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Rizzo hopes new medical and training program is “next Moneyball”

Nov 19, 2015, 11:55 AM EDT

L to R: Dr. Keith Pyne, GM Mike Rizzo, and Dr. Robin West. (AP)

On paper, the Nationals feature one of the most talented rosters in baseball. They can pitch, they can hit, they can defend. When healthy, they have several players who could contend for MVP awards on a yearly basis. They have All-Star potential at most positions.

But the potential of their lineup, in particular, has rarely been realized over the last few years as injuries have taken their toll. Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos are all prone to injury and, before this season at least, so was Bryce Harper. Denard Span could be included in that mix, as well, though it is unclear if he is part of their future at this point.

Zimmerman has averaged only 78 games played over the last two seasons and 110 over his last five. Rendon appeared in only 80 games in 2015 and has a long history of ailments dating back to his college days. Werth has averaged only 111 games over his last four seasons, missing in action 31.4 percent of the time. Before playing in 128 games in 2015, Ramos averaged only 63.6 per season in the previous three years.

If the Nationals are to win with that core of players, they will need them to stay healthy. And with that in mind, they are getting creative. The team has undertaken a new medical and training program that is not only new to MLB but could potentially revolutionize the sport.

Analytics have changed the game of baseball both on the field and in the front office. Now the Nationals are hoping a statistics-driven approach to training and handling injuries can have a similar effect.

“We are always looking at new ideas. This is a big idea for us. Our focus is clear: injury prevention,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said. “Everyone knows you’re only as good as the players you have on the field. Healthy talent is productive talent. You don’t have to look any farther than the Bryce Harper in 2015 to see what a healthy player with talent can do.”

Welcome to the new “Moneyball.”

“We wanted to not only have great veterans of your traditional baseball medicine, but we also wanted to think outside the box and how could we do better.” Rizzo continued. “It may be the next frontier, the next ‘Moneyball’ — keeping players on the field.”

Here’s how it works. The Nationals will evaluate each player in spring training and give them what are called ‘bio-markers.’ They are baseline measurements for things like bloodwork, hydration levels and proper range of motion for joints like hips, shoulders, etc. They will then design player-specific training programs based on that data and from there be able to better evaluate and perhaps even predict injuries.

“We try to look at all variables that an athlete should have or that should be normal and we start to do our exams on the players so we can match what their normals are,” Dr. Keith Pyne said at a press conference at Nationals Park on Wednesday. “One of the factors we’ll be looking at is inflammation and player fatigue, and this is going to be in our analytics, so we can make objective decisions, and management can make objective decisions, and say, ‘This guy needs a day off,’ or ‘This player can do a little more.'”

Pyne will lead an advisory board that will also include Dr. Robin West, the Nats’ new lead team physician, and Bob Miller, Nationals vice president & assistant GM. Also involved in the program will be Harvey Sharman, who is the Nats’ new executive director of medical services. There will be a new training staff led by Paul Lessard, who has come over from the Reds, as well.

Sharman is one of the key players in this. He is moving to Washington from West Yorkshire, England. Sharman is a pioneer of sorts in analytics. He developed a program for the Leeds United soccer club that, according to Rizzo, saw an injury reduction of over 50 percent and a significant drop particularly with soft tissue injuries.

The Nationals have expanded their medical personnel from 43 members to at least 48. It will cost them more money, but Rizzo believes the system will pay off in the long-run.

“It’s a real financial undertaking that we’ve asked ownership for. They see this is something that can really help us in the win-loss column. Like we’ve said before, 1,300 disabled list days from your core players, how much does that cost us? The players on the disabled list who are making X-amount of dollars. This is really a money-saving operation, though we’ve invested a lot of money in it,” he explained.

The effects of the Nationals’ new program may not be known for some time. They have to first establish a foundation of data to move forward with before they can make comparisons and draw conclusions. But ultimately it could have widespread benefits to everything from evaluating draft prospects and free agents to nailing down more specific timelines for recovery, something the Nationals have struggled with in recent years.

It is a new venture and one that has the Nationals and Rizzo excited to implement.

“We already have several players that know a lot about this stuff, buy into it,” Rizzo said. “I think some of our most key and veteran players are totally locked into it, and see this is going to keep them on the field longer, which means more production, which means more money, higher arbitration, more free-agent dollars. It’s going to be something I think these guys not only accept, but dive into and get involved with.”

  1. joemktg - Nov 19, 2015 at 12:55 PM

    1) A significant leap
    2) A comprehensive program is long overdue
    3) What about the player development program, from Instructional to AAA? Brewers, Dodgers, Royals, Cubs are implementing comprehensive programs throughout the system that include medical, nutritional, strength training, etc. plans tailored to each player, while the Nationals (and others) are still stuck in the old way of doing things.

  2. Doc - Nov 19, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    ‘Bout time!

    It’s a player’s body that counts, and everything that happens on the field depends on what happens to the body.

    Putting together sabermetrics with medical metrics—now that’s gonna be real baseball

  3. Sonny G 10 - Nov 19, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    Wow! I’m excited to read about the new medical and training program. Man, if we can keep our players on the field and in optimum condition for each individual player, its got to greatly enhance our chances to get to the post season, and through the post season. Go Nats! Desi and Jordan may regret their decisions to walk. …or maybe not. 🙂

  4. Eugene in Oregon - Nov 19, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    First, I think it’s heading in the right direction with a more comprehensive approach to health, conditioning, playing time, etc.

    Second, much like the 2012 shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, if/when the Nats (or any other team) pull a player out of the line-up for multiple games I can envision lots of angst and criticism (including from the player himself). A day off? No problem. But what if the medical staff says “this guy needs a week to 10 days off”?

    • Doc - Nov 19, 2015 at 3:42 PM

      It’s a new approach Eugene, so I expect a lot of ‘baseball macho’ blowback. Forward March!!!!!

      Hey GMs like Jerry Dipoto are getting fired for espousing sabermetrics and they’re still putting sodium nitrate in the ballpark hotogs!

      It took a lousy season full of lost player days due to injury for Rizzo to turn the corner.

  5. natsfan1a - Nov 19, 2015 at 4:32 PM

    I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on tv, but if all this means fewer days lost to injury, count me in! (Not that the program’s adoption and implementation hinge on whether or not fans are on board, of course. It’s more of an expression of optimism on my part and, eh, never mind. Is it spring yet?)

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