College Baseball

Still in the Game: Former QU outfielder on leading edge of elbow rehabilitation

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 20, 2020 4:00 pm Updated: May. 20, 2020 7:43 pm

QUINCY -- To some, Nolan Rappé might have seemed a little brash or aggressive with his pitch as he sat in front of the SSM Health Care System hierarchy in 2017 hoping to convince them to hire him.

But he had a vision and he needed them to see it.

A graduate of Washington University with a doctorate in physical therapy, Rappé took what he learned during a 12-week clinical rotation at EXOS Sports Performance in Frisco, Texas, and developed a plan to work with high school and college baseball players to improve their throwing motion and performance through better diagnostic testing.

"In my interview with them, I was like, ‘This is my plan. I'm really passionate about it. Let's go do it,'" said Rappé, a former Quincy University outfielder with a deep passion for the game. "With some snot-nosed kid who just graduated coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I want to do this,' they could have easily have said, ‘Get your feet wet first, give us a couple years to prove yourself and then let's do it,' but to their credit, they didn't."

No one in that room considered Rappé brash. They believed in his initiative and drive.

SSM still does.

Rappé, who graduated from QU in 2014, is becoming one of the Midwest's premier rehabilitation therapists for baseball players who have experienced elbow trauma or undergone Tommy John surgery. Using the Motus sensor and sleeve, Rappé can diagnostically track the stress and mechanics during a throwing program to ensure a player regains the necessary strength in the elbow to perform.

"It's about developing individualized throwing programs for these kids," said Rappé, who works out of a clinic in Kirkwood, Mo. "We're not giving this kid a cookie cutter program that was made 10 years ago that is way too stressful right off the bat."

Every treatment and program is tailor-made and tracked.

That's the beauty of the Motus sleeve and sensor. A compression sleeve worn on the throwing arm is equipped with a pocket just below the ulnar collateral ligament that holds a small sensor.

"It's about the size of a peanut," Rappé said.

And it churns out major data. The sensor takes four measurements -- arm rotations, arm slot, arm speed and stress on the elbow -- and gives therapists a blueprint for managing workloads and teaching kids to throw properly.

"A lot of times, you see the physical issues which led to someone blowing their elbow out, but there's also the mechanical issues," Rappé said. "So if we can have a device that can objectively measure these four key things, not only can we measure their throwing program like a strength and conditioning program where you build stress objectively, but we can tinker with mechanics.

"If somebody's stress goes way up with what you've done mechanically, you know we're not on the right track there, or mechanically the stress goes way down and we know we're on the right track."

Furthermore, it allows Rappé and other therapists to monitor throwing programs in real time from afar.

"We've seen our ability to rehab these kids become better than we ever have before," Rappé said. "Most of these kids get out of the operating room and we're the ones taking care of them. The Motus sensor helps do that in a big way. ... If that kid is in the clinic with me two days a week, there's at least two other days that he's throwing and I can look at his numbers."

Rappé recently worked with an injured pitcher from Southern Illinois University, and even though they were a couple hundred miles apart, he was able to give real-time diagnosis and suggestions.

"It was an every other day thing I'd get a text saying, ‘Hey, what do my numbers look like?'" Rappé said. "I could tell him, ‘You need to work on XYZ because your arm slot was consistently lower and your stress was consistently higher.' That's how efficient this system can be."

It's allowed Rappé to be part of some influential circles.

He sits on a panel of therapists, pitching coaches and strength coaches that have some influence on the development of the product. Among those on the panel are Terrance Sgroi, a physical therapist consultant for the New York Mets, and Andrew Hawkinsi, rehabilitation coordinator for the Los Angeles Angels.

"You're like, ‘What in the heck am I doing in this group?'" Rappé said. "It's very humbling to be a part of that."

But it's understandable why Rappé would be invited to sit on such a panel.

"We use the product a little more uniquely because of our use during rehab," Rappe said.

The Motus sensor isn't the only innovative technology he's using, and it isn't just for pitchers.

SSM therapists are employing K-Vests to measure a hitter's efficiency.

Each K-Vest utilizes a four-sensor system with sensors on the pelvis, the thoracic spine, the hitter's lead arm and the hitter's lead hand. It measures the kinematic sequence of the athlete.

"It measures how somebody does something, not if they get to a certain position," Rappé said. "You combine that with 2-D video and that's a really powerful combination to make some really insane changes with these kids."

Developing a K-Vest for pitchers is in the works, and SSM could be one of the first groups to actively use it in rehab.

"It's all about individualizing the teaching to these kids," Rappé said.

For the athletes, it's an eye-opening experience using the updated technology.

"Kids buy into," Rappé said. "Think about it, kids are always on their phones. This provides the visual feedback, and then they can match what they feel with the what the actual objective number is. It's really, really cool that ability to get kids to understand. If a kid doesn't feel the difference between inefficient and efficient, they are never going to be consistently efficient. It's not going to happen.

"So it's something they gravitate toward and embrace because of the technology."