The change is visible.
A day after Gerrit Cole starts, there are perfectly circular bruises visible on the back of his right shoulder, as if he were beaten by a spherical object.
“I don’t take my shirt off at a pool party,” said Cole of the evidence of therapy, “because you have to answer questions about it all the time.”
Under his jersey is a blinking green light, a feature of a plastic medallion that attaches to the center of a compression shirt.
The bruising, the blinking lights, are secrets tied to the foundation of his success this season: health. Without health, there is no All-Star Game invitation. Without health, he is not able to refine his delivery and improve his command. After spending 70 days on the disabled list last season with shoulder and back injuries, Cole vowed to be more “diligent” with his between-start routine this spring. Cole is the face of the Pirates’ preventative health efforts.
“You have to take just as much pride in your routine that nobody sees you do off the field,” Cole said, “as you do when you pitch.”
In a sport in which it is rare to have three or more starting pitchers make 30 starts in a season, no Pirates starting pitcher has suffered an injury since Opening Day. Only one starting position player has been placed on the DL. The Pirates had the fourth fewest days lost to the DL last season (358) and the second fewest in the National League through the first half of this season (379).
The Pirates have had few significant injuries as their starting rotation members and starting position players have combined to spend 51 days on the disabled list entering Saturday, trailing only the Chicago White Sox (5) in fewest key players lost to injury this year.
Have the Pirates found another hidden advantage?
‘If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing’
One of Cole’s secrets is modern.
The blinking monitor under his jersey is part of the BioHarness by Zephyr, a wearable technology. The device allows for the Pirates to monitor players’ heartbeats and energy consumption.
The Pirates are interested in measuring fatigue. Fatigue affects performance and leads to injury. It never has been monitored properly, said Will Carroll, a sports-injury expert.
“Here’s how we measure fatigue in baseball: ‘I looked in his eyes and thought he could go another batter.’ It’s crazy that’s the best measure of fatigue we have,” Carroll said. “Measurement is really, really key. If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing.”
In an effort to assess, general manager Neal Huntington brought in Todd Tomczyk, now the head trainer, and strength coach Brendon Huttman after the club wilted in the second half of 2011. They were hired from the Los Angeles Dodgers, where they worked under Stan Conte. Conte has led baseball’s charge to prevent injury through data.
“The idea was we could do some things better,” Huntington said. “We knew there was innovation and intelligence and creativity there (with Tomczyk and Huttman). They deserve credit for putting all these programs in place, but there was an intent.”
The intent was to find an edge in a sport that lost $1.13 billion on injured players’ performance value last season, Carroll said.
Using the BioHarness — Huttman’s idea — is part of the effort. The Pirates also are using new player-tracking technology. The training, strength and analytics staffs take data from those tools and refine it into a fatigue number they hand to manager Clint Hurdle.
“We can measure every step they take,” Hurdle said. “We knew (Andrew) McCutchen was red-lining (in June) with the volume of times he was on the bases and in position to score or moving first to third.”
Cole welcomes the data.
Earlier this season at Arizona, he said his heart rate elevated to 197 beats per minute while running the bases, which influenced his between-start regimen.
“It’s not always the easiest thing for a player to articulate what is going on,” Cole said. “You can have a day where it’s relatively low stress, and you can look at the numbers later, and the numbers are elevated. Your heart rate was higher. Those things can suggest fatigue. … Deciphering that information takes a little bit of the guessing game out of it.”
Other sports are ahead of baseball in studying and monitoring fatigue.
A player-tracking system — SportVU — arrived in the NBA before baseball, and the Golden State Warriors have employed it and wearable technology to monitor fatigue levels. The Warriors reduced their starters’ minutes this season. The result? Efficiency on the court went up, and injured days went down en route to an NBA title. The Pirates were watching.
No Pirates pitcher has thrown a complete game this season. No Pirates player ranks in the top 40 of games played. Jeff Locke said one result of the data is that he stopped weight training the day after starts.
Said Cole: “There’s been more easing off than hitting the gas pedal.”
One of Cole’s methods is ancient.
The circular bruises on Cole’s shoulder are the results of “cupping,” an ancient, Eastern practice. Cups are placed on the surface of the skin, and the Pirates’ staff uses a hand pump to create suction. The goal is to promote blood flow and reduce inflammation.
Pirates reliever Tony Watson heard about cupping and shared it with Cole. Cole said he believes it helps his shoulder and back recover. It’s spread to Locke, who now has the signature bruising, a therapy he describes as a “reverse massage.”
Cupping demonstrates the Pirates have a culture of experimentation. Curiosity leads to more personalized strength and conditioning programs, like the shoulder maintenance routine Cole adopted after his DL stints last season.
“(With) the constant communication we can see which (practices) work and which ones do not,” Cole said. “It’s a constant process throughout the year because your body changes.”
Creating a culture of experimentation traces to the Cleveland Indians and their director of medical services, Lonnie Soloff, who previously worked with Huntington, Tomczyk and Huttman.
“If you have a question, answer it,” Soloff said of his approach. “By answering your own questions, you at times disprove what everyone thinks, and you gain an additional advantage. … (Also) knowing that it’s OK to make mistakes, to learn from it, allows you to be even more innovative.”
But creating such a culture requires trust.
Carroll, the sports-injury expert, notes every team has a qualified training staff, access to data and resources, but not every team gets buy-in.
“When the manager buys in, that’s huge … but you need the players. You need a patient zero,” Carroll said. “It was Russell Martin last year. When Russell did something, everyone did something.”
Heat up, cool down
No Pirates starting position player had been injured significantly this season until last Sunday.
That day, the Pirates lost Josh Harrison to an injury impossible to prevent: a damaged thumb occurring on an awkward slide. They lost Starling Marte in the same game to a muscle strain, an injury they are trying to prevent with innovative pre- and post-game approaches.
“There are some injuries that are unavoidable,” Huntington said. “We are one of those teams that is striving to do everything in its power to minimize controllable days down.”
Hours before games, the Pirates engage in what they call “activation.” The 10-minute periods, which involve light weights, agility drills and cardiovascular exercise, better prepare the body and brain for game stresses. No one bought in to the pregame activation period last season like Martin. Pirates reliever Jared Hughes was skeptical of activation; now he’s on board.
“I want to get my heart rate to 160 (before games), during gassers, shuttle runs, because 160 is where I’m pitching,” said Hughes, who studies his BioHarness readings. “It has kept me healthy.”
After games, the focus is on more quickly returning the heart to its resting rate through cooling, which hastens the recovery process.
Backup catcher Chris Stewart said it is the most aggressive therapy he has been involved with.
“The ice tub (stinks),” said Stewart of the usual post-game routine. “We try to turn on TV or focus on something else. But I think (the cooling process has) helped me tremendously. My body feels good.”
Perhaps the approaches have helped fellow catcher Francisco Cervelli stay on the field and deliver an All-Star-worthy first half after missing 199 games from 2011-14.
The only Pirates prohibited from speaking with the media are members of the strength and training staff. Perhaps they are so protective because their practices, their secrets, seem to be working.
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.