A conversation with John Brenkus of ESPN's Sport Science

Fans from all sports have seen the great looks that Sport Science gives into the spectrum of world-class athletes. John Brenkus gives us something that SportsCenter just does not cover. Here is an exclusive interview that John did with me (which was my first since talking to NBA Hall of Famer, Clyde Drexler). We covered two main subjects: baseball and John’s recent involvement with extreme sports, namely the Iron Man triathlon.

Elijah Abramson: Let’s start off with a little baseball first, and Miguel Cabrera winning the triple crown. What are your thoughts on that and the surprise in him winning the batting crown because of the difficulties of right-handed hitters getting to first base. Is there any merit to that notion?

John Brenkus: I think it’s being a little overblown. The argument that it’s surprising that anybody would win it now is valid. With all sports, there are numerous athletes at the top and just better overall. It’s not surprising that it hasn’t happened in a long time because there are so many good hitters and pitchers. It’s difficult for everything to line up in such a way that this can happen. For an athlete to be in the groove for such an extended time is amazing.

EA: Why hasn’t there been as much talk about this historic performance? Do you think that this has anything to do with the emphasis of sabermetrics and de-emphasis of traditional stats?

JB: In terms of the reaction, I think that stories will gain weight based on who is doing it and what the circumstances are. The Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow explosion media might outweigh the triple crown because of the person, city, time, and place. The triple crown in baseball is over such an extended time that you can’t have as much sort of intense focus. The back story wasn’t nearly as interesting as Tebow or Lin.

EA: Obviously you discuss a lot about physical limits, talk a little about Aroldis Chapman. He hadn’t given up an earned run for a good portion of the season. Can he last throwing so hard and has he reached the physical limits of velocity of a fastball at 105 MPH?

JB: Certainly, as I mentioned in my book, I think that we are pegging out at the top of how hard a human being can throw. The best illustration of that is in the explosion of the steroid era where home runs were flying out of the ballpark, the average velocity of a pitch was relatively consistent. There is a limit to how fast an arm can move. We are reaching that point where you simply can’t move any faster. Throwing the ball that hard that many times—there are only so many times that is possible.

There are many schools of thought: older pitchers think that newer ones aren’t throwing enough and the newer pitchers think, ‘well we’re just throwing faster than anyone has.’ Half of all starting pitchers at some point wind up on the disabled list. There is a very high rate of injury. If you get injured while pitching it is often very difficult to get that confidence back because of the worry of re-injury.

EA: So what do you think about the Stephen Strasburg situation and shutting him down for the playoffs?

JB: There are two legitimate arguments to be made. Regardless of what I think, there is the team that made the investment, ultimately it is their call. If they weren’t paying athletes so much money maybe I would say differently. Some people think he should be throwing and make his arm stronger and other people think being cautious is better.

EA: What do you think about Tim Lincecum's mechanics and can he rebound? His velocity definitely decreased this past year.

JB: I think that great athletes can always rebound. They can always get there. The question is well he ever throw as hard as he has? I don’t think that’s a requirement for a “rebound.” You look at someone like R.A. Dickey, there are a lot of different ways to pitch.

Lincecum is one of those guys who has a peculiar throwing motion so those mechanics are very built in to him and in terms of trying to explain why he isn’t throwing as hard or is it a lack of confidence or is it trying to learn his patterns as a pitcher. It’s probably a combination of all of those. I do think he can rebound and I don’t think he will regain his max velocity—but that’s not required.

EA: Will his career be shortened because of that stress? Is a 10-15 season career within reach?

JB: You never want to under-sell somebody and say that they can’t do it but I would say that if I had to bet, I don’t think that he is going to flame out. How long of a career he has, well who knows?

EA: How do you think steroids will impact how Melky Cabrera can come back? Do steroids have a lingering effect; basically, did his entire performance hinge on steroids and he will return a mediocre player at best?

JB: We now have a significant sample size of players coming back from PEDs. A subset of players continues right along and are just fine. They might not be as good as they were but are just fine. Others are nowhere near where they were. Largely, that answer comes down to psychology.

The big thing with PEDs is that they are oversold as a “magic potion” for amazing performance in terms of what they do to you. Yes, you can recover faster. However, the psychological component may be as responsible as the physical effect. PEDs have that “superman effect” for players making them feel invincible.

And they are hitting home runs, which is positive feedback that reinforces that idea. [After getting off steroids] some may change psychologically while others may have completely lost that mental edge. It really depends on that psychological dependence.

EA: Moving on to the extreme sports, can you give me your thoughts on their rise and popularity? Can they ever come close to approaching the Big Three sports in America or are they more designed for a subset of people?

JB: They won’t be as popular on TV but in terms of participation, something like the Iron Man has become the new marathon. As people are seeing what the body is capable of, the marathon used to be that event that was the most grueling thing that you had to do in a day. It was a goal that needed to be worked toward in order to achieve. It’s been around so long and so many people are looking at what’s more difficult.

The Iron Man is the perfect confluence of what you can’t do to just roll out of bed and it’s one day so it’s not an eco-challenge over multiple days with team members. It’s running, biking, swimming. It’s self-contained. It will continue to grow because you can wrap your brain around it. Even though it’s unbelievably difficult and covers incredible distances, the Iron Man is at that modern day limit of what the marathon used to be.

EA: Talk a little bit about your training and tips for people who might be considering it.

JB: There is a strong psychological component. After all, you are swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, and running 26.2. Those are huge numbers.

What you need to do in training is take certain distances and commit to finishing them no matter what. That way when you run 18 miles you say, ‘wow I know I can do it, I am strong enough, healthy enough and have sound enough of a mind’ and you prove to yourself that you can do that. Then training as a whole becomes easier. You say, ‘well if I can bike 80 miles, certainly I can bike 112!’

Once you overcome the psychological barriers, you can go into the event knowing you can do it. The real question is how much are you going to enjoy yourself? There are a lot of different philosophies in training for an endurance event. I subscribe to the ‘don’t over-train’ mentality. The over-training is what gets you injured and more psychologically exhausted. It changes your mental perspective too much. It can take the fun out of it and make it more like a job. If you want it to become a lifestyle you still need to enjoy it.

Variety is key. Cross-training is important. Changing up your workouts is important.

EA: How do you think a professional athlete like LeBron James would fair if he decided to do something like this? Would his (or any pro athletes’) sport adequately train them for such endurance based events?

JB: I think LeBron would do great. The intense focus that professional athletes sustain over a long time—LeBron’s got an 82 game season plus playoffs and the Olympics—just shows the commitment and endurance that these guys have. Sure, they may need more practice with the swimming and biking components, but they could definitely do it if they dedicated themselves to it. It would take some adaptation but it is definitely well within reason.

EA: Alright, well what about comparing someone like LeBron or Calvin Johnson to Usain Bolt in a short-distance running event?

JB: That’s a great question but I still think Usain would come out on top. The nuances come in when you talk about lateral movement.

Bolt doesn’t have nearly the elite side-to-side ability of someone like a running back. And even with short distance sprints, [Titans RB] Chris Johnson actually has a faster 40-yard dash than Bolt but over 200m, Bolt would still come out on top. These guys are all the best at what they do and we should appreciate that. It would be tough for the best player in their sport to go into another sport and compete with the best in that sport.

EA: I agree. Well thanks again for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.

JB: You got it. Have a good one.

If you want to read or see more of John Brenkus’ work, be sure to check out the TV Series Sport Science as well as his book, The Perfection Point.

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