At the age when most players, and particularly most catchers, have begun to decline, 31-year-old Pirates backstop Russell Martin is peaking. As usual, Martin has excelled on defense this season, posting strong pitch-framing stats, a stellar pop time, and a robust caught-stealing rate of 40 percent that’s well above the 28 percent league baseline. He’s also enjoyed unprecedented success at the plate. Martin, whose bat has historically been only slightly above league average, is hitting .291/.409/.421, tying him with Buster Posey for the second-best line among backstops.
All of that seems less surprising after learning that Martin draws energy from an Arc Reactor. When I spoke to him in the Pirates clubhouse before a recent game against the Phillies, the device sat in the center of his chest, its red and green readouts blinking. Only the text on the accompanying compression shirt spoiled the Stark Industries illusion, identifying the product as a Zephyr BioHarness 3 “physiological monitoring module” capable of recording Martin’s movements, vital signs, and energy expenditure and wirelessly exporting the information for review.
“I try to wear it all day,” Martin says. “As soon as I get to the ballpark, I’ll wear it. I’ll start my day, I’ll go outside and play soccer a little bit, run around. Three days a week, on average, I have a workout. On a day where I do have a workout, it lets me know after the game, OK, this is how much I lagged there.”
Save for its lack of levitation technology and its inability to protect him from foul tips and Chitauri, Martin’s CBA-approved performance enhancer sounds like the closest we’ll come to Extremis Armor while we’re waiting for Iron Man 4.
“It lets me know a ballpark range of how many calories I’ve burned, what my heart rate is during the game, its highest peak, its average at its resting point,” Martin says. “But really, it’s pretty much to let me know how many calories are burned so I know how much I can eat. On a day where it’s really hot and I’m burning more calories and I know I can eat a little bit more, it’s helped me regulate how to eat instead of just guessing what I need to eat.”
“Best shape of his life” stories usually surface in the spring, not in September, but Martin’s appearance and play have invoked the familiar refrain during the stretch run. Martin looks stronger than he did when I interviewed him about his receiving skills in the spring of 2013, and it’s probably not just because of his beard. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle asserts that Martin is “more physically fit than at any point last season,” adding, “He’s still somewhat dinged up, but the athleticism he’s been showing back there has been fantastic.” Backup catcher Chris Stewart concurs, saying, “I saw him last year and this year, and I can’t imagine him being in any better shape than he’s in now.”
It’s tempting to draw a direct connection between the Zephyr and Martin’s fitness level, and from there to his on-field performance. “His impact with this club is as much as any player that we have,” Hurdle says. “Andrew McCutchen deserves all the recognition he gets. Russell Martin is just as important to this ballclub as Andrew McCutchen is.” If the Zephyr has enhanced Pittsburgh’s co-MVP’s performance or raised his healing factor enough to help him stay in the lineup despite some dings, it will have been worth whatever the Pirates are paying.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik, who first spotted Martin wearing the BioHarness in March, concluded that “If it can keep players healthier and more energized, a small-market club always in search of the next big thing might have found it.” Six months later, there’s certainly evidence to suggest the Pirates have found something. According to data from Baseball Prospectus, Pirates players have lost only 373 games to injury this season, counting both DL stints and day-to-day ailments. That’s the lowest total in the majors, just less than half the MLB mean of 748. The Pirates have lost 119 and 496 fewer games to injury, respectively, than the Brewers and Braves, the two teams they lead by 1.5 games in the race for the National League’s second wild-card slot.1 With margins that small in the standings, it’s fair to point to the Pirates’ health as one of the pennant race’s differentiating factors.
According to Zephyr’s clients page, the Brewers are the only other MLB club that’s using the company’s products.
Although the Pirates haven’t escaped the regular season unscathed, they haven’t suffered any losses as severe as the NL Central foe Cardinals’ months without Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha, the Brewers’ full year with a debilitated Ryan Braun, or the Reds’ season with a hobbled or disabled Joey Votto. Martin missed 21 games early on with a strained hamstring, but the injury hasn’t recurred. Francisco Liriano strained an oblique. McCutchen missed 14 games with a fractured rib that initial estimates said could cost him a month. Starling Marte suffered a concussion, but he came back quickly and has hit .362/.426/.598 in almost 150 post-concussion plate appearances. Neil Walker had an appendectomy, but we can’t blame the Pirates for one of evolution’s anatomical oversights. A stress fracture in Pedro Alvarez’s foot will cost him the rest of the season, but Alvarez’s outlook for playing time was clouded even before the injury. Gerrit Cole’s 70 combined days on the DL for shoulder problems are the most serious strike against the team’s health record,2 but Cole’s replacements pitched so well that the Bucs barely missed a beat in his absence.
Aside from top preseason prospect Jameson Taillon’s April Tommy John surgery, which doesn’t count against the big league club’s ledger.
“We haven’t been banged up anywhere near the pace of the Rangers3 or some other clubs have,” Hurdle acknowledges. “We’ve also been fortunate that when we’ve had people go down, other people have stepped in and not just held the line there, but pushed it forward and actually helped us win more games. There was a time when I think three-fifths of our starting pitching was out. [Brandon] Cumpton came up, [Jeff] Locke came up, [Vance] Worley joined the rotation. Not only did they hold their own, but we got better while they were plugged in.”
Whose 1,895 games missed and counting are already the highest single-season total on record.
While the BioHarness may have helped Martin, its use in the clubhouse hasn’t been widespread enough to explain the Pirates’ relatively clean bill of health. “There’s a few guys that [use it],” Martin says. “A lot of guys, the pitchers and stuff, they get a little iffy about wearing something tight to the body. It’s not a regular feel that you have with a normal undershirt. I just got used to it — I did it during spring training and it didn’t bother me too much. Lofted a couple balls, didn’t really feel it, didn’t bother me. But I think most guys that do wear it, they just wear it pregame.”
Hurdle claims not to know whether the Pirates are doing something that separates them in the area of injury prevention, not that he’d be likely to divulge the secret if he thought there was one. “I’d have to dig deeper,” Hurdle says. However, he does give credit where one would assume some is due. “I love what our strength and conditioning team does,” Hurdle says. “I love how our trainers go about their business. These guys work out all season long. There’s something to be said for that.”
Stewart, who’s in his first season with the Pirates, is also quick to credit the team’s trainers. “The main thing I’ve noticed here is we have our structure and activation program,” he says. “We get in the weight room, guys go through a certain thing, it’s like a 10-minute warm-up on the bike to get the blood flowing and the body heated up, and then there’s certain movements, certain agility exercises that we do to kind of loosen us up, gets us going and stretches us out, and then it’s just ready for us to get back on the field. For me personally, I’ve never done that before. It creates a difference when I get out on the field. I don’t feel as tight when I go out there. I feel ready to go.”
Walker, who’s been a part of the Pirates organization since 2004, has seen the team’s training techniques become more dynamic over time. “I think that just goes hand in hand with the evolution the strength and conditioning programs are going more toward — the agility, the pre-injury-type stuff with ankle stability, knee stability, and joint stability,” Walker says. “I don’t know if you can directly correlate [muscle activation training with a lack of injuries], but I think it helps. … If you’re doing the right things and you’re activating your muscles the right way and keeping things where they need to be, you should stay healthy longer.”
Martin places the same importance on preparation, with or without futuristic monitoring modules. “If you get adequate rest and you keep right and eat healthy, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hurt, but it puts you in a better position to stay healthy,” Martin says. “Things you can control, wear and tear and stuff like that. Rolling an ankle, certain things you don’t really control — that can still happen and put you on the DL.”
Martin, Stewart, and Walker specifically credit strength and conditioning coach Brendon Huttmann (who introduced Martin to Zephyr) with improving the team’s physical preparation, but the Pirates don’t allow their training and conditioning staff to talk to the press. GM Neal Huntington says Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily ahead of the curve when it comes to keeping players healthy and optimizing their performance, but he declines to talk specifics, equating the Pirates’ efforts in the injury arena with their proprietary statistical research. “I’d prefer to leave that behind the curtain,” Huntington says.
So what can we conclude, out here on the public side of the curtain? Coupled with pictures of futuristic fitness wear and quotes about innovative training techniques, the Pirates’ low games-missed total looks like a sign they’ve begun to crack the injury riddle that costs teams millions of dollars and dozens of wins every season. However, by starting with a possible conclusion — The Pirates are good at preventing and/or treating injuries — and looking for evidence to support it, we’re treading dangerously close to post hoc, ergo propter hoc territory. After all, every team could find something complimentary to say in a public statement about its training staff.
To find out whether the Pirates’ low injury rate this season should affect our expectations for 2015, we need to determine how closely games-missed totals in one season predict games-missed totals in the next. Unfortunately for Pirates fans hoping this season signals a relatively healthy future, injuries are one of the least consistent components of team performance.
The Baseball Prospectus injury database contains complete information on disabled list stints for both hitters and pitchers dating back to 2002 and for day-to-day injuries dating back to 2005. At my request, BP analyst Russell Carleton used this data to calculate the consistency of injury totals over time, employing a statistical technique called intraclass correlation.4 However Russell ran the analyses — on games missed for day-to-day injuries, on games lost to DL appearances, or on both combined — he got a correlation of .3–.35 for hitters and .2–.25 for pitchers (where 1 represents a perfect correlation, i.e., the same total every season, and 0 signifies no relationship at all). ICC, Carleton says, “has a way of smoothing everything out and homogenizing it,” so he also ran simple correlations between Year 0 and Year 1 to look for local variations, or subsets of the data that might reveal real relationships. However, the alternative method produced correlations in the same “.3 for hitters, .2 for pitchers” range.
Specifically AR(1) — or auto-regressive, first order — intraclass correlation, which is the sort of detail that most readers are very happy to have buried in a footnote.
Compare those figures with the correlations for a selection of other statistics over the same years, using the same statistical technique:
Some of these correlations have big ballpark effects baked in — a team that plays in a park that inflates or suppresses offense significantly is likely to hew to one side of the run-scoring spectrum — but even those that don’t are significantly stronger than games missed. A team that strikes out often (or strikes out opponents often) this year is very likely to do the same the following year. A team that wins or loses a lot in 2014 is fairly likely to show a similar tendency in 2015. A team that excels at avoiding the disabled list, though? Its future injury performance is anyone’s guess. In 2011, the Pirates lost the second-most games to injury. In 2012, they lost the fourth-fewest. Last year, they lost the 11th-most. Unless you’re a big believer in even-odd year “rules,” that progression doesn’t inspire much confidence that we can use this year’s health to predict how next year’s Pirates will fare.
We can see this pattern — or more accurately, lack of a pattern — repeated for every team. This chart shows the total games lost to injury for each team’s hitters and pitchers in each season from 2005 to 2013. Click here for a full-size version of the below visual (then, if you’d like, click again to zoom).
The most obvious outlier are the White Sox, who earned national attention for lapping the rest of the league in limiting pitcher injuries from 2002 to 2012. As soon as that coverage came to a head in early 2013, however, Chicago’s results regressed. Although pitching coach Don Cooper, who received much of the credit for protecting pitchers, remains with the team, the Sox have ranked in the middle of the pack with the 17th-most pitcher games lost to injury in both 2013 and 2014. Maybe the White Sox were extremely lucky in the past, and their luck has run out; maybe they still have the answers, but they’ve had a recent run of particularly poor luck; or maybe whatever ability they had before 2013 has deserted them.
Our brains are overzealous about picking up patterns, so some other high- or low-injury stretches that are really the result of random variation might seem significant at first glance. A few of them actually might be (though it’s hard to tell which ones), if only because younger players (and therefore younger teams) tend to get hurt less often than older ones. This year’s Pirates have the fourth-youngest group of batters in baseball (albeit with only the 11th-youngest pitching staff), which is a point in their favor from an injury-prevention perspective.5 However, young teams eventually get old, and old ones (except, perhaps, for the Yankees) eventually try youth movements. Teams that are genuinely skilled at recruiting or creating injury-resistant players can be felled by freak accidents of the sort that Martin mentioned, obscuring their true injury-avoiding talent. And as rosters, front offices, and training/conditioning/medical staffs perpetually rearrange themselves — Huttman, for instance, was the Dodgers’ strength and conditioning coach from 2008 to 2011 before joining the Pirates — teams with an abnormal number of durable or injury-prone players (and front offices that are particularly prone to acquiring one type or the other) gradually drift apart.
As Stewart put it, comparing the 2014 Pirates to his previous squad, the injury-plagued 2013 Yankees, “We’re pretty young, whereas last year we had older guys and weathered bodies.”
The outside-the-curtain conclusion, then, is that Pirates fans should feel fortunate, just as Rangers fans should feel that the universe is against them. Teams are reluctant to use injuries as either an excuse or an explanation, but in some races, they play a significant role. Even if Pittsburgh’s health this year is the result of an injury prevention plan that will work for years to come, Pirates fans shouldn’t get greedy. In the boom-and-bust world of baseball injuries, even one health-assisted wild-card win is something to celebrate.