What do you get when analytics makes its way into the training room? We are about to find out.
Monday morning the Mariners announced the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin as their first-ever Director of High Performance. Martin, who holds a PhD in Exercise Physiology, a Masters of Science in Sports Psychology and post-doctorates in GIS spatial analysis, biostatistics and epidemiology, will be responsible for coordinating all aspects of the Mariners’ physical and mental training approach, including the oversight of the entire organization’s medical, strength and conditioning, nutrition and mental skills departments.
According to general manager Jerry Dipoto, the move is much more than an addition of an overseer.
“For the better part of the last 14 months, this has been in development,” he said. “It’s been a paradigm change. It’s not just hiring one specialist or expert. We are changing the way we do things. The way we view athlete care, the way we take care of them day to day and frankly the way we communicate about it. We want our players to tell us what they need.”
The timing would seem appropriate with the Mariners coming off perhaps their most injury-plagued season in franchise history. While assurances were given at the end of the season that all aspects of player care were being looked into, in reality it had been a focus for some time behind the scenes. Dipoto in his earliest days with the club talked about sports science being one of the under-explored areas in the game where a team could get an edge. While baseball may be ahead of the professional sports pack in the use of analytics on the field, off the field has been a different matter.
“The last great pocket of resistance is Major League Baseball because that’s generally what we do,” said Dipoto with a laugh.
Martin comes to the Mariners from the Los Angeles Lakers, where she served as the Director of Sports Performance Analytics. The opportunity to create a new program utilizing her areas of expertise to effect change is what lured her to Seattle.
“When I met Jerry I was immediately taken by his philosophy and what they were looking for for the Mariners organization to move forward,” she said. “We share the same vision. Here I have the ability to integrate it, also look at the data and using a data-driven approach integrating what they have collected, what they are doing and being able to make an evidenced-based recommendation based on my expertise as well. I can confidently suggest to the coaches and to upper management and hopefully reduce the number of injuries and get our players to play their best.”
Putting together all sides of the equation is a natural for Martin.
“As a former athlete I always wondered what differentiates a good athlete from a great athlete and a great athlete from a legend,” she said. “What are the psychological factors? What are the physiological factors? That led my education that guided me. Then I wanted to quantify it. That’s where the numbers came in and luckily I like math. I worked on the statistics, and the statistics gave me the platform to say, ‘Okay, this variable doesn’t contribute this player’s performance, this variable does.’ It really solidified. I was able to integrate both the physiological and the psychological.
“When I spoke with Jerry about this opportunity, it was always what I had envisioned from a decade ago. Why don’t they integrate what the training and rehab staff is doing, what the strength and conditioning, the psychology staff is doing, the nutritionist, then you have a much better picture of what’s going on with that player and not only just provide a general recommendation, but an individual, customized recommendation. I mean it makes sense.”
Preventing injury, or “prehab,” will be a prime focus. The science will come into play here in a number of ways. For instance, knowing a player’s lactate threshold and how they get to it can help prevent fatigue, which can lead to a decreased chance of injury. Statistical models pulled in from data sources outside the organization also can be utilized. Player recovery and rest are also factors.
“That will be probably the thing that is easiest for the fan to identify with, is maybe more scheduled days off,” said Dipoto. “It’s important for a player. The game has changed, we travel in a much different way. There are more games, more innings and longer time on the field than there ever has been before. We want to give players the opportunity to catch a breath and they know ahead of time so it is not a wrestling match. Left to their own devices, most players will always tell you they are good. Then they get out there and they are playing and they are at 60 percent, 70 percent, what they are doing is inevitably they are pushing themselves closer to injury and down time. I would much rather create a model where we have scheduled days off for players so we can avoid the inevitable 10, 15 days down because they ran themselves into injury through fatigue.”
It will be up to Martin to determine how many days and when everyday players get rest.
“I want to improve the communication between the high performance and the coaching staff so they also get an advance notice of who would be available to play and when. I am definitely going to be working on creating an algorithm that is based on data that would support them in performing at their best,” she said.
As Dipoto noted, players usually balk at the suggestion of a day off, and while managers for many years have talked in the offseason and spring training about the importance of getting key players rest, in reality this has often proven difficult to follow through with when games count. Communication will be key in implementing changes and that has already begun with Martin meeting with the training staff, front office members, owners and manager Scott Servais.
“We want to give her the ability to not just effect change but to be the agent of change in this area,” said Dipoto. “We have talked about it a lot internally and externally. Everybody is on board with this type of model because we do believe with this model the result is we have healthier, happier players who perform at the top of their skill sets, who give us the potential to win more games and give them the potential of drawing higher rates of compensation. It’s win, win, win.”
“It’s about creating that cycle where the player becomes confident,” said Martin. “They will start to see that their performance is improving and begin to trust even more. It’s going to be a positive cycle that I will instill in the high performance department.”