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Sabermetrics and its performance enhancing effects

This past week's Saber Seminar in Boston featured many of the sport's forward thinkers, including many whom live within the interface of human performance disciplines and baseball. In a day and age where the definitions and boundaries of performance enhancement are being pushed and redefined constantly, could the use of sabermetric principles and the latest advances in our understanding of the body in motion be considered its own brand of 'PED"?

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Brian Bannister
Brian Bannister
Greg Fiume

There are many underlying and joining themes that have had the time to marinate within my mind after spending the weekend in Boston at Saber Seminar along with fellow Beyond the Box Score'er Alex Skillin. If you haven't already, please check out his daily recaps of the Seminar here and here. For a primary theme of the weekend, I think it is easily that my cup runneth over with fantastic people, ideas, and presentations from all walks of sabermetric life and disciplines. Beyond that, the second underlying theme I walked away with after the weekend is one that is slightly biased, but one that helped to tie the weekend and all of the participants together into a quirky game of six (or less) degrees of separation.

Biased due to my own background in medicine and science and also my own personal trials and tribulations as a player looking for an edge, an advantage over the opponent, or even my fellow teammate.

Poring over notes and replaying discussions and presentation slides in my mind and with the help of time, I look at the weekend and can't help but notice how, regardless of your own sabermetric interests, all of the subdisciplines all go back to a desire to know more about a pitch, a situation, a player -- all done in an effort to enhance performance.

The use of that phrase can sometimes be a bit of a faux pas depending upon the environment and situation you find yourself in and with the recent developments surrounding Alex Rodriguez and his Biogenesis cohorts, this sentiment has only grown. Yet, with a mind on the science and the science on my mind, and a tearful look back at my own failed baseball career, the phrase tends to dominate the grander being of one who competes. The fulcrum of the seesaw between success and failure will always be the interpretation and implementation of ideas, processes, and tangible supplements (pharmaceutical or otherwise), and will be what inevitably determines which end of the seesaw a player finds them self on -- propelled to new heights, or prevailing to the ultimate regressor of gravity.

While baseball is my ultimate passion and interest, it was the more scientific aspects of the weekend and the presentations that I found myself more enthralled with. In particular, I found the presentations by Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) to be heaping spoonfuls of food for thought. In his first day discussion on the biomechanics of pitching, Dr. Fleisig posed that three crucial keys to ultimate pitching success, regardless of which statistic you use to measure it, will be built upon the foundation of exercise science, nutrition, and biomechanics, and the proper understanding and utilization of those disciplines as they apply to individuals. Fleisig and his fellow researchers at ASMI have made a name for themselves with the biomechanical evaluation of pitchers through their use of the 3D, high-speed, infrared, eight-camera Motion Analysis System and with published results of their years of performing these evaluations on players of all ages and talent levels. While the initial focus of this research was to better understand mechanisms of injury and assist the medical community and their efforts on preventing injuries, the technology has evolved into an industry where individual biomechanical and anatomic limitations can be found and tweaked to optimize pitching mechanics and therefore, results. Poor mechanics are at the crux of many injuries seen in baseball, especially in pitching, and with a better understanding of the body in rest and in exercise, efforts can be made to minimize flaws and maximize mechanics, as well as strength and conditioning regimens. With this, the minimization of poor decisions made relating to workloads or pitch repertoire can be accomplished. Dr. Fleisig's second presentation on pitch counts and injuries in adolescent baseball went further into detail on this last thought, and how knowing the limitations of the human body, in particular the shoulder and elbow, have evolved over the years and is now disproving much of what had been considered common knowledge 20 years ago regarding what pitches younger players should use and the stresses on their bodies prior to puberty. In short, knowing your body, inside and out, can enhance performance.

Keeping with the biomechanical theme, let's discuss Doug Thorburn's talk on pitching analysis and some of his thoughts on how to reform some aspects of the discipline. Thorburn wears many hats, including Baseball Prospectus writer as well as the co-author of Arm Action, Arm Path, & The Perfect Pitch along with pitching mechanics guru Dr. Tom House, among many other endeavours, and is considered by many to be an expert on pitching mechanics and the manifestations of individual mechanical traits. Thorburn started his talk outlining the general trajectory towards success and how it is important to distinguish process versus outcome when studying pitching mechanics. Overall, the pathway is this:

mechanics → stuff → stats

Pitching mechanics will affect a pitcher's 'stuff' and how good his pitches are and essentially, his ability to get batters out; from that comes the resulting statistics, be it ERA, wins, losses, ground ball rates, or any other measurement of pitching success.

From this, Thorburn discussed the mechanical minutiae, particularly arm slot, that can determine the differences between a strikeout and a ground ball, and between a good fastball and an elite fastball. He posited that a pure 'over the top' release point could potentially reduce fastball velocity due to the pitcher's arm at release point being further away from the plate compared a less pronounced over the top delivery. Also mentioned is the notion that an over the top delivery induces more ground balls due to the plane of the pitch as it comes into the hitting zone; again, Thorburn's research has shown that not to always be the case. In general, any aspect of a pitcher's delivery, be it the positioning of their head, the tilt of their spine, or even the use of a slide step to counter the running game, can affect the kinetic chain and therefore, their command and control, oftentimes, in a detrimental fashion. Thorburn brought up examples with Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson and the effects of their deliveries on the kinetic chain, in particular, how interruptions to the kinetic chain caused pitches to end up in the strike zone and being hit. Knowing your mechanics and its effects on your kinetic chain can enhance performance.

Sometimes a thorough understanding of your body and proper mechanics won't keep you from an injury; unfortunately, they happen in competition. Dr. Christopher Geary, Chief of Sports Medicine and an orthopedic surgeon at Tufts Medical Center, centered his talk on this exact notion as it pertains to the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Dr. Geary discussed the sports medicine and orthopedic aspects of Red Sox season thus far, and highlighted some of the more newsworthy injuries and treatment and rehabilitation protocols that have kept, for the most part, the Sox on the right side of the health ledger. In particular, he detailed Mike Napoli's hip avascular necrosis (AVN), Davis Ortiz' achilles tendinosis, as well as Clay Buchholz' shoulder woes, of which there are a few. Breaking down many ''-osis' related health aspects of the team, Geary touched upon the necessity to approach causes of a disorder in a different manner than the general population, as well as the treatment options available for these Sox case studies, many of which don't necessarily involve a surgeon's scalpel. Also discussed was the use of steroids in the treatment of many sports injuries and the difference between the doctor prescribed corticosteroids and the oftentimes synthetic, anaobolic form of steroids that are banned from use. Dr. Geary's talk highlighted the value of not only having current knowledge and understanding of how to treat a given disorder, but also how what is considered standard protocol for 99% of the population may not be the right treatment approach for the elite MLB athlete. Also touched upon was the understanding of Napoli's AVN, and how it differed not only compared to the average sufferer (older males who have a history of excessive alcohol consumption), but also to other athletes; Dr. Geary discussed how the initial diagnosis could conjure thoughts of Bo Jackson's hip injury and how it cut short his career and led him to several hip replacements. Napoli's form of AVN was not as severe as Jackson's and with the help of some medication and follow ups with magnetic resonance imaging studies, Napoli should not be grossly impaired by his AVN. Being armed with the most recent medical knowledge and understanding its proper application towards the treatment of elite athletes can enhance the overall performance of a team.

Tying all of this medical and scientific knowledge came from a couple of different sources, but was expressed most cogently and broadly by former pitcher Brian Bannister's talk on the second day. Not blessed with impact velocity or pitches, Bannister spent his career in pursuit of an advantage that would counter his average stuff, something that would make the tools he did have better and allow him to compete beyond what his raw talent would typically lend. An ASMI pitching evaluation alumnus, the former Kansas City Royal righthander went into great discussion over what a player can do to gain an edge, and mentioned biomechanical evaluation, intimate knowledge of pitching mechanics and a willingness to make the relevant adjustments not only to these mechanics but also in the pitch types a player can throw, even the style of a given pitch. He gave an example of how his changeup went from a good to a great pitch after a chat with former teammate Ramon Ramirez convinced him to move his hand placement on the ball and make more of an effort to just throw it as hard as he could, thereby introducing more arm action and deception.

Bannister also trumpeted the use of sabermetrics and PITCHf/x information in helping him make the necessary adjustments game in and game out, in an effort to stay one step ahead of hitters, despite his subpar fastball velocity. This ties in well with PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis' discussion of what makes an effective changeup and how movement and velocity play roles not only in determining the success of a pitch, but also in potentially improving the classification of a pitcher's changeup. From his work in this arena, Pavlidis provided anecdotes of how Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy has chatted with him on Twitter and elsewhere about how the implementation of PITCHf/x data into his usual preparation for a team or a particular hitter. McCarthy is similar to Bannister in that he has made intimations that the implementation of sabermetric information has propelled some of the changes in his pitching approach and repertoire seen over the years. The use of advanced statistical data can be of use in enhancing performance, when utilized properly.

Many disciplines and interests, all joined by the cog of potential performance enhancement and without any of the messy legal ramifications seen with PED use. While it isn't as cut and dried as it has been presented here, the incorporation of additional data in an effort to gain an edge over your opponent is ripe for the picking with respect to sabermetric data. When you consider that professional organizations have easy access to this information as well as other proprietary information that the general public can only dream of viewing and analyzing, it begs the question -- why aren't more players taking advantage of this data? Why is there not a steady convoy of professional players headed towards Birmingham, Alabama and the ASMI facility to get personalized information of their biomechanical strengths and weaknesses? If there is a majority of clubs using these data, why is not more heralded or reported? Is it out of corporate espionage concerns and the desire to have your opponent know as little about you before competition? Independent of this, why do we still have stories of youngsters going under the knife for preemptive ulnar collateral ligament replacement -- Tommy John surgery -- even though they show no diagnostic or clinical problems, which was the inspiration for one of the student presentations, done by Rebecca Fishbein (The Effect of Tommy John Surgery on Fastball Velocity)? Why can we still point to 20 or so names on a Biogenesis Report, but only to a handful of players who publicly acknowledge looking at sabermetric data to gain an advantage? While these questions are probably beyond the purview of what was presented at Saber Seminar, people in the know like Bannister and also Gabe Kapler do provide some insight as to why one path is (or isn't chosen) over another.

In the end, the weekend spent at Saber Seminar conjured up more questions than answers and I strive to answer them all here at Beyond the Box Score in my coming articles.


Stuart Wallace is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.