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OC Register: Why wearable technology has some MLB free agents feeling nervous this winter

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LOS ANGELES — Think last winter was a frustrating one for baseball’s free agents?

That was just an appetizer.

Later this month, the MLB Players’ Association will release its annual salary report. The average major leaguer made $4,097,122 in 2017 according to the MLBPA’s calculations. (Their formula includes a percentage of each player’s signing bonuses, option buyouts, deferred compensation, and different incentive-clause bonuses in addition to base salary.) The average salary has increased every year since 2004, and anticipation is especially high to see if the trend continues in 2018.

Last winter, the tete-a-tete over tanking teams and unsigned free agents between MLB and the players’ union became a public spectacle. This time around, there’s an additional layer of substance to the union’s collective agita.

The collection and application of data has been blamed for many of baseball’s ills, even during the broadcast of the World Series. Now, some within the union are monitoring the potential for analytics to lead to depressed player salaries, even as the average salary has risen by more than $1 million during an explosive decade for information.

During a panel discussion at USC’s 12th annual Body Computing Conference, MLBPA assistant general counsel Bob Lenaghan outlined the basis for the players’ concern.

“You saw the last offseason, data’s being used by the sabermetrics staff people to say that if you’re over a certain age, you’re going to decline,” Lenaghan said. “That’s causing a lot of distress by the players.”

Setting aside the nebulous definition of “sabermetrics staff people,” the players’ fears are real. Lenaghan offered the example of the Motus sleeve, a lightweight elbow covering that is among the few wearable devices approved for on-field, in-game use. Few pitchers, if any, wear Motus sleeves during games. However, it has become a popular offseason training tool by virtue of its convenience and ability to measure elbow stress, arm speed, arm slot, and shoulder rotation among other practical pitching data.

Elbow stress is a particular concern to players and teams.

“That’s the one that they’re most concerned about,” Lenaghan said, “that someone’s going to read it and it may be that they’re going to make a prediction: ‘we‘re not going to give you a five-year contract because the Motus sleeve tells us that within the next x number of years you’re going to break down. So we’re going to give you three years.’ That’s the concern guys have.”

The tension here is obvious. It makes sense for teams to predict when a pitcher’s arm might break down before offering him a seven- or eight-figure contract. And the data teams have at their disposal for making such a prediction is only expanding. For players, the opposite must be true: the less reliable information teams have about his future health, the better. Or is it?

Say the Motus sleeve, or a similar wearable device, reveals a correctable inefficiency in a pitcher’s delivery. (Recent research demonstrated a correlation between Motus’ stress metric and pitch velocity.) Because of that small insight, an astute evaluator might notice that small detail and offer that pitcher a contract he wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Still, it stands to reason that the pitcher in his 30s has been studied more than the pitcher in his 20s. The potential for unearthing that mechanical inefficiency ought to decrease as a pitcher ages, to say nothing of his raw arm strength. The major league free agent class comprised 158 players this year, most of whom are in their 30s. The minor-league class totaled 520 players. (They are not protected by the terms of the CBA, though they share the same concerns as their major-league brethren.)

This is where carefully worded contracts, and the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, become especially important.

“Anything a player is asked to put on his body to measure data is his,” Lenaghan said. “He has the right to say no. He also has the right to say who gets to see the data. Some players are very free with their data, sharing it with the club. Others are not so trusting and are not interested in sharing that data. Therein lies the challenges.”

Since the usefulness of wearable technology is still emerging, players have questions. What does Lenaghan tell them?

“I tell him to be educated about it. Ask the hard questions,” he said. “Has it been validated independently? Have them show you their validation. Make sure that you understand – because you have the right to do that – who gets to see the data, who doesn’t get to see the data, and if you’re not comfortable you also have the right to say ‘I’m done using it and I want the data destroyed.’ That’s all negotiated into the contract.”

The long-term trend line is clear: The correlation between biomechanical data and player salaries should only grow closer over time in all sports.

In Major League Baseball, this is the time of year when those data points can be charted. The players’ union is watching the chart.


2017: $4,097,122 (+$131,102)

2016: $3,966,020 (+$13,768)

2015: $3,952,252 (+$133,329)

2014: $3,818,923 (+$432,711)

2013: $3,386,212 (+$172,733)

2012: $3,213,479 (+$118,296)

2011: $3,095,183 (+$80,611)

2010: $3,014,572 (+$18,466)

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