There are only a few certainties in the world: death, taxes, and the Minnesota Twins’ need for Jose Berrios to be pitching at optimal performance come playoff time if they want to compete for the 2020 World Series.
Because of this, the Twins and Berrios decided it would be in the pitcher’s best interest to change up his rigorous off-season workout routine and place greater emphasis on rest, recovery, movement efficiency, and endurance, according to the Star Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal III and The Athletic’s Dan Hayes.
A major factor that drove Berrios to agree to the adjustment, according to Hayes, was the success the pitcher found after partaking in deep tissue massages before and after every start beginning in August.
“[Twins’ pitching coach Wes Johnson] and athletic trainer Ian Kadish suspected Berríos’ struggles were due to his body not recovering enough to move efficiently and perform the way he wanted to and always had. Rather than work physically harder to find a solution, they convinced Berríos, 25, he actually needed to rest and recover more," wrote Hayes.
But what exactly does this mean? It is one thing to say that the Twins emphasized rest and recovery as well as “incorporate[d] more exercises that [were] designed to help build his stamina,” but what does that mean in practical application? What is so magical about deep tissue massages?
Let’s try to tackle this.
“Rest” and “recovery” are buzzwords often employed in and around sports that function to convey a simple message: an athlete or team is taking a step back to reduce pain and improve function after a difficult workout, series of games, and/or injury.
However, lost in the message is that “rest” and “recovery” are frequently relative, not absolute. Rest does not mean that the athlete does nothing, only partaking in passive treatment or sitting on their couch watching television, nor does recovery mean that the athlete becomes completely pain free prior to returning to game activity.
Rather rest and recovery should be interpreted as the athlete partaking in less activity — whether by volume and/or intensity — relative to their prior level. For Berrios this meant less car pushing and more massage, (likely) less heavy-weight training focusing on strength gains and more high repetition training focusing on muscular endurance, particularly of the rotator cuff, core, and hip musculature.
The introduction of massage to Berrios’ pre- and post-game routine likely produced positive results for a couple of different reasons, and none of them are particularly magical.
First, by spending more time on massage and less time exercising, Berrios placed relatively less stress on his body on a daily basis; it's not that the massage “healed” any of his injuries (read: had an “additive” effect on his health), it's more that massage replaced an activity that stressed the body (exercise) with an activity that did not (massage).
Second, massage tends to improve performance and decrease pain, in part, due to a perceived notion that it is helpful. In essence, massage — while it may decrease muscle tension via increased local blood flow and dampening of the nervous system — has a powerful placebo effect. The placebo effect often gets a bad rap and has a negative connotation, which is unfair; the placebo effect is real, it’s effective at reducing pain and improving function, and at the end of the day that is what matters most.
Massage can also have an effect on joint and muscle mobility, at least in the short-term. According to MLB.com’s Do-Hyoung Park, Wes Johnson and company have been working on the flexibility of Berrios’ hips, which they believe will have a positive effect on the pitchers’ durability and stamina.
There is a plethora of data available in the scientific literature that backs up this assertion; baseball pitchers tend to lose rotation range of motion in the hip as the season progresses, which can alter their throwing mechanics, particularly at the knee and lumbar spine. Impaired knee flexion and early rotation of the core can lead to increased injury occurrence and decreased movement efficiency amongst pitchers.
From here, there is a snowball effect. Impaired efficiency of movement can place undue stress on the rotator cuff, causing fatigue. Fatigue of the muscle group, particularly the internal rotators, can impair the dynamic stability of the shoulder joint, which may increase the risk for elbow injuries.
One of the best ways to combat muscular fatigue and prevent upper extremity injury in pitchers is by improving their overall muscle endurance, particularly of the rotator cuff and core. Endurance is defined as the ability to complete repeated motions for a prolonged period of time. In sport there are two kinds of endurance: short-term (i.e. pitching a full game; often referred to as stamina) and long-term (i.e. starting 30 games in a season, averaging six-plus innings, and remaining healthy).
Berrios has seen both his short-term and long-term endurance dwindle in the latter halves of the past two seasons.
The hope is that Berrios will be able to perform better and more consistently later in the season by improving the endurance of his rotator cuff and core musculature — which was presumably a major point of emphasis during the past off-season.
At the end of the day, there is nothing magical about the tweaks the Twins encouraged Berrios to adopt during the off-season. The decisions made by both parties are backed by science and data, which is yet another breath of fresh air provided by the “new” Twins’ regime.
The organization is on the leading-edge of embracing technology and data to optimize the team’s on-field performance, and the way they handled Berrios’ off-season is just another shining example.