Utilizing mounds of data supplied by high-speed video and AI, MGH Institute alum Donna Moxley Scarborough is part of a growing number of biomechanical specialists in Major League Baseball trying to give their clubs a competitive edge.
The next time the Boston Red Sox want to promote a pitcher from the minors or develop a rehabilitation program after an injury, there’s a good chance Donna Moxley Scarborough will have something to do with it.
The double-degree alumna from the MGH Institute is a biomechanist for the Boston Red Sox who makes her living by analyzing the movements of professional baseball players – primarily pitchers - to help the player and the club.
“My role with the Red Sox is to figure out how I can best leverage the biomechanical data that we’re collecting,” says Scarborough, PT, MS, PhD who earned her PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences from the IHP in 2018 and advanced master’s degree in neurologic physical therapy in 1997. “I want to help the team understand how to use that information to gain a competitive edge as well as keep our players as healthy as possible.”
Scarborough, a baseball enthusiast, is among a small but growing number of biomechanists in Major League Baseball who have embraced high-speed cameras and artificial intelligence – baseball’s technological revolution – to assess a player’s performance or injury recovery prospects. Gone are the days of attaching sensors or “wearables” on a person to measure how their joints are moving; today, 3D video-based systems provide practitioners like Scarborough all the data she needs. And, because nothing needs to be attached to an athlete, professional baseball is a perfect setting to leverage this technology.
A Seat at the Data Table
Pitching is one of the most impactful motions that a human body can take on. Not only is there extreme torque on the shoulders and elbows, but the force it takes to throw a fastball or curve at certain velocities, combined with repeating these motions over and over, place a tremendous amount of stress on a pitcher’s shoulder, arm, and elbow. So, when an athlete like this is hurt, people like Dr. Scarborough help the medical team with additional insights to find the best way to rehabilitate.
“Understanding the pitcher’s biomechanics before an injury can help the sports medicine team and the coaching staff clean up some mechanics that may have made him more vulnerable to the injury,” she says, “and analyzing the pitcher’s biomechanics during rehab outings provides another layer of information in the return-to-play process.”
Scarborough works with the team’s analysts to decipher what the biomechanical data stream is telling them about a player’s performance, or his risk of injury. On any given day, she could be delivering analysis to the Red Sox pitching coach, hitting coaches, the medical staff, or the front office - depending on why the data is needed.
“Pitching is a complicated movement so we're trying to understand what movement patterns for what individuals are most efficient and will enhance their performance as well as keeping them in play for as long as possible,” says Scarborough, who started working with the Red Sox in early 2021. “If we have certain information over time, such as a time when they pitched at their best, that gives us a baseline to compare where they are today and help get back to that level.”
Scarborough says she’s been fortunate to learn from and with the Red Sox pitching staff and players at all levels; traveling to the team’s minor league teams and working with the developing players is one of the highlights of her job.
“Pitching and hitting biomechanical analyses can include commonly measured mechanics such as stride length, arm slot, and bat speed to more complex measurements of movement patterns,” says Scarborough. “It is an exciting time for the field of biomechanics, with new technological advances, the role of biomechanics is expanding across baseball and other sports.
“At the MLB level, there are players who are being tracked and monitored and when it's appropriate based on an ask or something that we see, we share that information and then a group decision is made on an action,” adds Scarborough, who is also Senior Sports Medicine Research Scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We've had some really fun and exciting results from that, and it's also been interesting to track where there are problems and ways to improve the way we use biomechanics to prevent some problems. MLB teams who have access to biomechanics data like we do are all trying to leverage it to gain a competitive edge such as helping a pitcher gain ball speed.”
How the Biomechanical Platform Works
Used by more than a half-dozen MLB teams including the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs, the KinaTrax system that the Red Sox also use positions at least eight high-speed cameras in a circular configuration above the field that point at a pitcher and hitter, capturing video of the player to allow calculation of the movement of each body part—forearms, knees, elbows, hands, and body. The technology was introduced to major league baseball a decade ago and has since become more sophisticated through the years.
The KinaTrax system uses a proprietary algorithm, artificial intelligence, and computer vision techniques to automatically track a player frame-by-frame. A biomechanics file is created from the output of each high-speed camera, enabling teams to focus on the specific body parts at which each camera is pointed. The insights and analysis are proprietary.
Combining an Obsession with Baseball and Curiosity of How the Body Moves
Scarborough played softball in middle school and became obsessed with baseball, to the point that teachers would ask her scores and predications of the day’s games. She even took on the nickname of ‘Mickey’ for her favorite player at the time, Mickey Rivers.
“I loved imitating some of the MLB players’ quirky hitting and pitching movement patterns,” says Scarborough. “In high school, I was a better physical fit for other sports that I participated in, but I have always remained an avid baseball fan.”
After earning her bachelor’s in physical therapy from Northeastern University, Scarborough began developing an interest in research and neurologic physical therapy to evaluate and treat those who had movement issues due to disease or injury to the nervous system. She pursued a master’s degree at the IHP and worked in the MGH Biomotion Laboratory, the hospital’s first human 3D biomechanics lab, which was run by former IHP faculty and researcher Dr. David Krebs; among her instructors were former faculty members Dr. Alan Jette and Dr. BA Harris.
“They were all very instrumental in helping me understand how to measure what I was seeing as a clinician and that's really the sort of the groundwork for how my career developed,” Scarborough recalls. “We had big discs with lights put on the body and we could see how people moved and interacted with their environment. It was just a new way to study movement.”
Scarborough’s work at the Biomotion Laboratory led to collaborations with researchers at MIT and more work with athletes, orthopedics, and balance. Among the more notable pitchers Scarborough evaluated was former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who was coming back from an injury. Scarborough’s career path also has included being clinical assistant director at the MGH Biomotion Laboratory, project manager and researcher at the Harris Orthopedic Laboratory, and most recently clinical director for the Mass General Sports Performance Center at Patriot Place where she and Dr. Eric Berkson helped create a biomechanics lab in it with 22 motion capture cameras, the second largest in the U.S. at that time.
“We started to look at running, golfing, baseball batting, baseball pitching, and softball pitching. We had several research studies going; we had an engineer, physical therapists, and other clinicians providing top notch services,” says Scarborough. “We did educational series for coaches and our clients. Our focus was bridging the gap from when you have an injury to when you return to the sport—there's that gap of, ‘How do I make sure that I return safely and at a high level of ability without getting injured again?’”
Widely published (approximately 35 journal publications to date), Scarborough’s research has discovered that certain kinematic pitch sequences—how the body transfers momentum during that dynamic movement—result in less torque at the elbow and shoulder and are safer and more effective. Other pitch movements, Scarborough has found, waste energy, sacrifice speed, and increase the risk of injury. Her research has also concluded that it is likely safer for a pitcher to use a variety of throwing motions that place different magnitudes of stress upon the arm joints, rather than performing only one throwing motion that puts high stress on these joints.
The IHP Connection
While at Mass General, Scarborough knew she wanted to increase the ability of running research studies, but she was limited in her ability to do so. Without a PhD, she could not get NIH funding unless she was part of a joint application. So, she remedied that by returning to the IHP which provided her with the flexibility of continuing to work while pursuing her studies. The Institute’s focus on interprofessional education was a critical asset.
“It allowed us to understand each other's professions really well and that has paid significant dividends for me today because I’m working with different professionals all the time,” she says. “Once you start moving into orthopedics for sports, you need to integrate information along with other disciplines such as the nutritionist, the sports psychologist, coaches, and analysts. Understanding their viewpoints and needs is important, and the interprofessional focus at the IHP provided me opportunities to communicate information across professions.”
Since graduation, she helped start a company, FIGUR8, where she was Chief Scientist and Director of Sports Medicine. Over four years, she helped create a mechanical myography sensor combining it with IMUs (inertial measurement unit) as a wearable biomechanics platform.
Combining Love of the Game with Love of Measuring Movement
Then the Red Sox biomechanist position opened.
“Because my PhD work was focused on pitching, it was a nice way to kind of merge together my love of the sport with my love of looking at movement and measuring it,” says Scarborough. “Being a physical therapist was definitely a huge asset for this sort of career move.”
Along with the Red Sox, Scarborough works with minor leaguers at the club’s affiliate teams in Worcester, Portland, ME, Greenville, SC, Salem, VA, and at their spring training home in in Fort Myers, FL. “I'm kind of everywhere, but the software gives me the data, so I can be on the road and do the analysis,” she says. “I don't have to be on site.”
It’s a point of pride for Scarborough’s team when players aren’t on the disabled list as well as seeing them improve their play.
“It’s gratifying to see a player who may be struggling just perform better after implementing some of our recommendations, so those are two big factors we’re focused on: how do you keep that performance really high and keep the injury occurrence low? The biomechanics data now is just another bit of information to mesh with what’s already a pretty complex but well-organized approach of recovery day after day.”
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