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How do you get the most out of your baseball team? For years, the smartest minds in the game have used the Moneyball approach, trying to understand what happens on the field through advanced statistics, and using that information to refine the way organizations evaluate talent and spend money on players.
The stat revolution is practically on autopilot now. Major League Baseball has been implementing a rigorous analytics system, even monitoring fields with radar that tracks every movement on the field, from the angle of the ball as it comes screeching off a bat to the efficiency of the route that an outfielder took to that same ball as it heads toward the warning track. This new system will produce terabytes of new data for teams to study and analyze with the expanded personnel that have been hired for just that purpose.
As the Moneyball approach becomes nearly ubiquitous, the stats revolution and the new stats it generates have diminishing returns. The need for number-crunchers won't go away, of course. But it's time for a new revolution in baseball analysis.
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This next great revolution will not be in discovering a more precise way to ferret out Jose Fernandez's VORP (value over a replacement player). It's to make sure that Jose Fernandez doesn't have to be replaced by a replacement-level player at all.
Health, especially pitcher health, is the great frontier for baseball research and organizational improvement. Howard Cole of Forbes, working with numbers provided by baseball analyst Will Caroll, says that between 2008 and 2012, MLB teams lost $1.1 billion in pitcher productivity due to injury. It's a tremendous economic loss for each team.
The first weeks of spring training this year provided all the confirmation possible. Yu Darvish suffered a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He's also going to miss 2015. These are pitchers who cause fans to buy more tickets. Their injury isn't just dead money on the books, but a potential loss of gate-and-concession revenues in a playoff run. Cliff Lee and Gavin Floyd have also been hurt. Even a solid relief pitcher like the Mets' Josh Edgin, whose season is already ending with an appointment for Tommy John surgery, could have been the difference between a third-place finish or a small playoff run.
And yet, baseball organizations who have invested in management teams with math skills have not similarly recruited from the medical, biometric, and nutritional fields. Instead, one of the only strategies used to save pitchers has come from the numbers-geeks; namely, just limiting the number of pitches thrown year to year.
Teams typically have a few athletic trainers who supervise conditioning workouts, and organizations have long-standing relationships with local doctors near their home field. Usually a local orthopedic surgeon is on hand for games, and overseas, there are a few other doctors. But that's the medical equivalent of evaluating players based on the back of their baseball cards. Team doctors rarely travel with the team. The home team shares their team doctor with the visitors. This is the same treatment given to ball boys.
Only a few teams have applied their intelligence in this area. Last year, the Pirates asked catcher Russell Martin to wear a tight-fitting compression shirt outfitted with electronics to track his heartbeat, his stress, and his effort. This kind of tracking presents problems of privacy. Typically in the U.S., medical records are considered the business of patients and doctors only. What happens to players when teams start generating terabytes of biometric data on every individual player?
The answers to that question may trouble privacy advocates. But if players and their union permit it, teams can do so much more to protect players' health — and long-term earning potential. Medical staffs could expand in the same way analytics offices have. Fans want to see star players stay on the field. The players themselves naturally wish to avoid the missed time and the risks of surgery. One-fifth of players who have Tommy John surgery never return to their pre-injury form.
Investing in this ought to be a no-brainer for front offices, and for baseball as a whole. Of course you'd rather have Yu Darvish starting a Sunday night game than a replacement no one has heard of. And rigorous medical analysis helps fans and non-fans in another way, too. Very few people have occupations that make them a risk for Tommy John surgery. But the economics of Major League Baseball mean that professional sports teams have an incentive to get on the bleeding edge of research on preventative health-care for repetitive stress injuries. That's research that can not only improve this Sunday's featured game, but everyone's health.
Editor's note: This article originally misstated the nature of Marcus Stroman's injury. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.
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