WEST BRADENTON -- A sports performance lab housed on IMG Academy's campus in West Bradenton promises to help prevent Tommy John surgery for pitchers.
Motus Global, which performs biomechanical analysis through motion capture technology, has unveiled its Motus Pitch Sleeve.
The product, which could be on shelves by the end of the year, is in beta testing by professional and amateur ball players. The tests measure several key indicators of fatigue and torque on the ulnar collateral ligament, to help coaches decide when to rest a pitcher well before the ligament is in danger of being torn.
"In this time in MLB, Tommy John injuries are a well-known epidemic," said Ben Hansen, vice president of technology at Motus Global, who has led development of the Pitch Sleeve. "I think this pitcher sleeve will not only empower people at the elite level, but parents, players and coaches to make an informed decision on how much they should be throwing and how much velocity should be used."
A Major League Baseball injury analyst said that Tommy John surgeries increased by 700 percent over the last 10 years, and more are expected. The complicated surgery with a long recovery time seems to be nailing star pitchers these days, with the latest being Bronson Arroyo for the Arizona Diamondbacks, while surgery is possible for Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees.
"The only weapons we've had against arm injuries have been my lab and pitch counts," Glenn Fleisig, Ph.D., told The Bleacher Report's baseball injury writer Will Carroll. Fleisig is the research director and a biomedical engineer for the American Sports Medicine Institute, which partnered with Motus on the sleeve.
The sleeve is expected to be in stores by the end of the year and retail for about $150, Hansen said.
"We're about to announce a major distribution deal," he said.
The Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates are among the teams that have tested the sleeve, Motus announced, but the company is holding close to the vest what other organizations and what players have used the sleeve. Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz appears in a promotional video wearing what looks to be a first-generation model of the sleeve.
Testing initially occurred at the flagship lab for Motus at IMG, then expanded into game situations and on the field to improve user experience.
Come this fall, IMG Baseball will be part of the extended beta testing. IMG Director of Baseball Dan Simonds can't wait to see the testing in action on the academy's fields during games and practices.
"This is without a doubt when it hits the market, something that will change the complexion of our game," Simonds said. "Especially when you see the amount of injuries that you've seen recently."
Motus has put the sleeve on the arms of Little League pitchers, college players and will expand beta testing to fall instructional leagues this year, Hansen added.
The Pirates organization has used the technology, but the Bradenton Marauders have not yet used the pitcher sleeve, said Trevor Gooby, director of Florida Operations for the Pirates.
Tech on torque
To use the technology, pitchers slip their throwing arm through the compression sleeve where a sensor is inserted in a pouch that is placed along the ulnar collateral ligament, Hansen said.
The sensor measures more than 15 biomechanical variables in four categories: arm power, efficiency, fatigue and command.
"Within that, we also measure variable torque, which is the amount of torque that's embarked in the UCL," Hanson said.
The quarter-sized device contains accelerometer and gyroscopes to capture the movement of the arm at a high rate.
Previously, players wanting such metrics showed up in a lab surrounded by staff and were hooked up to devices and then waited for analysts. Now, the tool will provide the same data instantly, limited to the arm.
"It gives immediate feedback on throwing mechanics in that season, and also gives trends and analysis throughout the season and career," Hansen said.
Motus worked with the nonprofit American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., to back up the medical testing.
ASMI is noted for being a leading researcher on Tommy John injuries and prevention, and also released its own instructional app last month for iOS, called "Throw Like A Pro." That app contains instructional videos for pitchers to avoid putting unneeded stress on the elbow. That's a separate endeavor from the Pitch Sleeve app, which will be released on iOS and Android.
Motus is also finalizing a distribution deal for the sleeve and is not ready to announce the manufacturer of the compression sleeve itself.
When the sleeve is released, Hansen said, there won't be a difference between what a kid uses in his back yard versus what a big leaguer uses in the bullpen. But Motus does offer additional services and analytics for professional teams and clubs that could enhance understanding of the data.
The device should be able to handle extreme weather conditions, allowing pitchers to make it through a hot day on the diamond, Hansen added.
Some hurdles ahead
A few barriers remain for the sleeve. One is the distance real-time information can travel during games. The Bluetooth connectivity allows for a 30-foot radius, which is a problem for some fields that have dugouts too far from the mound. A next level of technology will allow for 100 feet to address some of those limitations, Hansen said.
Baseball being baseball, coaches will always figure a way around it. A reporter suggested to Simonds that a coach could have the phone in his pocket and walk to the mound and wait for the app and device to connect and reassess back at the dugout.
"Those mound visits take on a different meaning now," Simonds said, chuckling.
Even if the app isn't within range, the data will be saved and then will sync the information with the app when connected, Hansen said.
The other is that Major League Baseball doesn't allow wearable technology during the regular season and playoffs. Spring training games and instructional leagues are less regulated, allowing pitchers to use it.
"I think technology in all sports has become more predominate in the last decade. It's not going away. I think it's here to stay, and the teams that will embrace it will get an edge on opponents and be more successful," Hansen said.
Still, despite having a tool, coaches and parents will have to battle gut instincts and what they're seeing from the stands with what the app is telling them.
"You can tell when a guy's getting tired, you can see if his arm's dropping and you can see if he's not using his legs. A trained eye is going to be able to pick those things up," Simonds said. "But there's going to be information there that confirms some things and backs up some decisions made, and ultimately it's going to benefit that guy on the mound and benefit his health."
Simonds is also a firm believer that young pitchers need to rest their pitching arms and resist playing in tournaments year-round. Young pitchers could be contributing to their injuries by getting their 140 pitches in different leagues throughout the week, leading to early injury, he offered.
But when prospects pitch, coaches are still going to want to see how hard they can throw on every pitch.
"Let's not kid ourselves. I think they're going to still look at how hard a guy's thrown because you can get away with a lot more mistakes when you're throwing a little bit harder," he said.
Hansen feels like the time will come for MLB to embrace wearable technology during games, and Simonds doesn't see a competitive advantage.
"It's not doing something to the arm. It's just providing data," Simonds said. "The way things are going, they (MLB teams) are going to do everything they can to prevent these injuries. I think it's going to be very soon that it's going to be used in games."
Beyond pitchers, baseball
Any position or sport that involves arm mechanics could benefit from the pitch sleeve, but Motus isn't ready to announce additional tools yet.
"We definitely have some interesting ideas moving forward," Hansen said. "I don't think they're at the level where we should announce anything yet."
In the meantime, expect baseball players and coaches to figure out other uses. Catchers would be a good candidate because they are also susceptible to Tommy John surgery -- count Orioles catcher Matt Wieters among the wounded.
"A lot of times, we'll work with catchers on technique so that their elbow doesn't drop and their elbow stays high on top of the ball," Simonds said. "When you look at what it measures, I don't think it can be just for pitchers, I think it can be used for all of the positions."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.