Spring training injuries to top Orioles prospects Adley Rutschman, Heston Kjerstad show the next player development frontier they're pursuing might be the hardest
In one intrasquad game, two of the Orioles' recent first-round picks got hurt. As they look to overhaul how they train and rehabilitate players, the challenge in perfecting that is staring them down.
Before spring training shut down in 2020 and the pandemic canceled the minor league season, the Orioles held a set of intrasquad games for their early-arriving top prospects at minor league camp, a series of games players and coaches I spoke to that summer often cited as a paragon of their player development gains from the previous year.
Last Friday’s intrasquad clash will not be remembered so fondly.
In that game, former No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman hit a fly ball to left field that went for an inside-the-park home run when the next year’s No. 2 overall pick, Heston Kjerstad, injured his hamstring trying to make a play on it.
Rutschman, it turns out, didn’t come out of the day unscathed: manager Brandon Hyde told reporters in Sarasota Wednesday that he’d be shut down for at least two weeks with a triceps strain that Rutschman first felt in that same game.
The moment has passed, but I always thought some kind of oral history of those games as a snapshot of that period in time would have been fascinating — a new hitting program delayed on the launchpad, a talented draft class waiting for their full-season debuts, etc.
If such a thought ever exists about last week’s intrasquad game, it would only be if hindsight makes it a devastating day for this long-term rebuilding project.
As we sit a week into spring training, it’s hardly that. It’s just a challenge, and that’s what this Orioles’ player development department is built on. This was the case in 2019 when Chris Holt came in pushing their minor league pitchers to embrace data and technology to improve their pitches and throw them in unconventional counts, leading to strikeout rates climbing and WHIPs falling.
That hitting program was finally implemented on a wide scale in 2021, with arduous pregame drills that simulated the toughest game environments batters could face. The collective full-season OPS climbed 37 points, and both home run and walk rates jumped as well.
Which leads us to the revamped strength and performance department within baseball operations, an area Nathan Ruiz broke down well last month in the Sun.
There’s no OPS or strikeout rates to measure how well the Orioles keep players healthy and nurse them back to health when they’re injured. This week simply illustrates the type of challenges built in to this next phase of their player development overhaul checklist: keeping players on the field.
To be fair, some of the changes have been in the works for a while. What happened this winter was akin to fully building out and decorating the house they had already laid the foundation for. But just as their efforts to blend sports science, nutrition, mental skills, and biomechanics into a holistic yet individualized plan for players has been in the works for years, so has the backdrop it comes against, which is that players get hurt.
Sometimes, two injuries happen in one game. Sometimes they get hurt in spring training and their whole season is derailed, and others break down later in the season through over-exertion. Sometimes they’re freak injuries, and sometimes they’re progressive. Injuries just happen, but the ways teams work to prevent them and rehabilitate them once they occur is a matter they control.
On the injury prevention front, biomechanics can break down every facet of a player’s movements and identify risk areas. Data collection through wearable technology can provide insights into when a player is wearing down and can be rested to prevent serious injury, as well as help further identify areas for future improvement in how a player moves.
The burgeoning area of biomechanics and sports science could help the Orioles discover and correct physical flaws in player movement patterns that could eventually lead to injuries.
All these and then some can also assist in the rehabilitation portion of proceedings, where Orioles prospects seem to have found plenty of benefits lately. Orioles lower-level hitting coordinator Anthony Villa believed Coby Mayo, who broke out last summer after a spring training knee injury pushed his pro debut to June, benefited greatly from the work he did while rehabbing.
Villa told me last summer that the movement prep exercises to promote stability and core control helped Mayo, and the injury and rehabbing from it made Mayo “learn how to control his body better, how to move and get into stable position, and rotate through those stable postures.”
Mayo said last week: “No one likes to get injured, but everything happens for a reason, and I took advantage of it and went full-force with that and really targeted getting better in those aspects.”
Mayo was one of a handful of well-regarded Orioles prospects who were injured either coming off a COVID-impacted season or during it. Fellow 2020 draftee Carter Baumler hurt his elbow and required Tommy John elbow reconstruction that fall at instructional camp, and said the club’s medical staff used the year-long rehabilitation period to address issues that may have led to the injury.
“The thing about TJ is it gives you a lot of time to focus on your deficiencies before you had it,” he said. “We cleaned that up in the weight room and we worked really hard on that, especially this offseason, getting back to where I wanted to be. They did a really good job on the weight room side of things and on the training side of things.”
Baumler isn’t the only player to report this spring that he feels stronger than he did before the injury. Infield prospect Joey Ortiz, who started impressively but missed most of the season with a shoulder issue that required labrum surgery, said the same.
This is helpful for several reasons when talking about coming back from injuries, but at its most basic level, means players will be in a spot to hop back on their initial developmental track as opposed to having their careers fully derailed. Success within the rehab program is a good start as the Orioles look to implement the kind of forward-thinking changes to player performance they are.
Injuries are a different beast than the challenges they faced in overhauling the on-field departments, though. Pitching came first because ultimately, a pitcher is in control of the game, and gains on the mound were easily achievable considering where the Orioles were coming from. Next was hitting, and even though they were confident in the program that was put in place, expectations were tempered because of the built-in disadvantages hitters have in that they’re reacting to pitches and not the other way around.
All the best strength training, body care, and preventative measures the Orioles put in place can help some players avoid injury, but not all of them. For every Grayson Rodriguez who is methodically managed throughout a season to keep his innings down and his prized arm fresh, there’s a DL Hall on essentially the same program whose elbow comes up sore one day and ends his season.
That’s the rub with what could seemingly be this year’s area of the Orioles’ biggest player development gains: they can do a fantastic job at it, but injuries like Rutschman’s and Kjerstad’s will still happen. There’s no OPS or strikeout rate spikes to point to. They’re simply putting the players in the best position to stay healthy, with science-based solutions to do so, and trying to avoid days like Friday.
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