This Fourth of July, I celebrated my patriotism by dialing up Glenn Fleisig, Ph.D., of the American Sports Medicine Institute, to ask whether the Motus Pitcher Sleeve is really the savior of baseball that it's reported to be. In case you missed it, Will Carroll wrote last week about this space-age compression sleeve, with built-in accelerometer and force-measuring sensors, which could help pitchers avoid Tommy John surgery. Carroll went so far as to say that "it could be the Holy Grail of pitching." Dr. Fleisig is not only the Research Director at ASMI, the leading center for baseball science, but he is also directly involved in the development of the Motus sleeve.
The Sleeve, which covers the elbow from about the biceps to the forearm, measures data concerning stress on the elbow during the pitching process. That data can help organizations, coaches and even the pitchers themselves make adjustments that could potentially prevent injury. For example, the Motus Pitcher Sleeve could tell you if a pitcher's arm speed or angle is dropping (a sign of early fatigue) before the pitcher himself started to feel tired. Because fatigue, both long- and short-term, leads to injury, this high-tech tracking tool could eliminate much of the guesswork as to whether a pitcher is drained. It could change our view of each pitcher's limitations by focusing on issues in real time. No more arbitrary pitch limits, no more deferring to a veteran pitcher's stubbornness in the later frames, no more trusting the manager's gut to figure whether a pitcher is out of gas. If the Sleeve says the guy is tiring, he is tiring -- end of debate.
This is fantastic news, to be sure, but is it baseball's salvation? The Motus Pitcher Sleeve is a tool that measures one part of the pitcher's body, the elbow. As useful as that is, it's only one piece of the puzzle. There are no measurements of the shoulder, wrist, hips, neck, foot landing or direction down the mound -- all things that are important to the pitching process, many of which can lead directly to elbow stress. That's a lot of missing components. For those who are less astute about pitching injuries, it's easy to misconstrue the Motus as an injury-prevention panacea, and that confusion could do more harm than good.
Baseball frequently sees a trickledown effect of behaviors and gimmicks. Success in the big leagues has a way of not only endorsing the means by which it comes, but also the ridiculous, circumstantial things around it. A guy makes the All-Star team while wearing a Phiten necklace, and suddenly Phiten is on the neck of every little leaguer. Your coach tells you to catch with two hands, but when you turn on the television to watch the home team, your favorite star is using one. Now there is a Super-Sleeve out there that supposedly will save your career and prevent you from having an injury. Can this thing be trusted?
I told Dr. Fleisig, "I'm worried that younger kids and coaches are going to think that, because they put on this Sleeve, it will keep them safe or give them success when, really, it is a tool for measuring certain types of data."
"That's correct," said Fleisig. "The Motus sleeve is not making elbows stronger. Pitchers continue to get stronger and throw harder, in many cases creating dangerously high stress in their elbow and shoulder ligaments and tendons."
"The Motus doesn't tell you everything," he added. For example, it can't tell you "you if the timing is off between your lower body and pitching arm. The Motus sleeve can tell you there is consistently high stress on your elbow, that you are, just that you are putting stress on it. If there is high, consistent high stress, that [a pitcher's] full mechanics may need [to be] looked at."
The Motus may identify a problem, but it won't give you the fix. It can't change a pitchers body or its natural limitations. The question isn't whether the Motus can be trusted. The question is whether we can be trusted with such a useful tool.
Baseball's big data explosion has focused almost exclusively on discovering, tracking and developing more effective players, with methods that can track on-field production (and assign value to it) prized above all. Almost every baseball accessory or instructional how-to is done with the intention of increasing the frequency of a positive result. Trying to convince a player he should change because something might help him stay healthy, but, at the same time, might make him less effective, is a tall order.Those two "mights" are not the same.
There is already a superior option to the Motus Pitcher Sleeve, and it's been there for years: a full biomechanical analysis by Dr. Fleisig and company. ASMI provides a full breakdown of a thrower's mechanics and evaluates everything in the kinetic chain. Hip rotation, leg landing, arm, elbow, balance, finish -- the whole shebang, under the watchful eyes of the field's foremost experts. If you want to know absolutely everything you could be doing to improve your delivery that humanity has yet discovered, tailored specifically to you, that's the route to take.
So why aren't people lining up at ASMI's door, professional and amateur alike? Some would say money or the ease of understanding the process, but I believe it has more to do with baseball's longstanding tradition of connecting any changes it makes to a proven, positive result on the field. If the numbers add up, it's relatively easy to convince the side of the game that deals with numbers all the time. The hardest converts are always the players themselves.
When I was rehabbing from my 2010 shoulder surgery in Birmingham, under the same roof as ASMI, I had the opportunity to have my mechanics evaluated. I had the time and the tools, and I was making big-league minimum -- over $400,000 a year -- so I could easily afford the couple grand it would cost. Still, I said no. I thought it would make me less effective. I know, one look at my career numbers and you have to ask yourself, "Is it even possible for a person to become less effective than you were, Hayhurst?" Nonetheless, that was my thinking.
I had a tall delivery that allowed me to get good downhill angle on the ball. I knew that I had mechanical flaws, but I was afraid that if I got sequenced by ASMI's biomechanical pitching mainframe, I'd be told I was a mess. I might be forced to change my approach and end up out of the game faster. I believed my mechanical imperfections made me deceptive and marketable, that they'd gotten me to the majors and were keeping me there. If I was going to change what I'd been doing for nearly 20 years, I needed Dr. Fleisig to tell me his method was going to make me better in terms of on-field production -- not just potentially better, not just less injury-prone.
Truth be told, that evaluation might have extended my career. When I washed out, it wasn't because I couldn't get enough hitters out to find another gig holding a Triple A rotation together. UItimately, I washed out because I could not stay healthy or pain-free doing it. But my fear of getting my mechanics screwed up by tinkering scientists -- who couldn't even guarantee me a net gain -- is not unique to me. Players are very possessive of whatever qualities they believe make them successful. Even if they can't explain it or correctly quantify it, they will resist changing it. It's how bad habits are born, how incorrect approaches are reinforced when good on-field results are falsely correlated.
Big data and sabermetrics go against the way most players want to operate, which is by feel and instinct. Most players want less data rattling around in their head while they're working, not more. Overhauling their methods because a pack of numbers they don't understand says that they should, as presented to them by someone who's never wore a set of big-league pants -- that's hard to swallow. My career is not your experiment, and, besides, I've gotten this far without any of your fancy science gimmicks!
This is where I think the Motus Pitcher Sleeve will succeed, in fact, and where it could change everything. The Sleeve is a simple, easily applied tool that measures potentially hazardous and correctable factors in a pitcher's delivery. It's a sleek, data-gathering instrument that makes big data easy to digest for ballplayers. Hell, if you ship it with a built-in MP3 player, pitchers will buy it for that reason alone.
As Dr. Fleisig said, a pitcher who is showing signs of problems via the Motus' measurements may want to get a full evaluation. Finally, those potential problems could be understood as negative, even when the on-field results are temporarily positive. With an objective tool like the Motus, false correlations are wiped away. Most players form habits based on in-game results, which are unpredictable and arbitrary. The Motus holds the promise of helping athletes adopt new performance measurement systems, along with the career-extending data they offer.