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Smart Sleeve Monitors Stress on Baseball Players' Elbows

What's the Latest?

Most people with a basic understanding of baseball are familiar with the phrase "Tommy John surgery." The procedure (named for the first player to receive it) reconstructs a damaged ligament in the elbow with a tendon taken from somewhere else in the body. The surgery was pioneered in the 1970s by the late Dr. Frank Jobe and has since saved the careers of hundreds of pitchers whose ruined elbows would have meant retirement without it.

A concerning surge in the number of Tommy John surgeries, particularly among hotshot young pitchers such as Miami's Jose Fernandez and New York Mets ace Matt Harvey, has people in the baseball world worrying about the factors that contribute to elbow injuries. Dr. James Andrews, one of America's most prolific sports doctors, believes the recent Tommy John epidemic has to do with overthrowing. Pitchers exert maximum effort to achieve their highest potential velocity. The mechanics of throwing a baseball cause a ton of tension on tendons elbow. Like a rubber band stretched a too hard too many times, those ligaments have a tendency to give in and snap.

Tommy John recovery time is about one year and requires a lengthy rehabilitation. As Major League clubs invest more money in their top pitchers (Clayton Kershaw up there signed a $215 million contract in January), the urge to better protect their investments is at an all-time high.

What's the Big Idea?

Motus, a company specializing in biomechanical analysis, is developing a special compression sleeve to be worn on a pitcher's arm. The sleeve generates data based on the player's arm angle and speed when throwing. That information can in turn be used to assess whether a pitcher is growing tired or if there is too much tension on the elbow.

Former player Dirk Hayhurst wrote a profile on the sleeve for Sports on Earth that's well worth a read (Hayhurst has authored numerous books on baseball). In it, he expresses many of the same concerns you hear about arm health, namely that the best way to treat torn ligaments is to prevent them. He also presents a player's sense of apprehension toward technology that would encourage a shift in pitching mechanics (and potentially hurt performance), though he gives the sleeve a stamp of approval.

Learn more about the Smart Sleeve at Sports on Earth & the Tommy John epidemic at NBC Sports

Photo credit: Photo Works / Shutterstock

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