What's Up Those Baseball Sleeves? Lots Of Data, And Privacy Concerns Professional athletes use wearable technology to improve performance. But key questions remain over who owns the data and how the information is used.
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What's Up Those Baseball Sleeves? Lots Of Data, And Privacy Concerns

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What's Up Those Baseball Sleeves? Lots Of Data, And Privacy Concerns

What's Up Those Baseball Sleeves? Lots Of Data, And Privacy Concerns

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a stats-driven sport like baseball, it seems like we know everything about every player, from batting average to - well, to get a little arcane - to a pitcher's power finesse ratio. But in baseball, as in all sports, there's a wealth of information in the athletes' bodies. So-called wearables that track bio info have become more prevalent in elite sports. But there are growing concerns about what will be done with all that data. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In an industrial park in Kent, Wash., near Seattle, it's hard to tell which of the featureless buildings is which until you listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL HITTING CATCHER'S MITT)

GOLDMAN: The smack of a pitched ball in a catcher's mitt tells you where Driveline Baseball is. Driveline is a training facility for players from high school to the major leagues. It has the usual weight room, pitching and batting cages. But there's also a biomechanics lab and an emphasis on data collection.

MICHAEL O'CONNELL: Straight. Palm up - slide this on.

As usual, just kind of keep track on it. See - if it slides down or anything, let me know.

UNIDENTIFIED PITCHER: OK.

GOLDMAN: Driveline research assistant Michael O'Connell pulls what appears to be a regular compression sleeve onto a pitcher's throwing arm. But this sleeve, made by Motus, is anything but regular. It contains a sensor that measures all kinds of things going on in a pitcher's arm. What's the arm's speed? How much is the shoulder rotating?

O'CONNELL: So what I'm doing is writing down the mile per hour of the pitch and then the Motus metrics.

GOLDMAN: O'Connell is now outside the pitching cage watching the measurements as they blink onto his laptop screen.

O'CONNELL: So that's the elbow stress, or the elbow torque.

GOLDMAN: So we should pause right here because elbow stress is the most important metric from the sleeve. Baseball, in recent years, has had an epidemic of Tommy John surgeries. That's the revolutionary elbow procedure named after the first player who had it. The sleeve can help identify elbow weakness and fatigue, or it can signal the elbow is OK, as it did with Miami Marlins starting pitcher Dan Straily.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Back-to-back strikeouts to open up the second here for Dan Straily.

GOLDMAN: Straily worked quite a bit with the sleeve at Driveline. And the device helped him with what had been a troublesome shoulder. Here's Driveline founder Kyle Boddy.

KYLE BODDY: As his velocity increased, his elbow stress did not increase. So we knew that it was probably pretty safe to omit extra work on his elbow and take that time and that effort and put it more towards his shoulder to make sure his shoulder stood up to the test of throwing 200 innings in the big leagues, which it has.

GOLDMAN: After his practice session at Driveline, I asked Luke Glavin about using the sleeve. He's a pitcher for Lehigh University. Is it a good thing to know all about his throwing arm?

LUKE GLAVIN: Yes and no. It's good to have knowledge so you can train the most efficiently. But at some times, I feel like you get info overload. And you can start worrying about things that you would have done naturally.

GOLDMAN: The sleeve is just one of a growing number of wearables for elite athletes. A band around the midsection can test the electrical activity of an athlete's heart as well as their breathing rate. Wristband wearables can track skin temperature. Athletes in sports from pro football to cricket, to auto racing, to lacrosse are delving deeply into their personal biologies. But the measurements, in the hands of their employers, potentially could backfire. Attorney Alan Milstein lectures on sports and bioethics.

ALAN MILSTEIN: If the purpose is really to find out - gee, is this guy really worth it? Should we sign him to another year? No, he looks like he's really failing. Let's get rid of him.

GOLDMAN: And it's obviously not in the athletes' best interests for the team to have access to every aspect of their health. Driveline encrypts all the data from athletes and restricts who gets it. Major League Baseball is the only major sports league to allow wearables during games, including the sleeve. The labor contract is filled with language to protect player privacy. So there's this duality going on - wearables revealing more and more about elite athletes, the efforts to control the information in all sports, trying to pump the brakes on a quickly emerging industry.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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