A Tiny Sensor Could Help End the MLB’s Epidemic of Elbow Injuries
In the parlance of his craft, Dellin Betances has filthy stuff. The 28-year-old New York Yankees reliever is averaging about two strikeouts per inning pitched this season. 40 percent of the batters he’s faced in his career have slumped back to the dugout, undone by his hard-breaking slurve or 97-mph fastball.
Betances, a two-time All-Star, is among the best relief pitchers in pro ball. It’s a feat he’s accomplished with a reconstructed elbow. Soon, he will take the mound in a regular season game with a Motus Pro sensor tucked into the compression sleeve on his right arm. The sensor, about the weight of a quarter, features an accelerometer and a gyroscope. Trainers will use the sensor’s data to assess how much stress Betances is placing on an elbow doctors repaired seven years ago, hoping to identify factors that might contribute to injuries.
Baseball, a game so enchanted by tradition that some parks still use manual scoreboards, is suddenly going digital. There are iPads in the dugouts, sensors in the bats, and even heart-monitoring modules under players’ jerseys. And now, there’s the Motus Pro, a gadget designed to analyze in-game biomechanical data and possibly prevent injuries.
Betances tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in 2009, an injury so painful that he doesn’t like discussing it. Repairing it required Tommy John surgery, a procedure named for the pitcher who first underwent the operation in 1974. Surgeons remove a damaged ligament from the elbow and replace it with a tendon from the forearm or leg. The surgery has become fairly routine, but the causes of these injuries are often perplexing. “Was it overthrowing in youth baseball? Was it mechanical? Was it throwing too many pitches? Was it all of the above? I don’t know and even the top medical experts can’t pinpoint a cause,” Betances says.
Tommy John surgery has become so common that medical journals and sports reporters alike call it an “epidemic.” Data from Kitman Labs shows elbow afflictions accounted for a league-leading 22 percent of the 198 injuries that sent players to the disabled list last year. Pitchers represented 59 percent of injured players and $420 million in sidelined salaries. A lot of money can be saved—and made—by protecting elbows.
Motus Pro features five sensors and software to visualize biomechanical data. It can track dozens of pitching and batting metrics, including hand speed, workload, power generated through the hips during a swing, and elbow torque. A single sensor near the elbow is sufficient to measure the stress placed upon the ulnar collateral ligament, so players like Betances probably will wear one sensor during games and the full array in practice.
Although the sensors can connect to an iPad via Bluetooth to provide real-time readouts, Major League Baseball prohibits instant transmission of data during games. That means trainers can’t download and analyze the info until after the game. The league says it wants to ensure a controlled, confidential pipeline for the personal data.
Despite the technology’s versatility, company cofounder and CEO Joe Nolan says its core focus is elbow injuries. In the past, teams have used motion-capture tech to analyze these things in a lab, not during games, where players exert maximum effort. “Our goal at Motus was to break down the walls of the lab and bring movement analysis directly to the player where they train and compete,” Nolan says.
For now, the sensor on Betances’s arm will harvest data, recording elbow stress as it happens. The goal is to find patterns in data gleaned before an injury and identify warning signs—things like fatigue and a change in the angle of the pitcher’s throwing arm—that suggest injury is imminent. Sports-medicine specialist Josh Dines says pitching mechanics play a surprisingly small role here. How hard, and how often, someone throws is more relevant.
Much of the trouble stems from the nature of baseball. “Throwing is not normal,” says Dines, who joined physician David Altchek in advising Motus on the system. “The harder you throw, it’s more stress across the ligament. Good pitchers are at more risk.”
This puts particularly hard-throwing pitchers like Betances in greater danger. Still, every injury is different. Two years after enduring Tommy John surgery, former All-Star Matt Morris pitched more than 200 innings—and won 22 games—for the St. Louis Cardinals. Morris didn’t find his injury painful; he describes it as “a disconnect around the elbow joint.” He even pitched through it a bit after sustaining the injury during a workout.
“The timing and power was off,” Morris says. “As I threw, it would take a fraction of a second longer for my hand to catch up, resulting in a powerless fastball up in the zone. Not a lot of pain, more confusion on why it’s not ‘firing’ like it used to.”
Dines says UCL injuries are also rising among young players, and the allure of going pro may be a factor. Eager to earn scholarships and then get drafted, kids in warmer climates increasingly play year-round, giving their arms no time to rest or recover. “When I grew up, you played baseball in the spring, soccer or football in the fall, and hockey or basketball in the winter,” he says. “By playing other sports, you gave your elbow a rest.”
The success of Tommy John surgery may exacerbate the problem. Pitchers like Morris, Mariano Rivera, and John Smoltz enjoyed long, successful careers after the procedure. Some pitchers are more effective after surgery, creating the misconception that a repaired elbow helps pitchers throw harder. But any improvement stems from strengthening other parts of the body during recovery, Dines says. Players can’t throw for months after surgery, allowing time to strengthen the core, shoulders, and legs. Betances calls recovery “a grind” and hopes his high-tech sleeve helps others avoid that fate.
The full Motus Pro system is available only to pros, but there’s a single-sensor Motus Baseball system available for $150. In the future, the company hopes to make the tech small enough to weave into an undershirt or batting glove—and so ubiquitous that even Little Leaguers don’t endure that grind.