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Ahead of the Curve

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Player development has always been part of college baseball.

While coaches have always spent time teaching players how to hit a curveball, learn to throw a new pitch or improve their footwork defensively, technology has added new and different ways to help players develop beyond the traditional drills baseball coaches have used for decades.

At the University of Miami, the Hurricanes baseball program has state-of-the-art technology in the Jimmy and Kim Klotz Player Development Center that assists with improving both pitchers and hitters. But the Hurricanes have teamed with staff at The Lennar Foundation Medical Center and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to add new aspects to their player development portfolio.

“Lennar has been outstanding for our players for so many things,” head coach Gino DiMare said. “One, the testing in terms of their bodies and the flexibility and working on their strengths and weaknesses, that has helped us elevate this assessment process and this injury prevention program.

“Then you have Bascom Palmer Eye Institute that has been great with us over the past few years helping our guys with vision training,” DiMare added. “There’s a whole breakdown of all their deficiencies and strengths. We’ve got every player’s vision information and it breaks down all the different things. It’s not just eye vision. It’s all the different things that you can do with your eyes, whether it’s focusing and tunnel vision, peripherals and strength of eyes and just so many things.”

Miami partners with UHealth to conduct annual player assessments that it then implements in the areas of strength and conditioning, rehab and injury prevention. The assessment process is an idea that had been thrown around for several years, but was implemented with the arrival of physical therapist Julian Rivera.

“It’s something I’ve always been exposed to, especially with my experience working in pro ball,” Rivera said. “Every pro team has some type of functional assessments screening or player assessment test to create a profile for each player. Coming here in 2017, I was trying to build off what I taken from pro ball to bring it here and every single year I’m trying to grow it, trying to modify it and make it better while maximizing what we have here in terms of resources. We’ve made it interdisciplinary between the training staff in athletics and UHealth, using different facilities, bringing everyone together just to do this assessment test and to gather as much data as possible.”

Rivera completed the UM Sports Physical Therapy Residency Program and had experience working with the Houston Astros organization when he arrived at the University of Miami. He connected with strength and conditioning coach H.R. Powell, who was the athletic trainer for the Canes at the time, and the duo crafted an assessment program that has grown significantly since its first year of implementation.

“As a whole, the program’s benefited tremendously from it,” Powell said. “When I first approached Julian about the idea of this, I had ideas but really he was the guy who I was going to approach about how to do it because I knew he had a very in-depth knowledge on these testing protocols and different things that we could do. Having ideas is great, but having him there to put it all together really made a huge difference.

“His ability to interpret the data and give me something that’s a little bit more tangible that I can understand a little bit better was extremely beneficial,” Powell said. “Not just from an athletic trainer standpoint, but now as a strength and conditioning coach, I can really individualize these programs for our student-athletes and they are definitely seeing the benefits. The injury rate has gone down significantly since we started doing this, and our ability to keep these guys on the field throughout the entire season has helped us win a whole lot more games.”

The assessment process is a rigorous one, with Rivera, Powell and the rest of the Miami baseball medical staff working with staff at Lennar to put an average of 40 players per year through a variety of assessments over the course of three or four hours.

“There are a lot of people that go into making this happen,” Rivera said. “We are there as the baseball medical staff, but there are also the physical therapy sports residents, athletic training students and physical therapy students from the Miami PT department all helping out to get the education that they need for their program and getting hands-on experience with the UM baseball players. They also help us get the manpower to be able to get people in and out in a timely manner.”

Coordinating such a large operation is challenging enough, but the COVID-19 pandemic added additional measures that needed to be accounted for. But everything went off without a hitch, as all Miami players went through the process in the fall and no one contracted the virus.

The information collected on the assessment day has been crucial to Miami’s approach in strength and conditioning, rehab and injury prevention.

“For some of the things we do, we’re using all these resources such as the Biodex and having people coming to do specific metrics in terms of range of motion for the shoulder, lower body metrics, strength measurements, more functional movements such as a single-leg hop for distance,” Rivera said. “These components that are not only just looking at a specific aspect, but we’re also able to see their functional movement so we can hone in on their deficits.”

Turning deficits into strengths is one of the many goals attached to the assessment process.

“I think it’s been really beneficial, not just for the performance side of things, but also for what I do for rehab,” Rivera said. “We gather as much of the data from the assessments and we’re looking at it from a variety of angles. One aspect is just injury prevention. So, allowing the strength coach to utilize the information to make the guys better in a more individualistic manner by honing in on their deficits and, ideally, throughout the year getting better.”

Powell, who was Miami’s athletic trainer from 2016-2019, became Miami’s strength coach ahead of the 2020 season. The New Jersey native uses his experience as an athletic trainer and his knowledge as a strength coach, along with the data collected in the athlete assessment, to craft personalized workouts for each of Miami’s baseball players that focuses on addressing their individual needs.

“With my background in sports medicine and obviously having some experience in rehab and sports performance, that information is really valuable for me in order to create a more individualized program that’s tailored to the specific needs of the athlete,” Powell said. “Each individual has their weaknesses that Julian helps identify through the types of testing that he does, and it allows me to really break down that information and come up with exercises that would help benefit the athlete a little bit more than just your traditional lifts. So, however we can implement that into the weight program, it’s going to show down the road with injury prevention and keeping these guys on the field. I’ve told these guys a million times that I truly believe the teams that that win championships are the teams that have the most amount of guys on day one that they do at the end of the season, so it’s important to keep these guys healthy and playing and this is a big part of that.”

Rivera guides Miami’s student-athletes through the rehab process and the assessment information is invaluable when planning out a rehab.

“For me, it’s very helpful in the rehab process,” Rivera said. “Worst-case scenario, an individual gets knee surgery. Well we already had the preseason measurements and I already know where they were at. Not just comparing it to their uninvolved side but I’m able to know what that knee was like healthy because we do these assessments and we have that information. So, I can take that data after surgery and it tells you their goals to where they need to be.”

When it comes to injury prevention, the Hurricanes place an emphasis on being proactive. The initial assessment is just the beginning, as players will have on-going evaluations throughout the year to track their progress and look for warning signs of potential injuries.

“With all the data that we collect, there’s certain metrics that have red flags in terms of pre-exposing guys to specific types of injuries whether it’s the lower body or upper body,” Rivera said. “The measurements we do with our pitchers is one of those components where we’re making sure we’re monitoring them throughout a weekly status. Whether it’s pitchers or even for the guys that are at a deficiency, the prevention works. At the start of the season, we’re honing in on these areas that are red flags that might pre-expose a player to an ACL tear, or an ankle injury, or even some type of arm or upper body injury. We’re honing in on these areas to strengthen them and improve them as part of our injury prevention program. We work with the strength and conditioning coach, but also give the players a folder with all this information at the start of the season, so that way they have ownership on taking care of their own body.”

Working on physical deficiencies helps keep players’ bodies in peak form, but Miami also has its athletes training their eyes with vision experts from the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

“The Eye Institute has been great with us over the past few years helping our guys with vision training,” DiMare said. “There’s a whole breakdown of all their deficiencies and strengths. We’ve got every player’s vision information and it breaks down all the different things. It’s not just eye vision. It’s all the different things that you can do with your eyes, whether it’s focusing and tunnel vision, peripherals and strength of eyes and just so many things.”

The relationship with Bascom Palmer, which is one of the nation’s leading eye institutes, was the brainchild of Miami hitting coach Norberto Lopez.

“That was something that coach Lopez came to me about,” DiMare said. “I think we got into a thing where we were doing the same things over and over and needed to step back and look at what we were doing. I remember talking with Lopes and saying, ‘We’ve got to think outside the box here, we got to do a better job in some of these areas.’ And that was one of them from a hitting standpoint, we opened it up to try to do something with Bascom Palmer. We had access to one of the best, if not the best eye institute in the country, why not utilize it? Coach Lopes being the hitting guy, he took advantage of the situation and ran with it and I think the proof is that we went from one year being one of the worst hitting teams in our conference to the next year being one of the best hitting teams in the country with the same players.”

Lopez works closely with Bascom Palmer’s Dr. Natalie Townsend on the vision training, putting Miami’s hitters thru a variety of drills and exercises to improve their overall vision.

“Lopes and Dr. Townsend help devise training to improve their vision and take it to the next level,” DiMare said. “We work with these guys on a daily basis with drills that are going to help them get better and it’s the same with the other parts of the body. When we do these assessments, we’re going to take that information and formulate a plan to address it, whether that’s in the weight room and trying to work on those things or with vision training or anything else. At the end of the day, it’s all for developing the player to be the best they can be.”

The vision work had immediate results, as Miami had one of the most potent offenses in 2019. The Hurricanes led the ACC with 85 homers, the most since Miami hit 106 in 2010. First baseman Alex Toral smashed a conference-leading 24 home runs on the season that ranked third in Division I and moved him into a tie with Yonder Alonso for the second-most home runs by a Hurricane in a single season.

Twelve different Canes hit at least one home run in 2019, sparking an explosion of power from the Miami bats that matched the 2018 season home run total of 23 after just 15 games in 2019. Miami’s 85 homers were more than the combined team home run total of 58 from the previous two seasons (35 in 2017 and 23 in 2018).

“We went from a team that was one of the worst offensive teams that we had in quite some time to one of the best offenses in the country that year and we returned basically the same hitters,” DiMare said. “It was the same lineup, it didn’t change, and we felt like a big part of the reason for our success was the things that we were doing with the vision training.”

With over 20 years of experience coaching at Miami, including three as the program’s head coach, DiMare is committed to helping his players improve because he knows that will only benefit them and the program.

“Anything that we can do that’s going to help develop our players better, I’m on board with,” DiMare said. “Just listening to H.R. wanting to take it further on the strength and conditioning side and having Julian to run the rehabs on guys and help them address their weaknesses has been huge. And Lennar has been outstanding for our players for so many things. The testing in terms of their bodies and the flexibility and working on their strengths and weaknesses, that has helped us elevate this assessment process and this injury prevention program.”

Miami’s players get access to first-class baseball instruction and mentoring on the field, as well as the best medical care, strength and conditioning, rehab and injury prevention education. The comprehensive player development model the Hurricanes implement is something that sets the program apart from other schools.

“There’s no other program in the country that I can think of that really has three experts in the fields of injury prevention, strength and conditioning, and the sport of baseball itself, like we do here at the University of Miami,” Powell said. “So, I think it’s a great benefit to the players that helps them reach their full potential, see what their bodies can actually do and see what it feels like to actually feel good while playing.”

“Gino has been 100 percent supportive and he sees the benefit,” Rivera added. “It makes our program like a professional program and that’s what he wants us to be separate from every other college. I know of only one other program that does what we do, let alone has the amount of personnel that we use and resources that we have. It really sets us apart from the rest of the country and it’s a huge benefit to our players and our program.”