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OC Register: Hoornstra: Is collective bargaining the secret to injury prevention?

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Major League Baseball has not experienced a work stoppage since Aug. 11, 1994. Players went on strike that day and did not return for official regular-season business until April 25, 1995, cancelling a World Series in the process.

One consequence of the strike was a pair of shorter-than-usual seasons. The 1994 campaign lasted 112 to 117 games, depending on your team. Players were given four weeks of spring training in 1995, then played 144 games. The regular season grew by only 27 to 32 games from one year to the next, and that was enough to effect a small but significant difference in who got injured playing baseball.

In 1994, pitchers accounted for 57.3 percent of all disabled list stints. In 1995, that number grew to 62.5. Pitchers never accounted for more than 60 percent of DL stints in another season from 1989-99, according to data cited in a study by Dr. Stan Conte, the former Dodgers head athletic trainer who now operates a sports performance facility in Arizona.

In a telephone interview, Conte said the DL data he used in his study was limited. As a proxy for actual injuries, he said, DL data only “gets you in the zip code.”

“It’s not really an injury database,” Conte said. “It’s a roster management tool to replace players. We did those articles way back when using the DL because that’s the only thing we had.”

Data limitations aside, there might be a useful takeaway from the great pitcher injury spike of 1994-95. The 2021 regular season will be 2.7 times longer than the last. No one knows exactly how pitchers will adapt to the jump from 60 games to 162. But if there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the last short season, it’s that 2021 does not bode well for pitcher health.

Most of the ideas about how to respond feel like a pre-emptive strike, a guess, a hedge. The most promising injury-prevention model I’ve heard recently came from perhaps an unlikely source – former Angel Matt Long, the retired minor league outfielder who I (re)introduced in last week’s column. Long is the director of product marketing for Sparta Science, one of the leading suppliers of force plate hardware and software to major league teams and players.

As I reported last week, Sparta’s MLB clients include two NL West teams, the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies. I didn’t mention something else Long told me, something that is special if not unique among how teams use biomechanical data in 2021: the two teams share a database, anonymized to protect the identities of the players providing the data. The database functions as a ground spring for predicting how measurable data patterns might lead to future injuries.

“In order to be predictive of a single injury, you need so many injuries with a pretty small margin of error to even start a predictive model,” Long said. “That’s why a cloud outside an organization is so beneficial: if someone with the Rockies gets hurt, it helps the Padres. It makes things smarter for everyone.”

It’s a progressive model, to say the least. Major league players, sometimes through their union, are quicker to restrict than expand the number of parties who can access their most advanced biomechanical feedback – even within their own organization. Some hold an underlying fear that teams might use this data against them.

In a way, it makes sense. What if something in a free agent player’s biomechanical profile, such as a susceptibility to future injury, suggests he is better suited to a one-year contract than the multi-year offer he craves? What if that information is available not just to a trainer or strength coach, but a rival general manager? The more teams can access that profile, the lower the player’s chances of signing a contract.

But then, what if the data is guaranteed to remain anonymous? What if no general manager can track the troublesome data back to the individual who produced it? The more teams have access to that profile, the more teams can benefit from the knowledge it holds about injury prevention. Now, in 2021, the need has arguably never been higher. Within the baseball industry, teams acknowledge this tension.

“I think MLB would like to centralize” an injury database at the league office, one National League executive told me. “It’s in the players’ best interest. But for salary negotiations – players don’t trust owners using that data against them. It doesn’t have to be a real threat for them to actually be scared.”

At baseball’s highest level, the best way to make progress on a contentious issue is usually through collective bargaining. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement is due to expire at year’s end. But solving data privacy issues for the sake of injury prevention is a relatively low priority for the union, which is intent on reversing the diminishing returns for veteran free agents.

Having the best players on the field at all times benefits the business of MLB as a whole. If Sparta’s two-team model could somehow iterate out to all 30 clubs, collecting data from a variety of biomechanical devices ― not just force plates – it could potentially eliminate injury prevention as a competitive advantage for teams.

The big-market clubs who lead the way at injury prevention might shudder at this thought, but it would benefit the good of the game. If the need isn’t obvious today, just wait until teams push past the 60-game mark of the season. History suggests it could get ugly for pitchers.

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