knife and to stay on the mound, which might help explain the attention he has visited on his elbow this year.
But for all the precautions that Price is taking, he is not using MLB-approved in-game wearable technology. Indeed, when asked about such devices, which monitor workload and elbow stress, he expressed no knowledge of their availability.
“I have not used it,” he said. “I don’t know how they measure stress on the elbow.”
Back up two years.
In early 2016, Major League Baseball and the Players Association approved the in-game use of two wearable technologies: the motusTHROW, a sensor placed on the elbow that tracks workload and arm stress, and the Zephyr BioHarness, which monitors heart rate and breathing.
The list has since been expanded to include Catapult GPS tracker and WHOOP, a sensor strapped to the wrist that measures heart rate and general body strain over the course of a day with an eye toward guiding recovery (including sleep).
The motusTHROW has the greatest relevance for Price and other pitchers worried about preserving their elbows.
“It’s a small sensor that goes in a sleeve that’s worn over the elbow,” said Will Carroll, director of media relations at Motus Global. “Our device measures throw count, arm speed, arm slot — meaning where the elbow is in relation to the body, the rotation of the arm — how far it rotates back, how far it’s working forward, and it measures the force on the elbow, specifically on the ulnar collateral ligament, with each and every throw.”
The technology has the potential to help manage pitcher workload in a way that could limit injuries. If, for instance, a slight arm angle change can be detected, then a team can try to make a mechanical adjustment or prescribe rest to restore the strength that helps a pitcher maintain his delivery. Or if a pitcher is able to throw with greater velocity without generating undue stress in his elbow, he can have greater confidence when airing it out on the mound.
“We have a tool that will help guide you,” said Carroll. “We’re not going to tell you what to do, but it’s kind of like driving a car that doesn’t have a speedometer. You think you know how fast you’re going — but maybe you are, maybe you aren’t.
“We want to help guide those decisions. We think better information creates better decisions.”
The in-game wearables agreement was intended to create the possibility of shared efforts to preserve player health while maximizing performance. According to the terms, use of the devices is completely voluntary.
If the devices are used, the data are made available only after games (so in-game decision-making isn’t influenced), are available to a select few members of the organization (typically the general manager, assistant GM, manager, and the training and medical staff), and are inadmissible in arbitration hearings.
Players also can purchase the device themselves. If they do, they can choose whether or not to provide the data to teams or doctors (such as Dr. James Andrews). Any data provided to teams can be destroyed at the request of the player.
Despite these protections meant to ease pitchers’ fears that teams might abuse the information, almost none are using the motusTHROW in games.
Price, Drew Pomeranz, and Carson Smith — all of whom have dealt with elbow/forearm issues in the recent past — were unaware of the sensor. The fact that it hasn’t been publicized widely with players is a product of the general distrust they express about the use of such technology.
Despite the fact that the data can’t be used in arbitration hearings, pitchers remain suspicious of what teams might do with such medical information.
“It could turn into something they want to use against you,” said Pomeranz. “Some stuff is too much information. There’s a place for all of it, I think. It’s not just, ‘Oh, that’s bad,’ but relying on some of this stuff is a little too far.”
Moreover, many pitchers prefer to respond individually to how their body feels rather than relying on biometric data.
“I think you’re going to feel it if something like [elbow stress] is going on,” said Price. “If you’re feeling good and throwing well and get negative feedback from that, I think that might mess with you and cause you to change something that might lead to your shoulder hurting or back hurting.
“You might do something different that you’re not accustomed to, just because you’ve got results on that that you weren’t expecting to get even though you’ve been throwing the ball well.
“I think the biggest thing is listen to your body. You’ve got to be able to do that. I heard that a lot when I was a younger guy in the big leagues from all the veterans — to take a day off from throwing. The longer you do this, the better you understand that.”
A fan in Betances
Even so, the technology does have its advocates in the big leagues, the foremost being Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, a Motus spokesperson. Betances, who accesses his data on a Motus app and does not make it available to the Yankees, said he has used the sensor in a sleeve on occasion during games, but he relies on it more during the offseason and to monitor work between outings.
“When you first put it on, you feel the chip in there, but once you start throwing, you don’t even think about it,” said Betances, who had ligament reinforcement surgery in 2009, early in his pro career. “It’s just there. It doesn’t affect you in any way.
“It’s something I was interested in, just because I’ve had injuries in the past. If you can find a way to prevent some of these, the information that the Motus chip allows you to have and the Motus app is good information.
“It’s information you can use not only to prevent injuries but maybe if you feel like your arm angle is different than it’s accustomed to being, it can help fix that and let you perform better, too.”
Many big leaguers use such sensors during offseason workouts. Data-driven performance-training facilities such as Driveline Baseball — an industry leader to which many players flock in the offseason — employ such technologies. Still, in-game application has been almost nonexistent.
While use of wearables is voluntary for major leaguers, minor leaguers who aren’t on 40-man rosters aren’t governed by the same MLB/MLBPA negotiated restrictions. As such, some organizations are encouraging more widespread use of the devices among their minor league pitchers.
For now, the Red Sox have avoided such use — at the minor league and big league levels.
“Players hesitate in general about anything where they feel like a lab rat while they’re trying to compete,” said Red Sox director of pitching analytics Brian Bannister. “Other sports where it’s GPS-based, like football and basketball, there’s no opposition.
“I think anything where it’s actually measuring stress on the body over time during a performance, you just haven’t seen a lot of adoption.
“I prefer it in more of a lab setting where everyone is on board vs. forcing a player, trying to convince them to use it in a game or something similar.”
Things may change
The Sox and other teams feel little need to push the point. After all, the Red Sox are one of the teams using motion-capture technology that uses cameras to log a lot of the biomechanical data that could be provided by the motusTHROW.
“We’re already doing stuff like that, just not in a wearable format,” said Bannister. “You can do different things with high-speed cameras, machine learning, things like that, that generate the same results but you’re not forcing a player to actually wear something that can potentially impact or modify how he throws or just his mental state while competing.”
In some ways, elbow sensors such as the motusTHROW (available commercially for $150 a pop) may be more useful for Little Leaguers as well as high school and college players who are subject to looser oversight and more vulnerable to excessive workloads.
Even so, while in-game wearables haven’t been embraced at the big league level, their potential applications remain significant as players and teams make sense of how to use them. Sports sit at a fascinating crossroads of emergent technologies and privacy concerns, as players and teams grapple with the question of how to use new technological frontiers to their advantage. While players now exhibit an arm’s-length hesitation about such devices, over time that may change.
“You never know until you try the device, right?” said Betances. “I like it. I definitely find good use for it.
“I think us pitchers, we’re accustomed to doing things a certain way. You don’t want to mess around. But from me using it before, it had no bad effect on how you pitch. You don’t even feel it. I think the more people use it, the more they’ll like it.”