November 9, 2016

The New Moneyball: One Team's Quest to Prevent Injuries


Big tech companies like Google and Facebook are famous for having gourmet restaurants masquerading as office cafeterias. The kitchen at the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse is not such a place.

That is no knock on the food’s quality but rather its aim—thanks to the implementation of a far-reaching, analytics-driven new medical program that is fully integrated with strength and conditioning and nutrition. It might not be as tasty, but it’s the type of empirical approach that’d jibe well with those aforementioned tech titans.

“The food in the cafeteria, it’s a lot healthier options,” Nationals first baseman Clint Robinson said. “It’s changed a lot. There’s a lot more fish—any sort, all kinds. Last year was good food, lasagnas and pastas and all that kind of stuff. This year it’s more of healthier options: vegetables, sweet potatoes, that kind of thing. I’m not saying better tasting, but definitely healthier.”

Starting pitcher Tanner Roark said there’s an emphasis on avoiding inflammatory foods, which for him are cherries and strawberries, and that dairy is minimized. Not all of it is culinarily pleasing—“Almond milk, that tastes terrible with cereal,” Roark said—but the overall goal is to keep players healthy and performing at a high level. Meals are fuel.

“There are tons of different things that help your body recover faster,” he said. “Throughout this long season, the grinder of a season, you’ve got to know your body and what to put in it.”

The architect of this far-reaching program—of which the mess hall cuisine is just one small, but visible, portion—is Harvey Sharman, a physiotherapist hired away from the Leeds United Football Club, where he was its director of sports medicine and science.

English soccer is thought to outpace North American sports in its utilization of analytics in the training room. Sharman’s bio in the Nationals media guide boasts, “Sharman focused on movement dysfunction, and, subsequently, the development of injury-prevention strategies. With Leeds, Sharman oversaw an injury reduction of over 50 percent, including a significant drop in soft-tissue injuries (muscular/ligament/tendon injuries).”

Finding a competitive advantage through studying and modeling performance is becoming increasingly difficult, as even the most laggard clubs now have robust analytics departments. The more fertile area is now in protecting the biggest financial investment: the players. That’s why, at Sharman’s introductory press conference, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo described this field as “maybe the next Moneyball,” citing the ubiquitous catch-all phrase for market inefficiency. The Nationals are hardly alone in this endeavor—Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, the originator of Moneyball, is an advisor to Kitman Labs, a pioneering company in injury prevention—but the team’s transformation is among the most extreme.

The roots of this field in baseball could be traced to 2002 at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) where renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and his Ph.D. research director, Glenn Fleisig, were seeing younger and younger pitchers with elbow injuries. ASMI’s mission had always been prevention and treatment, but they realized the balance was skewed toward the latter. They began promoting their lab to all pitchers, not just those who were injured or rehabbing, to become more proactive in diagnosing baseline readings for pitchers and identifying risk factors.

“That’s when someone put biomechanics on the map for prevention,” Fleisig said.

Injuries, especially to pitchers, have undoubtedly reached epidemic stages. Former Los Angeles Dodgers medical head Stan Conte made a presentation at M.I.T.’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2013 in which he noted that starting pitchers have a 50.3 percent injury rate and that the rate for position players is 33.6 percent.

Major League Baseball has created a comprehensive injury database called HITS that is more expansive than a simple tracking of disabled lists. Physicians for other teams have spoken about instituting exhaustive spring training evaluations to create a medical “fingerprint” from which they can compare later deviations in, say, leg extension to better discern whether there’s an injury.