GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- In a small office marked “Storage” here at the spring training facility, the Reds are trying to find an edge.
The office belongs to Charles Leddon, Dr. Charles Leddon. He is the team’s director of Sports Science Initiatives.
Dick Williams has been talking about spending more money on analytics and sports science ever since he took over as general manager. Leddon was hired a year ago to that end.
Leddon is the former trainer for the Double-A Pensacola club, so he has a background in baseball. But he also has a master’s in biomechanics and PhD in sports medicine from Oregon State. Before taking his current position, Leddon completed a research fellowship at NASA.
So how does rocket science meet sports science?
“Sports science kind of incorporates everything that has to do with how we get somebody healthy, how we keep them healthy, how we improve their performances,” Leddon said. “So we try to incorporate all the different aspects of sports medicine, biomechanics, motor control, exercise physiology, nutrition, sleep. We look at all those things to see how to make our athletes better and how to prevent injuries.
“That incorporates evaluating programs, evaluating new technologies, doing everything we can to optimize that performance.”
This is a new field, and it’s ever-changing.
“Every day, not even every month,” Leddon said. “There are a lot of different ways to approach it. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are on the cutting edge and try to stay on the cutting edge. You learn that if you don’t know what the next new thing is going to be, you’re already behind.”
Leddon has been given free rein to press on by Williams.
“Dick is a person who very much wants to be proactive in every aspect,” Leddon said. “We’re not going out and finding out what all the other teams are doing -- because if we find out what they’re doing and we mimic them, at best, that’s going to put us a couple of years behind them. We’re looking at what teams in the NFL are doing, what teams in Australian Rules Football are doing. We’re going to events like the Consumer Electronics Show to see what the new technology is and see how we might use it for benefit.
“That way, when we develop technology, we’re ahead of the curve, and they can try to catch up with us. We’ve had some times when we were behind. Now, we’re taking those steps with the commitment from the front office and from the coaching staff and trying to get ahead of the competition.”
For this to work, the players have to buy in. It helps that the Reds' two most veteran players -- Bronson Arroyo and Joey Votto -- are nutrition and training fanatics.
Arroyo says players win championships, not the little things. But as the Reds add players, it helps to educate them on the new way of doing things.
“All the small details of the game matter,” Arroyo said. “It’s like knowing how to get down a good bunt. You have to try to maximize things. Other teams are doing it. But at the end of the day, all the small crumbs aren’t going to win you a championship. It doesn’t matter who’s coaching third base, if you don’t have the guys on the field, the machine doesn’t go.
“But, if you’re at a place where you want to win with these guys, all that small stuff does matter -- sleep, better nutrition, travel. Trying to be really strategic about that, I think it matters.”
Arroyo, for instance, takes a half-hour nap two hours before every start.
“To my body, that quiet before the storm, that cat nap gave me a little more energy,” Arroyo said.
Votto often brings in a Whole Foods bag for his pregame meal. He listened to Leddon’s talk with an open mind, with a touch skepticism.
“I’m down for learning,” Votto said. “We had a meeting. They chatted about sleep and their theories, some of the evidence-based stuff that they think correlates to better performance. It’s so new. The more you learn about it, the more you read... They don’t know. They can correlate things, but there are only so many things that have a true cause and effect.”
Leddon has been pleased with the reception overall.
“The younger guys are definitely a little more receptive than the older guys,” he said. “But even some of our veterans are very receptive. Joey is a very inquisitive guy. He likes to see what the opportunities are to help him get better. As we present ideas to them that make sense to them, that helps them get it. That’s what all of us are here for. The more we can help the players in that locker room get better, the more successful all of us are.”
Nearly every professional team is looking for a technical edge. The Bengals used athletic tracking devices, which employ GPS technology, this year to manage practice volume and intensity on an individual basis. The devices placed in the player’s shoulder pads measure the quality of a rep, based on the speed, and the quantity, total number of reps, in a practice or workout.
“We don’t use that system,” Leddon said. “They track a lot of cardiovascular measures. Baseball’s just not a cardiovascular sport. When we talk about fatigue, most of our fatigue is muscular fatigue as opposed to cardiovascular fatigue. So we look at things that measure those things.”
Leddon is looking into wearables that make sense for baseball.
“We’re going to be evaluating one this summer,” he said, “to see if it fits selectively in our system. There’s a lot of new technology that’s come out in the last four or five years that helps us analyze motions, helps us analyze the amount of activity a guy does. We’ve evaluated a lot of those.”
But Leddon is concentrating on figuring out how to get the most out of players by keeping them fresh, well fed and healthy. Baseball is unique. There’s a great deal of travel. The schedule calls for 162 games over 180 days. Day games are mixed in with night games. The Reds might play a night game in Los Angeles and then fly back to Cincinnati, arriving in the wee hours of the morning.
“Really, our focus has come down to evaluating rest and recovery to make sure, with our busy schedule, that we’re able to maximize their recovery time to make sure they’re at their optimum performance at games,” Leddon said. “Secondly, we want to make sure we’re optimizing nutrition. That 10 percent or so you can lose by having poor nutrition we gain back. Biometrics, instead of getting a height and weight at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, we’re starting to look at height, weight, vertical jump, movement function type of measures throughout the season, range of motion. So, if we start to see somebody tail off before they get to the bottom and end up with an injury, that we can curtail that and get them back up to the level we want.
“But incorporating all those things -- whether it’s rest and recovery, whether it’s vision, whether it’s biometrics or nutrition -- we want to make sure we’re monitoring throughout the year, so when we start to see dips, we correct for it.”
Avoiding injuries is key in any sport. But a team with a payroll in the lower range is especially susceptible because it can’t spend money on depth.
The best year the Reds had recently was 2012. The key that year? None of the five starters missed a turn.
The Reds are in a different stage now. They’re putting the finishing touches on a rebuild. If Leddon’s work keeps that young talent healthy and fresh, it would be a huge plus.
“It’s taken a long time for some of this stuff to come to light and how important it really is,” Arroyo said. “You’re playing sports at the highest level. You have to try to do everything the best you can.”