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What will Dr. Lorena Martin bring the Mariners?

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Is it a nice fruit basket? It’s probably a nice fruit basket.

In a slow offseason for MLB in general and the Mariners in particular, the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin remains one of the team’s biggest off-season acquisitions, as deflating as that might sound. With a member of the front office, there’s no Fangraphs page to pore over, no highlights to search out on YouTube. What Lorena Martin brings to the Mariners is still largely a black box. But there is a trail to follow, and while it’s not as much fun as looking up Carlos Santana swatting dingers or Yu Darvish striking someone out on a filthy splitter, there’s a rich vein of information to mine from Dr. Martin’s extensive publication history.

In her book Sports Performance Measurement and Analytics: The Science of Assessing Performance, Predicting Future Outcomes, Interpreting Statistical Models, and Market Value of Athletes (2016, FT Press Analytics)—which is available from the Seattle Public Library as an e-book if you’re interested—Dr. Martin breaks down the competencies required for several major sports, but begins by advising future data scientists on the importance of understanding anatomy and physiology. Knowing how all the systems of the body work together rather than just studying the numbers, she advises, will give aspiring data scientists an edge over those who make decisions on data alone without considering the numbers in a broader context. Furthermore, Dr. Martin champions a comprehensive measurement model for predicting performance: not just the obvious, objectively measurable categories like physiological and physical, but psychological, behavioral, and environmental. Throughout Dr. Martin’s body of work, one gets a sense that she values understanding not just athlete’s bodies as complete systems, but the athletes themselves as not just numbers on a page, but the product of complex interactions of multiple factors not always given equal weight in the training room.

One thing that is especially intriguing is Dr. Martin’s ability to recognize where gaps in understanding exist. In the chapter on baseball, specifically, Dr. Martin notes that “optimal measures of muscular endurance and muscular power for overhead athletes” is something that still needs to be refined in physiomotor testing. Dr. Martin’s background in tennis leads her to be especially interested in pitching, another area of athletic performance that requires one to be an overhead athlete. She notes the importance of upper-body flexibility for pitchers, whose external rotation values and flexion far surpass the average person’s ability, but observes that traditional means of assessing strength needs to be altered for pitchers: “Although muscular endurance and power are usually assessed using the bench press, for overhead (throwing) athletes such as pitchers, the bench press may actually hinder performance as well as predispose them to injury.”

While many fans are curious about what Dr. Martin’s effect will be on the big-league club, it’s important not to overlook the effect her methodology might have on player development and draft/signing assessments. While objective performance measures—like home-to-first time or pop time for catchers—still dominate the scouting world, Dr. Martin points out that these objective measures can account for some of the most significant differences in actual performance, whereas physiological attributes such as grip strength, anaerobic power, and reaction times tend to remain constant over an athlete’s performance. In the chapter on baseball in her book, she recommends specific tests tailored to each player’s position on the field, such as having outfielders take stress tests to gauge their abilities to make good decisions quickly, or lightboard tests to gauge and improve reaction times. She’s also an advocate for wearable technology, although expresses understanding towards athletes who might resist wearing such technology to avoid having it used against them in salary negotiations. Some have questioned Dr. Martin’s—as a woman, an outsider—ability to win over a locker room and get the kind of investment from players she’ll need to be successful, but the language in her book is consistently athlete-focused, not just performance-focused. If she can bring that sense of caring about the athlete as a complete person and not just as blips on a computer readout, getting buy-in won’t be a problem.

And it’s in working with the athlete as a person and not as a performance that sets Dr. Martin apart and makes her an ideal match for Andy McKay’s mental skills model. While McKay focuses on teaching the skills, Dr. Martin can work on assessing how well those skills are being absorbed by players. One primary interest Dr. Martin has is in examining attributes often seen as negative and finding the positive side within. For example, her work with narcissism as an attribute: “Intrigued by the notion that some of the world’s greatest athletes seem to exhibit traits of narcissism, I conducted a pilot study on male professional tennis players to examine relationships between narcissism, match outcomes, and rankings. The findings showed a strong positive correlation between narcissism, match outcomes, and player rankings.” Similarly, Dr. Martin has done work with anxiety, and looking at how to channel it into a positive place so it is motivational, not debilitative. Again, however, she sees the flaw in the research as it has been conducted, noting: “Most of the current measures of psychological variables are assessed by self-report or observation. A major limitation of self-report assessments is that they are prone to social desirability bias. An athlete may not want to report a true weakness for fear of being released by a team, losing his or her position on that team, or having his or her salary reduced.” Relatedly, Dr. Martin also sees a need to improve in how teams care for injured athletes, who experience higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to their healthy counterparts, and expresses the need to better assess their feelings of self-worth without falling victim to social desirability bias. Dr. Martin might not have all the answers, but she seems skilled at asking the right questions, seeing where current methodologies fall short, and always ensuring that the athlete is being treated as a complete person rather than an isolated set of skills.

Outside of her work in high athlete performance, much of Dr. Martin’s research work while associated with institutions has been focused on Latino bodies, mostly women and adolescent males, looking at how things like socioeconomic status and behavior impact health. While the Mariners haven’t been especially active on the international signing front under Dipoto’s tenure, it is my hope that once Dr. Martin is settled in more, the team will draw on her specific understanding of Latino culture and physical development in evaluating players. Dr. Martin has also written extensively about the financial impact of expensive sports—like tennis and baseball—and addressed questions of access on that front. Hopefully she can help spearhead a movement within the Mariners organization to do more towards making top-flight baseball accessible to financially disadvantaged children in our community and beyond.

What Dr. Martin may bring the Mariners is still an unknown quantity, but from reviewing her background with overhand athletes, her research interests, her desire to seek the best available methods for assessment, and her focus on the athlete as a whole person, it’s clear why the Mariners thought Dr. Martin would be an excellent counterpoint for Andy McKay. Only time will tell what her impact on the organization will be, but one thing is clear: her role is far more complex than simply keeping players’ bodies healthy.