Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto is not only tasked with taking his team up the standings of MLB’s American League, he is also overseeing an organization-wide paradigm shift in high performance.
By John Portch
The Mariners’ High Performance Model came to wider public attention in late October last year when Dr Lorena Martin was appointed the club’s first Director of High Performance. “It’s not just hiring one specialist or expert. We are changing the way we do things,” he said. “The way we view athlete care, the way we take care of them day to day and frankly the way we communicate about it. We want our players to tell us what they need.”
The announcement came at the end of a season in which the Mariners lost 1,400-plus days and over $40 million in salary to injuries. Dipoto had been GM for two years at this point and had long perceived a broader need for change, with sports science an under-explored area for baseball.
Henceforth, the Mariners’ idea was for coaching, medical, strength & conditioning, nutrition and mental skills staff to operate interdependently with, as we went on to discuss with Dipoto, the direct involvement of the players. “It’s still in the evolutionary phase,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “There’s so much for us to learn, understand and do, but we have seen some differences in the short term and the biggest difference is trust and finding ways to connect with our players and give them a real ability to interact with us and take ownership of their own careers.”
Increasing player awareness of their health and wellbeing
Another success, and it is perhaps a corollary of players beginning to take ownership, as Dipoto puts it, has been the Mariners’ reduction in injuries over the course of the 2018 season. “We’ve had fewer knick-knack injuries, not a lot of hamstrings – and I know I’m going to regret saying that!” he jokes, adding: “We’ve had better luck in that area and had much better ability to govern longer term injuries. We’ve only had a few significant injuries during the course of the season, whereas last time we had 16 or 17 guys on the disabled list. This year we’ve routinely had two or three – that’s a remarkable step forward for us.”
What has been the biggest difference this term? “I would like to tell you that we’re smart enough to avoid bad luck but that’s sometimes the way it rolls,” is his reply. “Some of it is not running into that bad luck and some of it is that we’re better prepared. We’ve done an excellent job in the first half of the season in scheduling days off.”
Dipoto attributes much of that success to the use of a new app-based player system that helps heighten player awareness of their health and wellbeing, as he explains. “They can sit down with our staff; and the first thing we do every day, with our players at all levels, and we stress it at minor league level, is that they need to come in and visit our training staff and give them an understanding of where their energy level is on that day, whether it’s the quality of their sleep, the number of consecutive days they’ve played or the amount of activity they’ve had in a stretch of time.
“We’re not yet able to wear devices on field to measure this – that’s not within baseball’s rules – but we’re able to sit down in more of an interview format and engage our players, to teach them to be honest with us. We have a red, yellow and green-type dial for our players and when we see the dial get closer to yellow or red we know an off-day is coming.
“These guys need a day off and that has been happening regularly this season on a major league level; our players have been far more communicative with our staff in letting them know that something is bothering them so that we can start cutting off injury before it gets to them; and I think that’s just heightened awareness. We can help you with this if you let us know ahead of time. Whereas before, most athletes are tough guys and they want to get out there and play, we’re encouraging our guys to be honest with us when they feel something coming on because we may be able to avoid long-term lay-offs by cutting it off at the gap.”
‘We’re still building the foundations’
To reach that point of awareness, Dipoto and the Mariners worked on the resources and infrastructure that underpins their High Performance Model. Dr Martin’s acquisition was one such example and there have been other additions across the clubhouse as the Mariners bring in coaches with academic expertise.
“We have something in the region of 50 personnel in our development system, most of whom are in touch with a lot of what we’re doing in high performance,” says Dipoto. “At major league level we have a seven-man coaching staff and hired a new Bullpen Coach, Brian DeLunas. He’d never worked in professional baseball prior to this year but we believe his expertise in the biomechanics of pitching delivery gives us a decided advantage. We hired another bench coach in our staff, Jim Brower, a former major league player, who has an expertise in managing data.”
The Mariners also call upon Sparta Science, the Silicon Valley-based human performance data company, who are able to help govern the team’s data analysis through their software. Dipoto says: “Our 16-month sample size is not big enough, whereas Sparta’s database offers multiple tens of thousands. Through force plate jumps they’re able to tell us who is at threat from the soft tissue injuries that might come up through the season that cost you 2-4 weeks at a time, hamstrings and the like; they’re also able to tell us who is at a bigger threat with more dramatic injuries, like UCL tears.
“They are able to lead us to better decisions in terms of player rest, recovery or the potential for injury and it allows us to head it off at the pass. It’s been a great relationship and it’s helped us along the way that a couple of players, including our All-Star right fielder, have been working independently with Sparta Science for a number of years and believes in their programs and technologies, even down to scheduling workout routines and strength plans for the baseball player, because the baseball player is a different type of athlete from football, soccer or any other.”
Dipoto lists some of the wearables the Mariners use in practice sessions. “We have introduced K-Vests to work through kinematic sequence with our hitters and maybe create more efficiency and power potential in their swings. We have started to explore the same with our pitchers. The sabermetric data we’re able to pull from devices like Rapsodo or TrackMan, Brian and Jim are able to take that and identify areas for improvement, then physically apply it, first through the statistical lens and then through the biomechanical lens.”
The most profound development is at minor league level with the Mariners’ affiliate teams where significant changes have already been implemented. “We’ve increased our commitment to these technologies at minor league level and discontinued the age-old practice of instructional league. Historically, at the end of the season, major league teams send their players to instructional league and for another five weeks the players continue to play in competition; more ground balls, more bullpens etc.
“We continued that this past fall and we’re going to follow through with that again this fall. In its place, we’re going to hold a high performance camp where we’re going to spend more time in the classroom than out on the field. We’re better fed, better conditioned, better educated athletes and we’ll use that as a time to educate our players on how to get the most out of the technologies we offers through various specialists that we’ve hired, such as our pitching coaches, hitting coaches, nutritionists, as well as various trainers and consultants.”
The Mariners’ aim is to develop players steeped in a high performance culture. “This is more for our minor league system than our major league team right now,” admits Dipoto. “You’re probably not going to make as much headway in initiating change in those senior major league guys who have achieved what these guys have achieved, so our best avenue towards make a difference at the highest level is by starting at grassroots level and allowing it to permeate as the players develop with us. This will become the their norm, the norm of working with specialists within the organization, consultants outside, who are all dialed toward this high performance model, where they are better fed, better prepared, they’re just better for a variety of reasons.
“We can show them why and, most importantly, they can see why, and that trust continues to develop. We’re in an industry where at grassroots level, when the kids sign in Latin America, they’re at a high school and they’re 16, 17 or 18 years old; they may not matriculate in the major leagues until they’re 23, 24 or 25 years old. So we’re looking at a gestation period of three years or it could be seven or eight. As they go through that chain we want them to develop that trust.
“Our hope is that we start to develop waves of players familiar with this type of commitment, whether it’s allowing the club to help them adjust to various areas of potential improvement through tracking devices or even looking through the lens of technology to improve swings, deliveries etc.”
Dipoto is also mindful of the Mariners’ responsibility to provide potential exit strategies for players who fall out of playing the game. “It’s probably only 10 of 12% of young players that make it to major league level as they work their way through the chain. We hope there’s another 10 or 12% that we’re cultivating that will become part of our coaching/teaching community and become the next wave of educators because they believe in these programs and really create as holistic a model as we can, from our Dominican academy in Boca Chica, to the big league facility in Seattle.”
This is the paradigm shift he is trying to effect. “We understand that what we’re weighing in place now is the foundation on what we will build – we have not built the house yet. It takes a little time to create that type of change in an industry or organization and while we’ve only just thrown a rock in the pond, it’s clear that we’ve made a little bit of a ripple in our own organization and it’s been very encouraging.”
Tiers of access
The high performance camp in the fall serves its purpose in pushing through the cultural shift that Dipoto and the Mariners desire, but it is the informal conversations throughout the season that consolidate the players’ learning. In this regard, there have been quick wins. “Most of the guys we’re working with, from the lower levels of our minor league system to the major league, are between the ages of 20 and 28,” says Dipoto.
“I think that 20-30-year-old group, they’re a pretty tech-savvy generation and when you show them visual areas of potential improvement and they see the bells and whistles of the technology, when they can see graphs, charts and 360-degree motion picture, they’re able to translate or identify with that technology in a different way than maybe the previous generation of player would and you get much quicker learning simply from sitting down and sharing with them the same technological lens that you’re looking through.”
Gone are the days of the club funneling the information through the coaches. “We’ve effectively taken a two-person collaboration and turned it into a community collaboration,” observes Dipoto. “We’ve done it where the coach sits down with the player and they invite the technology together, explore it, and then we’ve introduced them to those in our system who are expert in handling or reading the data as it comes through.
“When you’ve turned it into a multi-person affair that is no longer contingent on a coach connecting with every single player; we effectively have a community voice that provides feedback in whatever you may need.
“And I think the quickest win was introducing the player directly to the technology. We no longer have to bring it to them; they are looking for it and will ask us at any given moment in time. They will ask ‘can I get the force plates today?’, ‘can we bring the Rapsodo out for my bullpen?’ and I think that’s a real positive.”
This athlete engagement has been a real focus of the sports tech industry, as Dr Phil Wagner, the Founder and CEO of Sparta Science, previously told the Leaders Performance Institute. He said: “We have to make sure that the technology we provide speaks to the organization but also speaks to the end-user: the athlete. Once that’s occurring, for the individual to get pure data and to optimize their engagement, the individual has to want to be involved; and so they have to understand how this is going to help them.
“It’s making sure that the technology is energizing and engaging in a way that helps the athlete to be consistent. Part of that consistency comes from optimizing the user interface but, interestingly, we believe that a lot of that is rooted in science because if a product or data is unreliable, then the individual is going to lose trust in that data. If you can cheat the data then you’re less likely to be consistent and interact with it; the best program for any individual is something that they do consistently and the foundation of that consistency is having the right purpose and a trust in that purpose to ultimately to deliver the results.”
Developing trust with players
Dipoto and his high performance staff have also moved to provide players with clubhouse conveniences. “We have a nutritionist on staff who developed a more athlete-friendly menu than we’d been dealing with in the past and came to find out along the way that most of today’s athletes would prefer to eat in a healthy way than the previous generation. That was a quick win because we were able to give them something they wanted.
“In setting up a rest and recovery station we built a sleep room at the ballpark and that went down quite well; the players now had somewhere they could go to take a 20-minute nap before an on-field pre-game practice started in order to put them in a better state.
“Those small things have really helped and for the most part and we have not overwhelmed them with one thing but given them the ability to walk through each door on their own time. We’re trying to do it right rather than do it fast.”
Doing it right means developing trust between the performance staff and the players, which is developed on an individual basis with each player. “One player might have 100% trust and is completely onboard with these type of organizational initiatives,” says Dipoto, “and there’s another player who doesn’t feel it is necessary and is generally less committed or invested. However, we’re starting to find that even the skeptics when we launched this a year and a half ago are now starting to come to different club officials and them for input and the like; players are going through coaches and visiting our specialists. They’ll say ‘I want this’ – that is when we sit on it perfectly – when the player tells you he wants it and he’s got an idea of how to use it, then that makes the coach’s life so much easier.”
Customized access is another feature. “We’ve created tiers of accessibility. For every player, whatever information we’re asking them to provide to us or to share, they have the ability to give the information and allow for only them to see it or they can allow the trainers, the coaches, the front office; each tier is a different level of accessibility. And even if the player is looking at it themselves there’s a value in that to us because he’s teaching himself that this measure of data is important.” Which tier is most common? “We found out that most of them have level one or level two trust and some have given the front office more access. Over time I think that trust will continue to develop as long as we’re moving the needle and the players realize it’s important to track sleep patterns, their fuel, their nutrients, whatever it might be. Even if they’re monitoring it that’s better than nothing, which is what we were doing in the past as an industry.”
There have, as Dipoto admits, been hiccups along the way. He says: “There have been communication gaps and issues where we’ve been trying to get our point across and it’s been lost but that’s normal for any type of new venture. Nothing has slowed us down and if you were to tell us 18 months ago that the progress we’ve made would be possible then I’d have been overjoyed.”