Felix Hernandez pitched through the first month of the season unsure just what to expect from start to start.
Something had to change. He walked into the closet of an office just outside the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse and sat in the leather chair in front of Dr. Lorena Martin’s desk. He wanted her to help structure his workouts between starts.
“I was like, ‘But if this doesn’t work, I’m not training with you ever again,’” Hernandez said with a laugh.
OK, maybe a little for Martin, a woman working in a world of male professional athletes.
She’s never before worked in baseball. Martin is the only female to head a department in the Mariners’ baseball operations’ staff and she’s the first and only individual in all of professional baseball with her position as director of high performance.
Martin’s main task entering the Mariners’ organization was to reduce time players spend on the disabled list by 10 percent over the previous year, which seemed so easy considering the record number of Mariners’ injuries in 2017. It couldn’t get worse.
Entering July, the Mariners had reduced DL time by more than 50 percent from last season, she said.
Injuries essentially decimated the Mariners’ playoff hopes last year, when they tied a major-league record with 40 pitchers used. A season later, the Mariners are wondering if their starters are pitching too many innings.
Mariners manager Jerry Dipoto stressed that the organization will not be drawing any conclusions on the team’s high performance changes in relation to DL days until after the season. They’re still learning, and injuries can be so fickle that they don’t want to evaluate what’s working until they get through a full season.
Want Hernandez’s scientific opinion?
“She’s made a huge impact,” he said, “For sure.”
These things change quickly. Shortly after Martin received her updated year-over-year injury results, the Mariners then saw Hernandez, James Paxton and Mike Zunino head to the disabled list. Although, Hernandez and Paxton’s DL trips were more strategic (with the Mariners approaching the All-Star break) than an indication of the severity of the injuries.
“We’re definitely helping them recover a lot better,” Martin said. “There’s a lot more awareness and it’s a team effort, from myself to my staff and Jerry being an advocate, to the players themselves being open to it.”
There’s the cool gadgets she’s added, like neuromuscular stimulators for flights, compression shirts and shorts that track muscular activity and asymmetries, and sleeves for pitchers that track range of motion, velocity and workload. They also have wearables that track sleep, though Martin stopped herself from divulging more.
“I can’t give you the rest,” she smiled. “But right now, we’re just trying to keep it simple.”
She’s also an advocate of the Mariners’ sleep room. Yes, a sleep room. It has a couple beds and recliner chairs and no windows so players can catch up for rest lost from, say, a long flight – the Mariners frequently lead MLB in miles traveled.
Or in the Mariners’ cafeteria, where Martin created her Tiki Smoothie Bar, a station dressed up in Tiki-themed decorations.
“There’s theories that if you make it more appealing, people want to go there,” she said while standing in front of the bar to show off her creation. “Sometimes there’s donuts in here, but we say, ‘Don’t eat that!’ even though they look so appealing. But you make the smoothie place more appealing and they gravitate toward it.”
Lately, though, her biggest project is working with Hernandez.
She said it was about the middle of May when Hernandez reached out for help altering his workouts between starts. Most players have their own private trainers, so the Mariners don’t have much in-house say with the players’ regiments.
Martin visited Hernandez’s house in spring training when Hernandez was recovering from a comebacker off of his forearm and trying to be ready for Opening Day.
“I got to know her in the offseason and we talked about it and I just listened,” Hernandez said. “Eventually I was like, ‘All right. Let’s do your workouts.’”
It came with the caveat that she had one day to earn his trust.
“I would bring him research papers,” Martin said, before lugging a sizeable stack of papers out of one of her drawers and setting them on her desk with a thud.
“He wouldn’t read them,” she laughed. “But he would take a look and actually skim through it, and that was impressive.”
She pulled out an article on testosterone in the aging male.
“Things like this to back up what I’m saying – in a later phase of your career, there are certain things that naturally need to be worked on to maintain your athleticism and compensate,” she said. “Look at Nelson Cruz – our Spanish Hercules. He’s a perfect example.”
Hernandez was adamant though – this better work.
“I told him, ‘It’s going to work. Trust me,” she said.
“And from the start he’s been really engaged and working his (butt) off. He’s really working his (butt) off.”
Of course, Hernandez took other steps, like working with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. in a bullpen session between starts, when in the past he’s preferred to throw flat-ground sessions.
But with Martin he’ll work out between 45-60 minutes, starting with two days a week at first, then he picked it up to three days. During the All-Star break Hernandez said they upped that to four days before he took a break at his home in Miami.
Martin boasted about that increased workload proudly. Why? Because she’s earning The King’s trust, something she wondered with all the players when she took over this job after coming over from her role with the Los Angeles Lakers as their director of sports performance analytics.
“Her workouts are different,” Hernandez said. “She’s a little different than anybody I’ve ever worked with. But it’s been working, I feel like. I feel really good.”
Apparently he was liking the workouts too much. When Hernandez headed to the DL and skipped a start before the All-Star break it was because he injured his back in Baltimore continuing the exercises he and Martin had started. Martin wasn’t there and he said he used a little too much weight doing deadlifts.
“I gave him a look when he got back,” she said.
Martin’s resume is filled with big-worded degrees – three post-doctorates in GIS spatial analysis, biostatistics and epidemiology, a PhD in exercise physiology, Master of Science, Psychology, a bachelor’s in psychology and double minor in leadership and Spanish. She’s authored two books, is a certified nutritionist, athletic trainer and strength coach, a visiting scientist at the Salk Institute focusing on bioinformatics and a visiting researcher at NASA Langley – oh, and she’s competed professionally in tennis.
This is why Dipoto thought she’d be a perfect for a role that never before existed in major league baseball.
“These guys all have their routines, and I’m trying to observe what is their routine,” Martin said. “Then I can see where it could be tweaked and just getting them to know me. I’m not coming in and telling them to make all these changes that raise their eye brow.
“But a lot of it with Felix was, ‘Listen, this is based on physiology. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s going to work or not, you may not want it to or you think it’s not, but your physiology is your physiology and I know how your body will react to certain things based on your age, height, weight, build – but you have to give me this opportunity.”
And she’s convinced she can get Hernandez to regain some of the velocity he’s lost over the years. He started the season averaging around 89 mph and averaged 92 his start in New York against the Yankees. She says she’ll get him to 94.
Some of their workouts have included moving backward on an incline on the treadmill to strengthen his glutes, the deadlifts (at the right weight) and exercises to strengthen his core and scapular muscles.
So far, so good.
“She’s real smart,” Hernandez said. “And she’s kind of … she’s a little bit harder. But we’re both Latin, so we know each other.”