For the Seattle Mariners’ pitching staff, 2017 was the Year of the Injury.
Seattle’s staff was ravaged by injuries like never before in the franchise’s 41-year history. The Mariners were forced to use 40 different pitchers, a figure that set a Major League Baseball single-season record. The original starting rotation of Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo combined to start just 68 of Seattle’s 162 games.
While it wasn’t nearly as bad on the position-player side, the Mariners still lost key players to injury for significant chunks of time, most notably shortstop Jean Segura and right fielder Mitch Haniger.
Despite the injuries, Seattle finished 78-84, seven games out of an American League wild-card spot. A little better health may have made the difference in closing that gap.
So what have the Mariners done to address the problem? Meet Dr. Lorena Martin, Seattle’s new director of high performance. Martin is the individual tasked with ensuring 2017 doesn’t happen again.
At the Mariners’ pre-spring training media luncheon Jan. 25, Martin addressed the assembled Seattle media for the first time since being hired last October.
Martin spent considerable time answering questions about her job, which is described by the Mariners as coordinating the entire organization’s medical, strength and conditioning, nutrition and mental skills departments. The premise is Martin will take the data accumulated by those departments, integrate it to recognize patterns, then use the results to come up with methods for keeping players healthy and improving their performance.
While Martin was largely open with her answers, there were times when she deliberately checked herself.
“I don’t want to provide others with a blueprint. We have to have an advantage, right?” Martin said when asked a question about rest and recovery.
If something is that secret, it must be important. Indeed, Martin’s hiring may have been the most important move the Mariners made this offseason.
The position of director of high performance is a brand new one for the Mariners, and in Martin they found one of the leaders in the field. The 37-year-old, who is a former professional tennis player, received a Doctor of Philosphy degree in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, then added post-doctorate degrees in epidemiology, biostatics and geographic information system spatial analysis from the University of California San Diego. She’s also authored books on the subject of sports performance and injury prevention.
“Whenever I was injured (playing tennis), I would go back to school and get a degree,” Martin said with a laugh.
Martin was working for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers as their director of sports performance analytics, performing largely the same duties she’ll have with Seattle, when the Mariners came calling.
“(Mariners general manager) Jerry Dipoto and his innovative mindset and forward thinking,” was Martin’s reason for making the switch to the Mariners. “I was fine where I was at, but his vision really inspired me to get on board.”
“We have spent nearly a year working on creating this position and structure as well as identifying the best person for the role,” Dipoto said at the time on Martin’s hiring in October. “Lorena’s background, skill set and previous experience make her a perfect match for what we envisioned.”
It may be hard to believe, given the continuing cold and rainy conditions that mark any Puget Sound winter, but it’s just 10 days until Mariners pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Peoria, Arizona, which begins on Feb. 14.
However, this spring training will have a new wrinkle for Seattle’s players. This year each player in the organization will have data collected with the intention of creating a customized program, based on factors such as position, age, body-fat percentage and others, for maximizing performance and minimizing injury risk.
The basics of the data collection aren’t new. The Mariners have always had medical, strength and conditioning and nutrition departments, and they added their mental skills department when Dipoto was hired two years ago. However, those departments largely worked within their own vacuum, with little communication across departments. What Martin will do is integrate the data from those departments in order to capture the bigger picture in a holistic sense.
So just as analytics have revolutionized player evaluation in baseball, Martin and the Mariners are hoping to use analytics to revolutionize performance and injury prevention.
“My main role here is to kind of bridge it all together with a data-driven approach,” Martin said. “You can never really prevent, but you can definitely reduce the number of injuries. You can definitely reduce the probability of an injury happening again.”
Martin’s position isn’t just new to the Mariners; it’s new to baseball as a whole.
“Major League Baseball has lagged behind many professional sports leagues, including the NBA, Premier League soccer and others, in using big data to assist in both injury prevention and peak performance,” Dipoto said in October. “We are excited to better connect all the services we currently provide to our players throughout the organization and add the information Dr. Martin can reveal to better assist the team in staying healthy and, ultimately, winning more games.”
The question now is how soon Martin will be able to make a difference in preventing injuries.
Martin said she remains in the data collection stage, but that she was pleasantly surprised by the amount of data the Mariners had already gathered — though it was largely collected by hand, meaning Martin’s first task was taking stacks of paper and digitizing the information they contained.
“As far as a timeline, I would like to say that we’re hoping to have looked at some of the trends by the start of spring training,” Martin said. “That was my goal, to see the previous year, then during spring training collect and reassess, so that at the start of the season we have a clearer picture of what we want to take a look at.”
Martin has already talked to each of Seattle’s players and said they are on board.
“Everyone has been great,” Martin said. “The players have been very receptive. The substance is there. I think now maybe the integration and the communication across the areas will help accelerate the process of reducing injuries so we can get to them before they happen.”
So if the Mariners find themselves in a playoff race in September, and if they have a healthy squad running that race, know the hiring of Martin this offseason played its part.