Cardinals seek edge at baseball's newest frontier — training

Derrick Good, St. Louis Post Dispatch

When Dr. Robert Butler joined the Cardinals to help steer them into baseball’s next frontier, one of the priority things his staff wanted to change wasn’t physical, medical, or even habitual, but architectural.

The team’s outdated facilities in Jupiter, Fla., had a floor plan that distanced the athletic training staff, medical staff, and several of their rooms. His office wasn’t even on the same floor. Charged with unifying all those departments, Butler found “nothing impedes a conversation like cinder blocks.” The Cardinals’ increasingly claustrophobic weight room had equipment where it fit, not where it belonged, and there was little room for growth, either from the players or the program. A wall stood in the way.

“We needed breathing room,” says Butler, a Cardinals official.

That wall came down on Feb. 1.

The building continues.

A little more than 14 months ago the Cardinals hired Butler from Duke University and charged him with constructing a “department of performance.” The concept, drawn from programs used by European soccer clubs and Australian professional teams, was to bring strength, conditioning, athletic training, injury prevention, and medical all under the same big top. And to have data as the tent pole.

Officials say the department is still in its early stages — some advancements won’t reach the majors until players just drafted do — but there have been changes beyond the improved facilities. Training approaches have been rethought and specialized, vision tests expanded, sleeping patterns studied, and, later this season, the major-league team’s travel schedule altered.

What baseball’s statistical revolution did years ago to measure performance on the field, a few teams are now trying to do with biomedical science to maximize performance on the field. Sabermedicals, the Post-Dispatch called it a year ago. It doesn’t matter what a player’s OPS, WAR, or BABIP is if the acronym nearest his name is DL.

“We have an analytic department now, which we never had before, and we felt that this was a good supplement to that,” says Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, whose team is trying a new medical model as well. “Kind of almost anticipating, if you will, how to stop injuries before they happen. Obviously it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the more your best players play and are not on the disabled list the better chance you have to win games.”

Butler summarizes, “The greatest ability a player can have is availability.”

Demolition aside, the Cardinals still see the new department in the information-gathering phase. That continued this spring training. Major League Baseball, this year, will permit some wearable technology during games to measure players’ health, workload, and movement. While no Cardinal, major- or minor-leaguer, has done so yet, many wore accelerometers and other tech during spring training workouts.

In the future, the Cardinals believe some minor-leaguers will wear gear during controlled settings such as instructional league games.

“Right now, we still don’t have a good idea of the demands of the game,” Butler says. “We think we do. We count pitches. I don’t know if we think all of the pitches are the same, right? But it’s still a number. We count innings. There are things that we count. But to know what actually happens with a pitch, in an inning, or in a game that’s how you develop a real sense of the different workloads and the preparation that really requires. What does that animal look like?”

Many Cardinals agreed to wear a band that monitored their sleep habits this spring, and there have already been changes that resulted from that data. Manager Mike Matheny said the team learned the quality of rest the players got in the final week of spring — when start times were pushed back. In August, the Cardinals will twice travel to Milwaukee on the day of the game in order to steal an entire off day at home. Starter Adam Wainwright, who still uses the tech to monitor his sleep, was one of the players who worked with the trainers to alter his workouts based on what the quality of his sleep said about his recovery.

“You slept great last night,” he explains, “so push it.”

Butler and his department are the latest stride the Cardinals have taken with their training and medical approach. Some steps, officials admit, have been wobbly and not lasting. As studiously as the team found damage deep within Michael Wacha’s shoulder before it worsened, there were also times of contradiction and a lack of communication when it came to injuries. Offseason workouts have been tailored by position for years, but are geared now toward individual goals. A player’s data profile will go with him, level by level, and so will his training plans.

“Trying to eliminate some of the subjective side of this,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “You speak about the age-old question, ‘When are you going to know you’ve had success?’ In fairness, it’s going to be a three- or five-year measurement. The goal was never about a quick fix. Modernizing how we think about performance is. We’ve been always trying to catch this next wave and understand it. There are two schools of thought when you think about innovation. You can be the first one and maybe have some failure. Or, you can be the second and follow the success. This is one area we’ve always been trying to lead on.”

Other sports already were.

“When we started chasing this carrot,” Mozeliak says, they looked beyond baseball’s boundaries. In 2014, a director of performance from an English Premier League club presented to NBA teams a paper on the “High Performance Model” used in the EPL. Within the next year, as many as five NBA teams had hired Australian sports scientists. The Celtics brought Johann Bilsborough over to study player movements, heart rate, and more to maximize playing time and rest time. Among the NHL teams to seek out performance models, the Vancouver Canucks contracted with Vancouver-based Fatigue Science to help players deal with their brutal travel. The Seattle Seahawks did the same after promoting Sam Ramsden to director of player health and performance. What football coaches used to do “through their sense and instincts and savvy,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told, they could do now with data.

Something as simple as a questionnaire filled out routinely by a player about how they slept, their stress level, or discomfort led to individual practice schedules.

“I would suggest Major League Baseball was one of the last to embrace this model,” Butler said. “There is no performance model in baseball. A couple of groups are doing it.”

This winter he read Carroll’s book, “Win Forever,” and came upon a paragraph that resonated. It wasn’t Carroll lauding his team’s performance group, the sleep studies, or the Super Bowl success, but Carroll quoting the late Grateful Dead lead singer, Jerry Garcia, answering a question about being the best: “We don’t want to be the best ones doing something — we want to be the only ones doing it.”

As a clinical scientist and assistant professor at Duke, Butler studied and consulted with teams and their performance models. During a visit to Australia for his brother’s wedding, he “immersed” himself for several days with an Australian rules football team. When he attended baseball’s winter meetings in 2015, he spoke with several clubs about this next step.

When the Cardinals offered, he did what his department strives not to do.

Make a gut call.

“My dad went to Wash U. My mom went to Wash U.,” Butler says. “I got a St. Louis Cardinals ballcap when I was in sixth grade. On my 13th birthday, I was living in Louisiana, and we drove to Houston to see the Cardinals play in the Astrodome. Things came together at the right time.”

For this department, the Cardinals already had Adam Olsen, their trusted and head athletic trainer. Olsen introduced Butler to the term he uses as a mission statement: “the anti-fragile athlete.” Thomas Knox, the Cardinals’ physical therapist, was last with the Wizards, and they sent him to Australia to learn the performance model.

Improving the cooperation, cohesion, and “efficient communication” between the various offices and affiliates has been the most significant advancement in the past year. Literally, taking down walls. The tangible example of this exists across the street from the team’s building at Roger Dean Stadium. In the first floor of an office building, there’s a rented space the Cardinals have converted to their ideal training facility for minor-leaguers. There’s open space, there’s a logical progression of equipment, and there is a training room right next door — with no cinder blocks to block conversation.

The equipment ranges from free weights (branded with “STL”) to bowling pin-like weights for flexibility and range. There are four Sorinex racks that Butler calls “Swiss Army Knife setups.” They allow players to “push, pull, lunge, squat, and carry things across a distance,” all within the same room, he explains to a visitor. There is similar equipment, a “starter set,” at the team’s campus in the Dominican. These are more than means to build strength, they are also a way to continue building data.

The more they have now, the more they gather, the more they can do later to anticipate when a player’s “check engine light pops on” and how to keep him running.

“This is going to be a continuous evolution. It’s not like there is an endgame,” Butler says. “Obviously there is an endgame in the sense of how fast can you get a kid from the Dominican Republic to St. Louis and how good can a player perform. I understand that part of it. Our department is challenged with consistently learning from the information we have — and also finding the information that we need.

“I couldn’t anticipate that we would be here 12 months ago,” he concludes, “but I continue to be excited about where we’re going.”