The Sleeve That Could Save Baseball: Exclusive Look at New MLB Technology

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The Sleeve That Could Save Baseball: Exclusive Look at New MLB Technology
Motus Global

In a conference room in Orlando, Florida, back in 2004, I sat across the table from Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig. I was attending their Injuries in Baseball conference and had the chance to interview both of them for my radio show.

I asked Dr. Andrews why he had founded the American Sports Medicine Institute, one that spent its time researching the very injuries that he fixed in his operating room across the street.

"I'd like to put myself out of business," he said. Fleisig laughed, but Andrews explained further. "There's too many of these arm injuries and it's worse with kids." Andrews talked for the next 10 minutes about pitch counts, research studies and the sheer number of surgeries he was doing on pitchers. 

Mari Darr-Welch/Associated Press

As we know, those numbers didn't lessen in the intervening 10 years. In fact, they exploded. Tommy John surgeries alone have increased by 700 percent in that decade, with top surgeons like Dr. Tim Kremchek saying the percentage they see of youth pitchers needing the procedure is growing at an even faster rate.

What we've lacked is a real weapon in this fight. Now, thanks to the work of Joe Nolan, baseball finally could have that weapon. Nolan and his company, Motus, a well-known provider of biomechanical analysis from Florida, has created what they very simply call the Motus Pitcher Sleeve. It could be the Holy Grail of pitching.

Over the past two decades, biomechanics has made giant advances, including markerless technology and portable units (including those used by Motus), but baseball has remained resistant to the use. Most of this is the glacial pace of change in baseball, but it's also the natural instinct to push against a change that feels generational.

Pitching coaches who grew up in the game, doing the same drills that were taught to them by their pitching coach, who learned them from who knows where, simply aren't equipped to deal with a whole new flood of data. Giving them kinematics, kinetics, angles and newton-meters is like an old-school mechanic at the corner service station taking a look under the hood of a Tesla

Motus gave Bleacher Report an exclusive look at this new technology, pulling back the curtain on this new device. While it is still in prototype stage, Motus is hoping to have it consumer-ready by next year. However, they have several prototype units that they have in testing with pitchers at various levels. In fact, two MLB teams—the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates—are currently testing the sleeve with their pitchers.

Motus Global is one of sports' premier biomechanical facilities. Headquartered in Long Island, Motus has an incredible facility on the grounds of the IMG Academy in Florida. For years, Motus has been doing full motion capture for major league teams. 

While they cannot give out the names of these teams, it is believed that there are five to 10 that use them at some level. However, the equipment is expensive and, while mobile, hardly accessible. Even at a reasonable cost for a test, there was a need for a new device that could be consumer-ready. I did some checking, and there's nothing like this in development at any of the major companies, though there has been some speculation that Apple's iWatch may have similar sensors.

Now the Motus Pitcher Sleeve is ready to be unveiled. Ben Hansen, Motus' vice president of technology, has led the development and explained the device in detail. 

The Sleeve, as I will refer to it, looks like a normal compression sleeve. It visually looks no different than the normal Nike or Evoshield sleeves worn by pitchers and other athletes. The only difference is a small sensor near the elbow that contains both accelerometers and gyroscopes similar to those found in modern smartphones and game controllers.

It's barely noticeable, as you can see in the above video and the picture below.

Courtesy Motus Global

There's very little calibration that needs to be done. The athlete uses a smartphone app to put in his height and weight, and from there, the app can make some assumptions about the athlete's arm and body that have been validated from Motus' motion-capture database. 

In fact, the Sleeve is nearly as good as the motion capture. I asked Hansen to compare the Sleeve's data to motion capture.

"If the motion capture is a 10, then the Sleeve is almost a 10," he said. "It's already capturing at a higher rate (1,000 frames per second versus their current 500 fps for motion capture). It requires no setup, and when we compare various measures to the database we've built doing years of motion capture, it's very good."

Those measures alone will astound. The Sleeve can not only capture things like arm speed and release point, but it can calculate the angles of the elbow and shoulder. It can directly measure, in real time, the forces acting on the ulnar collateral ligament. 

This directly counteracts one of the main problems with motion capture. For all they're worth, motion-capture studies are done in a non-game setting. The player is forced to wear up to 50 markers and is usually required to wear a form-fitting suit. No matter how hard they try, it's impossible to pitch normally.

Game conditions and the adrenaline they generate have never been captured; the Sleeve has the ability to do that right out of the box. 

Where the Sleeve might do the most good is in capturing not just the pitches in-game, but practice and long toss as well. Hansen acknowledges that the long-toss mode is still very much in development, but knows how valuable it could be. One of the main worries that many have about long toss is that throwing more distance can put more forces on the arm and change the mechanics.

"This tells you immediately," Hansen explains. "It can warn you when the forces are up, in real time. Coaches can see if the pitcher is changing things in long toss." The teams that don't allow long toss (and yes, they do exist in MLB) will have a harder time maintaining that stance if the Sleeve gains wide usage."

One of the most interesting things the Sleeve can calculate is fatigue.

"It will give a measure of fatigue as well as efficiency. The easy thing to see is arm speed slowing down, but it also takes into account changes in mechanics like elbow angle, release point and others."

The app breaks this down simply and can give a coach or a parent a "red flag" that the pitcher is fatiguing, independent of any simple pitch count.

It's one thing for Motus to say its device is able to do these amazing things, but the testing so far backs them up. Even more important than that is that they have some big-time help in developing the app. One of the top names in the battle against pitching injuries is already on board.

"The only weapons we've had against arm injuries have been my lab and pitch counts," said Dr. Glenn Fleisig. Fleisig is the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham. Alongside colleague Dr. Andrews, Fleisig developed the pitch-count rules used by Little League and wrote the recent statement on the Tommy John epidemic. He is also a member of the MLB committee looking into arm injuries.

Fleisig has long been the go-to guy on biomechanics, with MLB teams sending some of their pitchers to his Birmingham lab for a full motion-capture analysis. "[Motion capture] is still the gold standard but this sleeve is a great tool. It gives the results in a simple, focused way that coaches and parents can understand. It's a slick app!"

Fleisig sees every pitching gadget out there, but Motus came to him early and he was impressed. "This isn't a toy. This isn't a simple counter. This is a real tool. We've known, you and I, that not all pitchers are created equal. Billy might throw 80 mph and be low-stress, and Jimmy might throw 80 mph with high stress. We've known this, but now we get instant feedback from the Sleeve."

Measuring fatigue in-game and in workouts is also huge for Fleisig. "We can't individualize rules. We have to use safe averages when we talk about pitch counts or innings limits, especially at the youth level. Now, coaches will be able to see when those aren't giving a complete picture."

Fleisig, who is involved in the development of the Sleeve, acknowledges that it's not perfect.

"It's not as good as my lab, but it's very good. It gives results but might not tell you why those results are happening. I think one area it will be very good for is working with mechanical changes and seeing whether or not there's any result. I also think that it will open up some eyes and lead some to wanting a full biomechanical analysis."

With Fleisig and ASMI on board with this, the Sleeve has instant credibility beyond Motus' own testing, but there's another step that Motus has taken in testing. They've put the Sleeve, in beta form, on the arms of pitchers at several levels. Two MLB teams are testing it with their own pitchers, as are some other teams all the way down to the youth level.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

I was able to speak with two Orioles officials inside the organization who have followed its use.

"We're not using it in games yet, but we really like the amount of data we get and it has exciting potential," said Kent Qualls, the Orioles' director of minor league operations, via phone. "We tried it some in the spring and we're hoping to get it into games in the instructional leagues this fall. We love the kind of data we get from ASMI's lab or from TrackMan, but this is another level. There's a lot of information but it will take some time to figure it out. We really want to get it into games."

One thing that's interesting is that the Orioles don't seem to trust the system entirely. I spoke with another Orioles official who spoke off record, telling me, "There's a disconnect between what we see with our eyes and what [the Sleeve] tells us. It seems to be a bit ahead of us on fatigue. I think that's on us. We'll see a guy and think, 'Is he getting tired?' and then wait for a clear sign, usually from the hitter. [The Sleeve] isn't emotional and doesn't care who's wearing it or how much he makes. I think it's better at it than a person, but it's going to be hard to let go."

The Pittsburgh Pirates are also testing the Sleeve, though they have been much closer to the vest with this than the Orioles. That's standard operating procedure for Neal Huntington's front office after his team was regularly attacked in the media for trying to change a team's culture early in the process. Now that they're winning, those attacks have been muted.

"Motus is great and got a lot of credibility from their work the last few seasons with Andrew McCutchen," said one Pirates official. "Cutch loves what they've shown him with his swing, and other guys follow, even the pitchers."

The Pirates know how important pitching injuries can be. "If this Sleeve was here last year and you tell me that it could have picked something up in [Jameson Taillon's] delivery? We would have to be stupid not to at least look into that."

Taillon, the team's top 22-year-old pitching prospect, was expected to be a big part of the team's rotation this year, but he was forced to have Tommy John surgery early this spring and will miss the season. With 23-year-old Gerrit Cole on the DL due to shoulder fatigue, the Pirates understand just how devastating pitching injuries can be.

The Pirates official refused to discuss—even off the record—how the team was deploying the Sleeve or what data it was using from the Sleeve. It was clear the Pirates are using it widely, and from the discussion I had, they seem as interested as the Orioles in using it in-game. There may be one or two other teams ready to test the Sleeve as well, but at this time, those teams are unknown.

Both teams did bring up a major issue with the Sleeve currently: It's not allowed in games.

However, there's really no reason it couldn't be. While MLB currently does not allow any wearable technology to be used in-game—and it would have to be approved by the rules committee, the Motus Sleeve is no different than a compression sleeve as used. It wouldn't distract a batter or give any real advantage that wasn't also available to the other team.

About the only issue is that Bluetooth LE, the technology used to connect the sensor to the smartphone, has a limited range. In most stadiums, a pitcher would be too far from the smartphone to transfer real time, but the sensor has enough memory to collect several innings of pitches and transfer those when it does get in range.

Courtesy Motus Global

Mike Schneidler understands pitching and arm injuries. A former college pitcher with a couple scars on his own elbow, Schneidler now coaches Little League players on Long Island. When he first was given the chance to work with the Sleeve, all he could think was, "This could have saved me some pain."

Schneidler uses the Sleeve as part of a test, but he says that the kids already love it. "These kids are more in tune with the tech. They have Wii and Kinect and iPhones so you don't have to explain that part to them. They're also more in tune with injuries than you'd think. These are their heroes. Matt Harvey goes down, Jose Fernandez goes down and they're at practice talking about Tommy John surgery."

The kids don't seem to need any more adjustment to the Sleeve than pros. "They get it. They can see what they're doing on the app. You can't expect a 12-year-old to get the physics, but they can see the green and the red," Schneidler explains. He sees the use of the Sleeve as just another part of coaching. "I'm translating it into their terms. I do the same thing when we're learning bunt defense. I have to get them to get it. Same thing here."

While Schneidler is a former college pitcher and has some high-level knowledge, he doesn't think the Sleeve will require that. "A parent can understand it. They may not get all of it, but even if you just use a few things like arm speed and fatigue, [Motus] have done a good job at making it usable."

Schneidler can see a day when the Sleeve is used instead of pitch counts. "A pitch isn't a pitch," he said, echoing Fleisig's statement. "You get a little 11-year-old and he's going high effort on every pitch. Thirty pitches for him isn't like a bigger kid who's just up there playing catch. The [pitch count] rules are good, but they're not perfect. Every kid is different and [the Sleeve] tells you that."

Schneidler isn't yet testing the Sleeve in games. "There's enough pressure on these kids, but I don't see why it would change anything. A lot of them are already wearing Under Armour or something." He doesn't see any reason why it wouldn't work in games and looks forward to being able to do so. 

Just to check with someone who had not seen the device, I went to Dr. Tim Kremchek. Kremchek is not only the team physician for the Cincinnati Reds, but he has been very vocal in the battle against youth arm injuries. I showed him the video of the sleeve you saw above, and he was impressed.

"I think this has the potential to be huge! What we do know is that fatigue causes injury, fatigue causes a change in mechanics, which in turn causes increased stress and varus torque on the medial elbow. Knowing when these occur will greatly diminish injury to the elbow, and I believe the shoulder too."

I needed one more opinion.

"It sounds like science fiction," said Chris O'Leary, a biomechanical guru who has worked with several pro teams and is one of the best-known pitching mechanics writers. "But when you think about how far technology has come in five years, with phones and miniaturization, it shouldn't. It's inevitable."

So major league teams believe that the Sleeve is a game changer. Top doctors and biomechanists believe it is a game changer. Even coaches and pitchers who have been exposed to the Sleeve believe it is a game changer. The only question left is whether it will be adopted. 

Baseball largely rejected the use of biomechanical analysis because it didn't have the proper personnel to interpret and use the results. In cases where teams did use biomechanics—especially the current example of the Milwaukee Brewers—teams have seen significant reduction in injuries.

The Brewers are the only team in MLB to have no Tommy John surgeries at the major league level in the last five years. They're also the only team in that period to do biomechanical analysis on all of their pitchers. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

With the Motus Sleeve, cost certainly won't be the issue, and the ease of use of the smartphone app should help not only at the major league level, but also the parent who doesn't have a technical background.

Nolan says that the goal is to have the consumer version cost around $150, which is less than the cost of a single biomechanical evaluation. It's certainly less than the cost of a visit to the emergency room or Dr. Andrews' office.

Add in all the value of the Sleeve, the data it collects and the possibility that the data could be analyzed at a higher level, and there's endless possibilities. I asked Dr. Fleisig if he could see adding an in-app purchase someday where a parent could pay a fee to have him personally take a look at the pitcher's data. He laughed, but not dismissively.

"Maybe," he said.

The Motus Sleeve could be the biggest change for pitchers and pitching since Tommy John surgery. In fact, we may have the first real weapon in the battle to reduce the number of injuries and surgeries. This is more than a game changer; this is a game saver. 

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