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Tech-savvy Pirates testing a new secret weapon this spring

| Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 9:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Russell Martin blocks a pitch during a game against the Orioles at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. Martin has worn a sensor that tracks his heart rate and calories burned during work-outs and games at spring training.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Russell Martin leaves the batter's box during a game against the Rays at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. Martin has worn a sensor that tracks his heart rate and calories burned during workouts and games at spring training.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates players have been wearing sensors that track their heart rate and calories burned during workouts and games at spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder Travis Snider runs to first base during a game against the Rays at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. Snider has worn a sensor that tracks his heart rate and calories burned during work-outs and games at spring training.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Last season the Pirates unveiled a secret weapon in Russell Martin. They signed Martin, in large part, because of his ability to frame pitches, which had begun to be quantified by savvy teams and analysts.

Perhaps the Pirates' covert weapon of 2014 is hidden under Martin's jersey.

This spring the Pirates are experimenting with sports science technology. Prior to and during games this exhibition season, some Pirates are wearing Zephyr workload monitoring devices. Under select players' jerseys is a tight-fitting, compression shirt, which has a black, circular, detachable electronic device — about the size of a quarter — attached near the center of the chest. The device collects data from a sensor that records players' heartbeats and energy consumption. The device's most noticeable features are blinking green and red lights.

Pirates strength and conditioning coach Brendon Huttman came up with the idea of utilizing the tracking technology. Players have worn the device on a volunteer basis. Martin was a natural guinea pig. The starting catcher is cerebral and curious. He also is entering a contract season.

“I gained weight last year during the season just because I felt so hungry at the end of games. I would eat until I wasn't hungry again,” Martin said. “It lets me know how many calories I've burned throughout the day so it lets me know how much I can eat at night. It's just going to help me regulate my body weight throughout the year instead of just winging it, saying, ‘OK, this is what I feel like I could eat.' … Like say I play 14 innings and I burned 2,500 calories in a game. I could probably have a couple pieces of pizza.”

Martin typically wears the device during his program workouts — which can includes sprints, weight lifting and batting practice — and then during a game.

“The most calories I've burned is 3,600 calories, which was over a six-hour period,” Martin said. “But like Pedro (Alvarez) has burned 6,600. Depending on your conditioning level, (weight), all those things factor in. His heart rate is at a higher rate. He takes a ton of swings. He works a lot.”

Travis Snider also is using the technology this spring. Not only does the device calculate calories burned, but it also monitors a player's heartbeat by the second.

“It's interesting to see at different points throughout the day how high the heart rate is getting, what kind of workload you are putting on your body,” Snider said. “You don't realize how fast your heart is going. You are in the moment when you are up there playing. You don't realize you have a 160 or 180 heartbeat going when you step up in the (batter's) box, which is cardio just standing there waiting to hit a baseball.

“You don't think of baseball like football or basketball where you are constantly running, but guys are still burning 2,000–plus calories. Some guys are up over 5,000, 6,000 calories”

The Pirates still are in the exploratory stage with the technology, investigating its benefits. Like with any new technology or data, there will be potential benefits that are not immediately apparent.

“It's something we are testing out this spring to see if we want to go to a more, wide-scale basis,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “It also can be used to monitor some other things that we can help them use to take the next step with their mental skills. It's more strength and conditioning than anything else, but we also monitor workload and volume.”

If it can keep players healthier and more energized, a small-market club always in search of the next big thing might have found it.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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