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Clint Hurdle and Craig Counsell discuss managing player fatigue

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew McCutchen returned to the lineup tonight, after taking what Clint Hurdle described as a "very off day" yesterday.

Known for strongly resisting days off and for showing visible frustration with having to discuss his health, McCutchen struck a tone that was quite different from what we've heard in the past when he met with reporters this afternoon.

"You want to be out there, but you have to listen to your body sometimes," McCutchen said. "That's what I've learned to do over the course of my career. It's about health over performance, that's big."

McCutchen's willingness to talk about the relationship between his health and performance, and his seemingly more accepting attitude of the need for occasional rest, in many ways reflects a larger change in baseball culture. Players, coaches and front office staff are increasingly sensitive to and aware of how player energy relates to performance drop-off and extended injuries. As such, organizations are increasingly seeking a competitive advantage by finding new ways to proactively identify and combat fatigue.

After McCutchen's press scrum, the discussion of player fatigue continued, as Hurdle and Brewers manager, Craig Counsell, were asked about how they and their respective organizations are approaching the issue.

Hurdle and Pirates

Hurdle believes that players league-wide are being encouraged to discuss their fatigue levels more honestly. However, he said that much still depends on the tone set by the organization.

"I think it is also dependent on the culture of your club so that they know that isn't a lack of moral courage to say, ‘You know what? I could use a day,'" Hurdle said. "They know we're not going to hold it against them."

Hurdle explained that developing that culture depends on the capacity to have "open, honest and clear conversations."

"It's really, more than anything, daily communication," Hurdle said. "You go up to a man and look him in the eye and ask him how he is feeling today."

Beyond getting players to openly discuss how they are feeling, the Pirates are employing the new player-tracking technology to objectively monitor player performance for signs of fatigue.

"Every step they take -- running out to their position, running off -- all the activities [are monitored]," Hurdle said. "We've got the ball-off-the-bat speed. We can test bat speed in-house and monitor it time-to-time. All of it has helped."

All the tracking data of a player's movements are condensed into a single number, which is included amongst the other data Hurdle presented with from the Pirates staff.

"[Pirates strength and conditioning trainer] Brendon Huttmann keeps track of all that and I get a weekly print out from him," Hurdle said. "He stays in conversation with me. We knew McCutchen was red-lining last road trip with the volume of times he was on the bases and in position to score or move first-to-third."

Often a combination of the eye-test and the data will lead Hurdle to initiate a discussion with a player who doesn't look sharp and who he suspects is fatigued.

"I can say to them, ‘We've looked at some at-bats, we've looked at some bat-drag, is that because of fatigue or a mechanical thing'?" Hurdle said. "I have them look at it."

Finally, Hurdle pointed to perhaps an under appreciated aspect of having a deep roster: it takes some pressure off of the core players to play through fatigue or pain out of fear that the team will suffer a steep drop-off.

"It helps when you have depth on your club, it makes it easier for the player who is considering taking a day [off]," Hurdle said. "It's a piggyback mentality, so they don't feel that they've got a cross to carry that's any bigger than anyone's else's. Like we can't win a game without you in the lineup. That is something we had to push through in Andrew's case initially here."

Counsell and the Brewers

"It is a growing issue that we've spent more time already discussing, for sure," Counsell said of monitoring player fatigue. "I know it is an issue teams are discussing."

Counsell pointed to the intensity of the baseball schedule and the travel it entails as the biggest reason for fatigue.

"The schedule hasn't changed, but the travel even though it is comfortable, the times that we travel are difficult," Counsell said. "I think even from my perspective, not being in the schedule for a couple years, then you get back into the schedule, it's the first thing you notice. It's a little intimidating sometimes what the daily schedule is. Sometimes you're tired and you don't know it."

The measures the Brewers are taking involve finding ways to make the major-league lifestyle less taxing.

"Ways to shorten days for guys and ways to increase rest, shorten days, maximize our work while being efficient with it," Counsell said. "I think we're starting to understand the importance of guys getting sleep, with the different times of games. We've got strength coaches trying to incorporate some of that into what they do."

Counsell said that fatigue often affects the mental side of a player's game before the physical.

"One of the biggest challenges is the concentration and the length of the game," he said. "Fatigue sometimes leads to lapses in concentration as much as slower running or slower bat speed or whatever you want to say. I think concentration is one of the first things to go."

In the end, Counsell said there aren't any "concrete answers" to dealing with fatigue given the current structure of a major league season, but its importance requires new approaches.

"Without proper rest and recovery it does lead to fatigue, less performance and injuries," he said. "So we've got to be aware of it and do our best to come up with some solutions."