Every February, Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report to spring training. And so does Kevin Laudner.

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The Illinois State University kinesiologist, also known as “the shoulder guy,” has been working with the Texas Rangers’ training staff for over a decade. His expertise has been critical in a sport where shoulder injuries are what most often put pitchers on the disabled list. But don’t blame the shoulder.

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This story is part of Illinois State’s weeklong series Redbirds in Baseball.

“When you throw a baseball, all the force and power is developed in the legs,” Laudner said. “That gets sent up through the core and eventually through the shoulder, elbow, and out through the ball. The force goes from one joint to the next, and these forces build up. The shoulder is the weakest joint, so it’s usually the one that sustains the injury, even if the disruption in that kinetic chain is somewhere else.”

Often weakness or tightness in the hips or lower back disrupts the chain, and the shoulder loses out. Even professional athletes with tremendous shoulder strength and flexibility may be lacking hip strength and flexibility, which can result in a shoulder injury.

Twelve years ago, Laudner was looking to work for a professional baseball team when he met a Rangers’ athletic trainer at a conference. Not long after, Laudner got a call from the Rangers’ team physician, Dr. Keith Meister. They talked about Laudner’s research on shoulder injuries for over an hour. Subsequently, Laudner was invited to meet with the Rangers’ medical staff at spring training in Arizona, and he has been working with the team ever since.

Kevin Laudner working on a patient's shoulder
Professor Kevin Laudner demonstrates how he assesses the shoulder and elbow as part of his research to prevent injuries in athletes.

“He’s been a phenomenal partner,” Meister said. “He’s a finisher. He takes the data we collect and makes something valuable out of it. You don’t find many people who do it as efficiently and thoroughly as he does. It’s not like there’s going to be a cure, but as we build an understanding, we can get better, smarter and build prevention programs that can head off injuries.”

When Laudner wrote his dissertation on shoulder injuries at the University of Pittsburgh, there was a paucity of data. But what he found on athletes was surprising.

“I started looking at things like hip and low back strength and range of motion, and in some of those top-level athletes, it was terrible. They were so tight and so weak, and you’d think that wouldn’t be the case.”

Laudner now splits his time between Illinois State’s School of Kinesiology and Recreation, where he has been a professor since 2004, and the Texas Metroplex Institute for Sports Medicine & Orthopedics (TMI) in Arlington, where he is director of research, overseeing the collection and analysis of data from the Center for Sport and Motion Analysis Laboratory.

“We do a lot of analyses of pitchers, both preventative and after they’ve come from surgery and rehab, to look at their mechanics and hopefully prevent injuries from recurring,” he said. “I’ve benefitted from it a lot because I get a ton of data for my research, and the team has benefitted because we’ve seen decreases in the amount of their injuries.”

“If you can prevent injuries occurring at a younger age, you can significantly reduce their likelihood in high school, college, and maybe the professional level.”
—Kevin Laudner

When the players report for their physicals in spring training, Laudner is at one of the medical stations, along with one or more of his Illinois State students. They evaluate players at the beginning and end of the season, and times in-between. Laudner travels to all the team’s sites, including the minor league affiliates scattered across the country. And if the team starts to see multiple injuries in a particular area of the body, he works with the staff to come up with a game plan.

At one point, the Rangers had one of the lowest incidence of injuries in all of Major League Baseball. About that time other teams started similar types of prevention programs to the one Laudner developed for the Rangers.

His research is widely disseminated, and that’s led to work with other teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. He’s also seeing colleagues at other universities partner with major league teams. “It was not that way earlier, so it’s great to see more people seeing the value,” he said.

Laudner is working with the Rangers’ staff to develop a screening tool that will determine whether an athlete is at an increased risk for a shoulder injury. “It’s very difficult to try and figure out what that screening tool is, and lots of people have tried without much success so we’re looking for it.”

At the Texas clinic, he also collects data from college and high school players. Research has shown there is no significant difference between the mechanics used by younger athletes and those deployed by professionals; the force is just greater in the latter group. Younger athletes typically don’t have a lot of scar tissue, so they can respond quickly to stretching. This is often the key to preventing injuries.

“We see the same incidence and prevalence of injuries at the younger levels as we do in professional athletes, and it’s getting worse,” Laudner said. “If you can prevent injuries occurring at a younger age, you can significantly reduce their likelihood in high school, college, and maybe the professional level.”

The increase in injuries is something he attributes to athletes specializing in baseball early in life and competing year-round. He speaks to coaches, players, and parents about simple exercises that the athletes can do to decrease the risk of injury. He also tells them about the importance of taking time off from baseball and resting completely or playing other sports that don’t stress the shoulder and elbow.

When Laudner began his research, he wondered how he’d ever make a career out of studying the shoulder. Now, it’s the opposite.

“There’s so much we don’t know it can be frustrating. Every time I finish a study, I think of three or four more questions that need to be answered. We will never completely stop injuries from occurring; it’s impossible. It seems the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know enough.”

Although the shoulder is his specialty, Laudner is OK with being asked about other joints, but shoulders and baseball are a perfect fit for the former high school catcher.

“I love baseball and got into sports medicine partially because of it and fell into teaching and research. As soon as I started doing it, I realized how this can have a huge impact on the quality of life for a large number of people. And when spring training comes along and there’s snow on the ground here and you get to watch some baseball for your work in Arizona, it’s not bad.”

Shoulder exercises

Shoulder exercises

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.