DENVER -- When the Rockies arrive in Scottsdale, Ariz., for Spring Training, they'll see what look like several doormats in their spacious and modern exercise room.Well, they're much more. They're state-of-the-art tools that the Rockies hope will help them rise from the floor of the National League West and into playoff contention in 2013. On Tuesday, the club and Sparta Performance Science, a Silicon Valley sports performance company, announced an agreement that will make the Rockies the first professional sports team to install force-plate technology and proprietary software as part of the strength-and-conditioning equipment. The new equipment might not look like a big deal, but it will provide a startling amount of data that the Rockies believe could hold a key to helping the club figure out how to improve performance and prevent injury. "It's kind of a thin platform, basically a little wider than the width of our bodies -- kind of like a doormat, almost as thick, but a lot more expensive and a lot better design," said Rockies strength-and-conditioning coach Brian Jordan, heading into his fifth season in his current post and 15th in the organization. A player will jump from the force plates. It seems simple enough. But beneath the player's feet, a giant leap will be taking place. The technology and software -- using Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction" -- will produce "movement signatures" within minutes. Those "movement signatures" can be used to detect weaknesses that could be addressed during that day's workout, or they could reveal nutritional needs and even point the athlete toward changes in sleep patterns that can make him more efficient. "Instead of subjective data that we've relied on for so long, and which will still be part of the equation, it gives us some authenticated data on our players, and we use that data plus information collected from other athletes," Jordan said. "It paints us a picture of certain things they can work and help us lock onto the best program for keeping guys healthy and their performance at the highest level." Individual athletes have been taking advantage of Sparta technology for years. The company was founded by Dr. Phil Wagner, a University of Southern California training physician who has worked with world-class athletes worldwide. The company's website lists athletes in many sports. Phillies standout Chase Utley is the most notable baseball player listed. Former Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, who has signed to play with the Seibu Lions in Japan, also is listed. "We are excited for this opportunity to bring a system for players to take accountability for their own physical development and see the subsequent effects on the game of baseball," Wagner said in the press release. "With this first step, the Rockies and Sparta can begin to set a new standard for efficiency and player development." The sport-specific experience was crucial to the Rockies' decision to enter the partnership. As the Rockies struggled through injuries last season, club officials theorized on occasions that atmospheric conditions connected to Denver's altitude, which is significantly greater than any other Major League city, might contribute to injury risk.
Some of the injuries were difficult to explain, such as pitcher Jhoulys Chacin's nerve issue in his chest, third baseman Chris Nelson's irregular heartbeat and infielder Jonathan Herrera's missed time because of an infection from his wrist watch.Some crippling injuries were clearly of the structural variety. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who has a history of leg muscle issues, was limited to 47 games because of scar tissue in his left groin -- a condition that required surgery. Veteran first baseman Todd Helton's season was shortened by a torn labrum in his right hip. Outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Eric Young Jr. saw their seasons end early with oblique injuries. But with the team careening toward its worst record in 20 seasons (64-98), the club's assertion that altitude was an issue were met by fans and media with skepticism, eye-rolling and accusations of excuse-making. The mantra of the Rockies, who kept the front office intact but brought in former infielder Walt Weiss as manager and made significant coaching staff changes, is to make the home field an advantage. "We are excited to begin a long-term relationship with an organization that mirrors our cultural values and desires to be the best organization in its industry," Rockies general manager and chief baseball officer Dan O'Dowd said in the club's press release. "This technology will be a tremendous asset in our efforts to further advance our performance development with all our programs and players." Part of that, Jordan said, is collecting better data on players so that there is less guesswork. After the initial testing during Spring Training, the Rockies will assess how often testing should occur, whether the Sparta equipment will be brought to Coors Field for regular use and whether the Rockies will send the equipment available to their Minor League affiliates when their seasons begin are all to be determined. Pitching arm injuries have been a bane of the club's existence over 20 seasons. A system that uses the force of a player leaping won't measure weaknesses in the vulnerable small muscles of the arm or the soft tissue in the shoulder area, but could expose an overall body weakness that could make a pitcher's movements less efficient, Jordan said. "It's not going to define who can throw 98 mph and who can hit .300, but it gives us an idea of what we can work on and what's possible," Jordan said. "We're ready to get after it and leave no stone unturned in the effort to improve our players. I'm sure we'll look at things that will work and things that won't work, but everything we do will be in the effort to get better."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.