Matt Harvey

(Reuters/USA Today Sports)

Can This Device End Major League Baseball's Arm Injury Epidemic?

By Sports FOXBusiness

New York Mets ace Matt Harvey is just one of countless Major League Baseball pitchers who have seen their careers derailed by Tommy John surgery. But a new wearable technology device could be the key to understanding the wave of severe arm injuries that has baffled medical experts tasked with solving the problem.

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This spring, the “Motus Baseball Sleeve,” developed by New York-based biomechanics company Motus Global, became one of the first wearable tech devices in MLB history to gain approval for in-game use. The sleeve quantifies exactly how much strain pitchers place on their elbows, granting researchers an unprecedented understanding of the factors that cause ligament damage – and how to prevent them.

Motus Global is one of several active companies in the United States’ exploding wearable technology industry. Wearable sales will hit $14 billion in 2016 and are projected to reach $34 billion by the year 2034, according to a study by research firm CCS Insight.

“The goal from the beginning was always to take movement analysis and analytics in terms of both performance enhancement and injury prevention and develop a physics engine and proprietary software in a laboratory setting, but ultimately to find a vehicle to take that to athletes beyond the walls of our lab,” Joe Nolan, Motus Global’s co-founder and CEO, told FOXBusiness.com.

A 2015 survey of more than 5,000 players found that 25% of active MLB pitchers and 15% of minor league pitchers had undergone an ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL reconstruction procedure, commonly known as Tommy John surgery. The problem is so pervasive that MLB officials formed an advisory committee of the nation’s leading orthopedic surgeons to analyze the epidemic.

So far, officials have struggled to explain why today’s baseball players are so much more susceptible to arm injuries than players in past decades. But new technology has made it easier for researchers to understand the crisis.

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“Up to now, the only weapons we had to measure how much someone is stressing out their elbow is how many pitches do they throw and what was the ball speed,” said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, head of research at the American Sports Medicine Institute and a major proponent of the Motus Baseball Sleeve.

Motus Global traces its roots back to the entertainment industry. Nolan, an expert on biomechanics and movement analysis, left the “Motion Analysis Corporation” in 2002 to form “Perspective Studios.”

Along with business partner Keith Robinson, Nolan built “Perspective Studios” into a major biomechanics company that specialized in mapping human movement for 3D animation in movies and video games, such as Rockstar Games’ massive “Grand Theft Auto” series.” The partnership was so successful that Rockstar acquired the company in 2009.

In 2010, Nolan and Robinson approached Dr. Fleisig and his team at ASMI. Famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andews, a leading authority on elbow ligament injuries, founded ASMI more than 30 years ago as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and prevention of common sports injuries.

The idea was simple – the Motus team would use its expertise in biomechanics to gather data on pitchers at both the major and minor league level. Fleisig would work with his team to analyze the data. That concept blossomed into a “working agreement,” Fleisig said. Baseball teams contract ASMI to perform biomechanical research on their players, and ASMI enlists Motus to gather the relevant data. ASMI and Dr. Andrews are not paid endorsers of Motus Global, but the two outfits work together closely.

“Over 30 years, we’ve had countless people come to us who want to do some kind of deal or partnership. The vast majority, either they fizzled out or they didn’t hold up their end of the deal,” Fleisig told FOXBusiness.com. “It impressed me to no end that Joe and Keith, they were doers. It became the most successful partnership that ASMI has had in biomechanics ever.”

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By the end of 2013, Nolan and Robinson were exploring a potential tech platform to power their information-gathering. After a fair amount of trial and error, they came up with a device that eventually developed into the current “Motus Baseball” sensor.

Motus also developed the "Motus Pro" system, which tracks 49 motion metrics on a pitch and 38 metrics on a swing. Crucially, it maps every element of what Nolan calls the “kinetic chain” – the forces and timing of every human movement required to swing a bat or throw a baseball. The compression sleeve can measure exactly how much stress a pitcher puts on his elbow, both on a day-to-day basis and over the course of a full season.

At present, Motus is working with more than 20 MLB teams, as well as countless players at both the major and minor league level. New York Yankees relief pitcher Dellin Betances and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen are among the company’s endorsers.

MLB officials vetted Motus’ sleeve extensively before approving it for in-game use.

“Clubs and players have requested to use these technologies in games, and the Official Baseball Rules require that any new technology be approved prior to use on the field,” an MLB spokesperson said in a statement to FOXBusiness.com. “We receive suggestions from clubs, players, and vendors and send products through an extensive testing and evaluation process prior to approval.  These technologies are for the use of clubs and players and aim to manage and improve performance.”

Nolan and Fleisig said the sleeve is useful for both injury prevention and post-surgery rehabilitation. Coaches can use the device to track a healthy pitcher’s workload or to carefully manage an injured player’s recovery.  

“We’re starting to see some statistical trends and models in terms of what workloads look like before an actual injury event occurs,” Nolan said. “Unfortunately, we do need to see more injuries occur before we really have some definitive answers, but we’re starting to get those insights now.”

Long-term, Nolan wants to bring the compression sleeve and Motus’ other wearable products to the mass audience. The company has begun talks with retailers about placing the gear in physical stores.

For now, Motus is focused on perfecting the sleeve and building out the database they need to more accurately guide pitchers on what constitutes a safe workload.  

“We don’t have the formula, the database yet to say, ‘this is a safe amount,’” Fleisig said. “A lot of data needs to be collected with it, but it’s the right technology, I think, to do it.”

*This story was updated to clarify that ASMI and Dr. James Andrews are not paid endorsers of Motus Global.

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