Los Angeles, California - The 2018 Major League Baseball season will begin Thursday, March 29, marking the earliest opening day in MLB history. A lot has changed for players over the course of nearly 200 years — much of it because of advancements in science and medicine.

Catching Z’s optimizes player performance

“Professional teams are starting to pay attention to the quality and amount of sleep athletes get because sleep is a key component to winning. The Boston Red Sox installed a soundproof ‘sleep room’ with customized pillows for each player — innovations a sleep consultant recommended. Some professional teams urge players to nap strategically and to get a good night’s rest after intense training to amplify muscle recovery.

“The bottom line is sleep-deprived athletes aren’t very good at making split-second decisions, a necessary skill for most professional sports. A good sleep plan will maximize accuracy, improve reaction time, accelerate decision-making, increase speed and alertness, and prolong the amount of time it takes to reach exhaustion.”

Raj Dasgupta specializes in sleep medicine, critical care, and lungs and breathing (pulmonary care). He is an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

More laser shows because of the ball

“In the past two years, some have said newer MLB baseballs have been ‘juiced’ or altered to generate more home runs. I wouldn’t say that, but the science and our research suggests the composition of MLB baseballs after the 2015 All-Star Game are different.

“We used CT scanning technology usually employed to look inside a human brain and body to analyze baseballs from the 2015 and 2016/2017 MLB seasons. The core of the new baseballs have a different density. Specifically, the pink rubber encompassing the core is about 40 percent less dense. Plus, the hardballs weigh about half a gram less, which may be enough of a difference to boost a baseball’s trajectory.”

Meng Law is an expert in brain tumors, traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease. He is a professor of radiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Injury prevention focuses on the whole body

“For years, health care providers have concentrated on normalizing range of motion in professional baseball players’ shoulders to minimize the risk of injury. This focus has reduced some injuries, but plenty still occur.

“Throwing and hitting in baseball involves the use of legs, trunk and arms, so a whole body approach to injury prevention is needed. My research will hopefully enable medical experts to screen a professional baseball player’s body and pinpoint areas that need physical therapy. Basically, my team is developing an injury screen for baseball players so that a prolonged affliction doesn’t keep them out of the game when it really counts.”

Lori Michener has a MLB grant with a minor league team to identify predictor risk factors that can be addressed via physical therapy to reduce seasonal baseball injuries. In addition to measuring the shoulder range of motion, she is also checking shoulder strength, hip strength and control of the lower body. Michener is a professor of clinical physical therapy in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy.

Keeping an eye on the pitch count helps teams lower the risk of pitching injuries

“Throwing a baseball thousands of times each season at about 100 miles per hour makes pitchers especially prone to shoulder and elbow injuries. The throwing motion puts intense stress on the body, and over time, it can lead to a torn rotator cuff or an injured ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament on the inside of the elbow. As the number of pitches goes up, so does the risk for injury.

“The recovery time for an injury depends on the treatment plan. Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, for example, can keep a player off the field for up to a year. Fortunately, most injuries can be avoided by keeping a close eye on how much a pitcher throws. For college players, limiting pitchers to about 100 pitches per week will help minimize the risk for injury.”

James Tibone is an expert in sports injuries of the shoulder, knee and elbow and has extensive experience working with professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels. He is the head team orthopedic surgeon for Trojan Athletics, a professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a physician at the USC Sports Medicine Institute.