Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Sports

Rays 2017: Searching for the new competitive advantage

So where can the Rays next go forth and prosper?

Opposing GMs, such as Seattle's Jerry DiPoto, laud the Rays for getting out front on so many things previously and "digging deeper." Commissioner Rob Manfred expects them to remain on the front line.

Is there that "next shift" former manager Joe Maddon said they spent years looking for? Another pitching philosophy? A deeper data dig? A better way to maximize production?

The major focus now is in the training room or, in some cases, lavish training facilities that are being built.

"Performance science is probably the next frontier," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Keeping players healthy and on the field and most productive. Knowing when to scale back their workouts, when not to play them and run them or pitch them into the ground. Managing the DL costs and getting the most return on your investment is first and foremost."

Technology is a wild card in this field as teams are racing to see what works and how it may help, intrigued by companies pushing wearable devices but also having to be mindful of union privacy concerns.

As you'd figure, big-market teams have a built-in edge, Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski noting, "you should leave no stone unturned because we have the financial wherewithal to tackle all the options."

The Rays are the first of several teams to install the markerless motion capture Kinatrax system, which uses ultra-high-speed cameras during games at the Trop to capture pitchers' biomechanical data. Still to be determined is whether this system helps more in coaching, body maintenance or injury prevention.

And they're trying more things:

• Installing a virtual reality batting cage;

• engaging with nutrition, sleep and other performance-oriented specialists;

• empowering head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield to explore new recovery techniques;

• hiring a director of baseball performance science, Joseph Myers, last year to join their directors of pitching research & development (Joshua Kalk), baseball development (Peter Bendix) and analytics (Jonathan Erlichman) in the quest.

"Nutrition, performance science, how you work out, when you work out, how you sleep, all that stuff, teams are starting to evaluate more," first baseman Logan Morrison said. "I don't know why it's taken this long."

Finding that next advantage, whatever it is, is one thing. Another is being able to integrate the data into something applicable that leads to on-field success.

"What differentiates teams now is not the ability to comprehend new ideas," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said, "but the ability to implement those new ideas throughout an organization."

But another trademark of the Rays has been to go against the flow, that when all teams are pushing one way, they know to look the other.

So how do they get back ahead?

Maybe, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, it's by falling behind, taking a lead from companies that follow Starbucks into good locations, copy Apple electronics or make generic drugs.

"I think where the advantage for us is going forward — and it's going to sound crazy — is to try to allow all, and I will say all, these other organizations to devote enormous resources, and that's not just money but thinking, brain power and devotion, to things that will have very little payoff, while those resources, brainpower and money might be better spent somewhere else," he said.

"You build it, you invest all the (research and development), you devote everything you can and like a drug company, I'll do the generic version for nothing, and I'll undersell you. And while you're doing that, I'll worry about some other stuff over here.

"Everything I've seen, it's an arms race right now, and guys are using elephant guns to kill mosquitoes."

No matter what the target, the Rays have to find a way to get back ahead.

"There's always going to be new frontiers," vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "If we don't find them, somebody else will."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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