Jeff Passan‘s book ‘The Arm‘ revolves around the quest to build harder throwing, healthier baseball pitchers, and he released the first excerpt for the book the other day on Yahoo! Sports. All baseball fans should have interest in this book, just based on the excerpt alone, but of particular interest to Dodgers fans are the sections about Dr. James Buffi, who now works for the Dodgers.
Given Boddy’s bouts of egotism, the email he sent me February 13, 2015, felt uncharacteristic. He linked to two papers written by Dr. James Buffi and said he was close to hiring him:
It’s actual genius-level material that goes beyond the inverse dynamics of what ASMI does. It could be exceedingly revolutionary. Fortunately for me, he’s read my site and he thinks that I’m the only guy who understands how to train pitchers. Works for me.
Never before had I seen him lavish praise on a peer without caveat. And to call Buffi a peer was a stretch. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, biding his time for a few more months after finishing his research on the muscles in the forearm and their effect on the UCL. After hours of scouring the Internet for his intellectual and scientific equal, Boddy had found one.
Buffi’s initial research confirmed the importance of the flexor-pronator muscles in the forearm. Perhaps they were what enabled R.A. Dickey to pitch without a UCL. Maybe they explained why some pitchers stayed healthy and others didn’t. To further test his hypothesis, Buffi worked with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital’s biomechanics lab, which captured the throwing motions of 20 college pitchers with markers as well as ground-force data collected with force plates. Buffi’s optimization algorithm fit the markers in the model as close as possible to those on the real pitchers. “The goal,” Buffi said, “is to get the model to move in exactly the same way the real pitcher moves.”
Of the 20 pitchers, 13 had no previous major arm injuries and seven did. Blinded to the results, Buffi correctly identified six of the seven injured pitchers and 12 of the 13 without injuries based solely on the model’s data. Buffi then used inverse dynamics, the standard method, to assess all 20 pitchers. It could not tell the difference between who had been injured and who hadn’t.
“I don’t want to say I can fix elbow injuries, but I think I can compensate for the thing that I found with training,” Buffi said. “It’s a really, really hard problem to solve. Hopefully I’m making some good steps toward solving it.”
Kyle Boddy wasn’t the only one paying attention to Dr. James Buffi. Matt Arnold, the director of pro scouting for the Tampa Bay Rays, one of baseball’s most progressive organizations, reached out to Buffi and asked if he might want a job.
Another call frightened Boddy far more than Tampa Bay’s: a man named Doug Fearing, the director of research and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, wanted to speak with Buffi about his findings. The Dodgers were run by Andrew Friedman, the hyperintelligent president of baseball operations who had just left the Rays after a decade-long run of success. In Los Angeles, no budget bound Friedman. The Dodgers had just started an $8 billion local-television contract that allowed their annual payrolls to threaten $300 million. Even better, Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi were allowing Fearing to build baseball’s biggest, best think tank. They were seeking experts in quantitative psychology and applied mathematics. One of Buffi’s friends from Northwestern’s PhD program, a data scientist named Megan Schroeder, already was working with the Dodgers as an analyst. She raved to Buffi about the Dodgers’ new front-office brain trust.
Boddy’s chief concern was that the Dodgers would steal Buffi and his work for their organization alone, further setting back the cause of all baseball pitchers.
“He’s gonna work for the Dodgers,” Bauer told Boddy.
“What makes you say that? ” Boddy said.
“When you were 29 and I met you,” Bauer said, “would you have worked for Ron Wolforth or for the Indians? ”
“Ah, [forget] you,” Boddy said.
“Exactly,” Bauer said.
In June 2015, Buffi accepted a job with the Dodgers about three months after he told me he didn’t want to work for a team. “I did believe that,” Buffi said. “But when I came back from the Dodgers, I was so impressed by the people they had on board. They were talking such a big game about research and creating a premier baseball think tank and hiring the smartest minds in baseball. And they have Andrew and Farhan and Doug.”
Buffi wasn’t a hypocrite. He was a realist. Working for the Dodgers provided an incredible opportunity to continue his research. He had endless money, an available pool of test subjects inside the Dodgers’ farm system and the chance to learn from some of the finest minds in the sport. If he wanted to track the arm using inertial measurement units – a sensor used more often to guide airplanes, spaceships and missiles – track it he could. Buffi could buy all the joint-angle-measuring electrogoniometers his heart desired.
“I traded the opportunity to impact a ton of people, which I do want to do because I’m still only 29,” Buffi said. “I just thought this opportunity to get in the ground floor – I had to make a choice. It feels like a selfish decision. But I did the best I could.”
The whole excerpt (and its follow-up) is definitely worth a read, but the sections about the Dodgers in particular were eye-opening. While I had an inkling of what the Dodgers were doing in terms of baseball research, to read that they’re actively recruiting and hiring people like Buffi was an encouraging tangible confirmation that things are moving forward.
Of course, it’s just research at this point and it’s all just starting to come together, so it could amount to absolutely nothing in the end. But it has to be seen as promising whenever the Dodgers are associated with individuals who are considered to be at the forefront of progress in terms of solving one of baseball’s biggest mysteries.