Cubs Leveraging Advanced Tech to Prevent Injuries to Jose Albertos, Other Prized Prospects

Ed. note: a version of this post appeared in The Athletic, which probably did a better job editing it down to more salient points.

If an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure, it figures that the Cubs and other teams would be willing to invest heavily in technology that can help them keep their players on the field. Then again, one of the tools they are leaning on is actually pretty cheap (more on that later). One example of this tech in action is on the right arm of Jose Albertos, whose young career is only now getting back underway a year after it stalled right out of the gate.

Signed out of Mexico for $1.5 million as a 16-year-old, Albertos seemed almost too good to be true. Just a tad over six feet tall when the Cubs scouted and signed him, the young pitcher is reportedly still growing and could eventually reach 6-2 by the time he’s done. His youth belies an advanced feel, something scouts like to call “pitchability,” that most hurlers have yet to develop at such an early stage, if they ever develop it at all. In short, this kid just gets how to pitch.

What’s really exciting, thought, is that he combines that intuition with elite velocity and great stuff. In his first rookie league start last season, Albertos reportedly touched 98 while allowing only one hit over four innings. Oh, he also struck out seven against a single walk. Not bad for an American professional debut. Thing is, that remains the only official start the teenager has made to date after experiencing the nebulous malady known as forearm tightness.

Though seemingly steeped in mundanity, such issues are often precursors of far more ominous problems with the elbow. As such, the Cubs shut their prized prospect down for a full year just to be safe. It was only earlier this month that Albertos once again began throwing in live action, albeit in extended spring outings that are little more than glorified simulated games. Even so, you have to feel good about the results Bill Mitchell described in Baseball America.

Albertos sat 92-94 mph with the fastball, touching 95, but struggled with the command of both his heater and breaking ball. Albertos has since pitched every five or six days, typically three-inning stint, with the fastball usually at 94-96 with good life, an improving breaking ball which is effective when he throws it for strikes, and a plus changeup for which he has good feel. He delivers his pitches with a clean, three-quarters delivery and good arm speed. While the curveball is behind is other pitches, one veteran pro scout said that the mid- to high-70s breaking ball has good rotation and is one of the best he’s seen from a young pitcher.

The next step for Albertos once EST comes to a close is likely to be short-season Eugene, where he’ll get a chance to ply his trade in abbreviated starts over the next few months. That level of A-ball offers a great proving ground for young pitchers and it’s where Dylan Cease — now unleased at South Bend — spent last season after a year on the shelf following elbow reconstruction.

There are myriad ways to handle promising young pitchers who’ve had injury scares, but they fall mainly into two buckets. The first of those is to cross your fingers and just pray that they remain healthy, keeping Drs. James Andrews and Neal ElAttrache on speed-dial for the day when Tommy John surgery becomes a reality. Never ones to rely on superstition, the Cubs have opted to cast their lot with bucket two, which deals with injury prevention.

If you’ve seen recent pictures of Albertos in action — which you probably haven’t, but who knows — you’ll notice a sleeve on his right arm. It’s the same one sported by the Yankees’ Dellin Betances, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009. It’s not just for looks and it’s not a standard compression sleeve you can buy off the shelf. Manufactured by motus, a “world-leader in advanced biomechanical analysis for all levels of athlete,” this proprietary piece of equipment is part of what the Cubs are banking on to help them keep Albertos and other prospects and big leaguers on the field and off the operating table.

While it may look like most other products you’ve seen, the real key to this accessory goes beyond its polyester/elastine fabric, reinforced J-Panel construction, and TPU welding. Sewn into the sleeve are pockets that house the motusBASEBALL sensor, a device smaller than a Tic-Tac box with a weight of less than 7 grams. It syncs with the motus app via Bluetooth to provide feedback on a pitcher’s workload and UCL stress and supply real-time metrics and data trends to players and coaches alike.

The sensor — the only device of its kind approved by MLB — can also be used by hitters to determine hot and cold zones, along with other info on swing mechanics. But for now we’re only concerned with pitchers. No longer are we forced to deal simply with how a guy’s arm feels or restricting him with some cookie-cutter pitch count based on age or experience. This could be particularly valuable when it comes to pitchers like Albertos who are coming off of an injury and/or attempting to avoid one.

As the father of young boy who’s just getting into kid-pitch baseball and a fan of a team that would do well to develop some pitchers, this stuff is fascinating to me. Which is why I reached out to Will Carroll, fellow Indianapolitan and longtime injury writer for various outlets. Carroll recently resurfaced on Twitter and I saw that he’s now working for motus, a company I’d previously heard him tout during a local radio appearance a couple years ago, as director of media relations.

I reached out and he confirmed for me that Albertos was indeed wearing a motus sleeve, which led to a fascinating conversation about the wearable technology and its applications now and in the future.

“The sensor has accelerometers and gyroscopes, pretty much the same thing you have in your phone,” Carroll explained. “If the sensor moves in a certain way from the elbow, we can say it’s rotating this fast and moving this much and calculate that it’s this much stress on the elbow.

“And we did that by validating it against our motion-capture lab (motus’s founders actually began with Pixar) and we also validated it with ASMI, which is Jim Andrews and Glenn Fleisig, kind of the gold standard for labs. And our sensor is over 99 percent accurate — something like four decimal places out — so if you take someone to our lab and mark them up or put the sensor on them, you’re going to get very similar results.”

While working in a lab with full 360-degree mo-cap is the only way to truly register all the minutia of a pitcher’s delivery, it’s just not practical in terms of wider application across an organization. You can’t have a lab in every city in America and setting up equipment on a field eliminates the possibility for testing in actual game situations. As such, the sensor is ideal because it captures data during actual pitching scenarios both in the moment and over time.

“One of the really exciting things that it does is it measures fatigue using a really advanced calculation that was created by an Australian track coach and that we’ve adapted for baseball,” Carroll continued. “It’s called the acute-to-chronic ratio and it sounds like some really crazy math, but what it comes down to is workload today is obviously very important. If you throw 110 pitches, you’re going to be very tired [that’s the acute portion].

“But your 7- and your 30-day workload [the part of the ratio that shares its name with Dr. Dre’s seminal rap album] is also very important, because if you didn’t build up to throwing those 100-plus pitches, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. So using that and using scheduling – this guy’s going to throw on Friday; or for relievers, how many days are these guys going to be available – a pitching coach is going to come in a say ‘Number 1 is ready to go, Number 2 is ready to go, Number 3 is a little down.’ And he can look at all seven days at a glance from the motus dashboard.

“You start with using common sense, and obviously the Cubs have qualified people in the pitching, the development, the strength and conditioning, and the medical side. What we do is come in behind it and just give them an extra tool that they haven’t had before. You can’t measure fatigue just by asking, ‘Hey, how you feel, son?’ And that’s basically the best tool we’ve had for the last 100 years.

“But it’s 2017 and there ought to be something better and we have it. We don’t want to replace the pitching coach, we’re giving the pitching coach better data with which to make decisions.”

Being able to support what we’ve traditionally used to measure a pitcher’s workload – observation and feel – with actual data could be huge. Think of it like the difference between holding your hand to someone’s forehead to check their temperature as opposed to actually using a thermometer. Or in current baseball application, it’s the way exit velocity and launch angle have helped to quantify those “Holy s—!” home runs.

Just like with the advent of each new Statcast metric, though, it’s important that we understand what the numbers are. And what they aren’t.

“If I tell you what a guy’s arm speed is, how fast it’s rotating, or how many Newton-meters of force he’s putting on his UCL, it’s not going to mean anything at first,” Carroll cautioned. “So the numbers themselves don’t have any inherent meaning. What the numbers do is give you context to understand things. If someone’s throwing at an equivalent arm speed of 95, we know that. We can do that with a radar gun, you don’t need a special sensor for that.

“But [with motus] you can start to see that arm speed slowing down or the arm slot dropping or that point at which you see the UCL strain. It’s the way the numbers interconnect and it all becomes context for what the pitching coach and the manager and the strength and conditioning staff are already doing. A really subjective measure is taken out and suddenly made objective. Instead of ‘I think he looks tired,’ it’s that his arm angle dropped two degrees or his arm speed slowed by four percent.”

“And seeing that arm speed slowing down x percent since the 1st inning, that tells you something. And as you become more comfortable with it, you’re going to understand that two percent might be very little or it might be a whole lot.”

In a game defined by numbers, small differences can yield big results. Baseball analysts are obsessed with numbers, sometimes to point of going blind to the what’s driving them. Nowhere is this more true than with a pitcher’s velocity.

“A lot of times people use velocity, a guy losing a couple miles per hour,” Carroll said. “That comes down to the arm speed, so if you have that information you know it for sure. But we also see guys “muscling up.” You see a starter get into the 6th or 7th inning and his velocity will take that little bump and get back up to 95 suddenly.

“That’s because he’s recruiting more muscles. He’s very literally reaching back for something he didn’t have early and that’s a clear sign of fatigue, even if the velocity looks like a positive. Well, we can look in real time and say ‘Oh, look, he’s pitching faster, but the strain on his elbow has gone up five percent.’ That’s the absolute last thing you want to do and having that type of data at your fingertips, I think, is absolutely game-changing.”

This could indeed be revolutionary when it comes to both injury prevention and rehab. Given that a single win above replacement is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million, any improvement in the ability to keep a good player — either a cost-controlled stud or a $25 million AAV ace — healthy could be worth a mint. And it becomes a no-brainer when you find out such an advantage would cost only $150 per player.

“You can watch and if you see something you don’t like, if you see a level he’s at that you don’t like, he’s out of there,” Carroll explained. “It’s a perfect way to monitor that type of valuable resource that you still want to get on the field. Albertos – or anyone else who uses the product – is going to establish his own baseline. And that baseline is going to be constantly changing, but by being able to use it day after day after day and not interfere with anything you’re doing…you [can] see if he’s taxing that ligament too much.”

It’s important to note here that real-time readings are only available during practice and training sessions, not actual games. Wearables like the motus sensor were approved by MLB and the players union in 2016, but their use is hardly mandatory and there is a stipulation that the data they generate only be available following games.

Having access to such information in the moment, especially at the highest levels, could present a significant competitive advantage. When we’re talking about the infancy of the sport, however, it could offer the ability to keep kids healthy.

“So for those young pitchers especially, this is a really invaluable tool to monitor that progress and make sure they don’t redline that arm.”

It’s obvious what this could mean in terms of protecting the players who are already part of an organization, but what about evaluating those you might want to bring into the fold?

We learned a couple months back about how Theo Epstein and the Red Sox worked to develop proprietary computer simulations to map players’ neural pathways, using the information to find the next David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia. The results Mookie Betts got on the simulator encouraged the Sox to draft the stand-out high school bowler higher than he’d been projected, and look how that worked out.

So what about outfitting potential draftees with motus sensors while they’re pitching in order to gauge their levels of exertion? Whether it’s avoiding that early-round bust or even helping a young player to better recognize and avoid additional stress on his arm, it only makes sense.

Of course, that brings up another quandary that also stems from use of data at the MLB level. Touted as an instrument of injury prevention, some players might see such technology as a way for teams to prevent them from cashing in on big free-agent deals. Though much more contentious in the NBA – remember when Eddy Curry’s refusal to submit to a DNA test precipitated his trade out of Chicago – one can easily imagine how such data could hurt a player.

Teams could potentially use flagging biometric readings to reduce a pitcher’s workload, thus costing him innings-based performance bonuses. Or maybe information about an otherwise unnoticed level of UCL stress could be leaked, thus scaring off suitors and reducing offers in free agency or pushing a player further down in the draft.

The benefits, however, should outweigh the fears, particularly if we bring it back a little closer to home and consider the potential impact on youth baseball and the increasing trend of elbow reconstruction in teens. Would you be willing to part with a Benjamin, two Jacksons, and a Hamilton if it meant avoiding an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon? And I’m not even talking about the cost of the medical claim, though that’s obviously a part of the deal. The opportunity to keep your kid off the operating table is a pretty worthwhile cause.

That’s really the key in all of this for Carroll and motus, the prevention of injuries in the first place and proper rehabilitation of those injuries that do occur. Ideally, Carroll told me, there’d be a sensor on every Little Leaguer in America. And that’s why he’s hoping his company can continue to reduce the price point to make it that much more palatable to parents.

An MLB team would think nothing of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on hundreds of these devices, all with the same goals I have for my son. It’s all about keeping players healthy and on the field, or getting them back as quickly and appropriately as possible. Technology like this is going to be crucial for the Cubs as they seek to develop a crop of home-grown pitchers, especially when it comes to potential impact arms like Cease and Albertos.

There’s no way to completely bridge all the pitfalls standing in the way of a player’s path to the majors, but the ability to prevent injuries, even to a small extend, would be huge. So the next time you see a pitcher wearing one of those arm sleeves, consider that he might not just be doing it for the fashion statement. He might be showing you the future of the game.

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