A couple of weeks ago, ESPN published an article looking into the culture of the Mets organization and links their dysfunction to the number of injuries that have plagued the roster for the past several years. It is definitely an interesting article that is worth the read as it brings up several points on what seemingly is a systemic issue; however I did not agree with the general theme of the article and wanted to share my viewpoint as Amazin’ Avenue’s resident injury writer.
Much of the article focuses on Mike Barwis (Senior Advisor to the Mets about strength and conditioning) and the article often points the finger towards him (in addition to the front office) as the cause of the Mets’ injury woes. To preface, I want to make it clear that I am not a Mike Barwis apologist; however, I believe it is incorrect to have Barwis take the majority of the blame. There should be equal, if not more, accountability from the in-season training and strength and conditioning (S&C) staff compared to the offseason training and S&C staff.
The goal of the offseason is to recover from any injury that an athlete may have experienced during the season and build the body back up in time for the start of the next season. While some may take the time to “reset” their bodies and spend time away from the gym and the baseball field before starting their offseason conditioning program, others may take a smaller break and use the offseason to get stronger, faster, and/or learn or improve a skill. Regardless of the philosophy, renowned S&C coach Mike Boyle says it best, as quoted in the ESPN article: "Nothing you do from a strength and conditioning standpoint can prevent a guy from getting hit by a pitch and breaking his hand, or running into a wall trying to make a catch and cracking his ribs.”
For that reason, there is nothing wrong with Noah Syndergaard gaining 17 pounds of muscle or Yoenis Cespedes using bloodflow restriction training to improve their performances. As I mentioned in my article about Syndergaard, his strength coach (not Barwis) should have spent more time on the smaller, stabilizing muscles to better support the body when he uses his larger muscles (lats) to increase his velocity. There are several factors that play into hamstring strains (as discussed in my article) so one cannot necessarily blame Barwis for Cespedes’s injury, however his programming may play a role (possible lack of attention towards other body parts and running mechanics).
Shifting your body from the offseason to the regular season is completely different. The body will naturally deteriorate over the course of the season due to the physical demands of any sport; no amount of treatment or strength training can eliminate this entirely. The goal for the athlete is to remain healthy enough to be effective throughout the season and post-season so that he can recover fully during the offseason. This is why I strongly believe that at least equal—if not more—blame should be placed with the in-season training and S&C staff.
As written in the article, neither the Mets’ primary orthopedic doctor (Dr. David Altchek) or S&C coach (Barwis) are on site during the season. If we know that no S&C regimen can prevent an onset of injury and the primary members of the offseason staff are not present during the season, then that can only implicate the in-season staff as the culprit for some of the situations that lead to several of the Mets’ injuries. Here are some prime examples of their decision-making that inform my rationale.
Last season, both Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome) and Jacob deGrom (ulnar nerve irritation) have admitted that they pitched several games without their ability to feel the ball. That’s a HUGE red flag that these athletes should not have performed without further evaluation. It is one thing if they have never disclosed that information to the training staff, however it is also the responsibility of the training staff to monitor for these symptoms with basic screens that take seconds to complete. I have worked at a facility (whose founder was a former trainer for the Red Sox) that provides arm care for high school and collegiate pitchers; I find it hard to imagine that professional players do not receive similar treatment between starts that would easily detect a problem that requires further evaluation from a doctor. If this is the case, however, then that is a prime example of an institutional problem that reflects poorly not only the training staff but on the front office as well.
A similar situation occurred with the hamstring injury Cespedes experienced. A popular video was seen on Twitter the day he got hurt of Cespedes being unable to stand during batting practice, however he still played that night. Anyone who has seen that video can surely reason that he should have been a late scratch to avoid any further injury after an evaluation. Whether it is Syndergaard’s refusal to undergo an MRI or Cespedes’s impending hamstring strain, it is the responsibility of the training staff to make sure that the athlete is absolutely healthy enough to perform without a significant risk to his health.
The article mentions past injuries such as concussions from Jason Bay and Ryan Church as well as recent ones like the blood clot with Jeurys Familia. These diagnoses involve vague symptoms that can be a cause of several diagnoses, however a cluster of these vague symptoms (that often lead to such diagnoses) should constitute an additional workup from a more qualified professional (medical doctor). Once again, it is the responsibility of the day-to-day training and strength-and-conditioning staff to monitor for these red flags and vague symptoms and pursue further evaluation from a doctor.
As much as I hate to admit it, there is one factor that is often understated: bad luck. From Ike Davis (Valley Fever) to David Wright (spinal stenosis/herniated disc/shoulder impingement) to Zack Wheeler (Tommy John complications), all of these complications and diagnoses cannot be directly blamed on the Mets’ organization as there are several variables in play (from genetics to possibly poor management) that leads to long disabled list stints for each player.
All in all, the Mets’ in-season training and S&C staff should receive the majority of the blame for all of these injuries over the past several seasons in my opinion. From the way each player is managed with a small or large injury to the warm-ups that are implemented for the players, it is the job of the in-season training and S&C staff to prepare these athletes for the next game and keep them healthy throughout the season. The primary responsibility of the offseason S&C staff (and the player’s personal rehab staff) is to facilitate recovery from the past season for the athlete and build him back up to optimize performance throughout a long season (and even longer if there’s a postseason).
While some blame can be placed on the personnel that the players use (not always hired by the Mets) to prepare them for the season, this article noted several examples where the in-season Mets personnel have failed to do their job. The ESPN article by Jerry Crasnick only mentions Ray Ramirez once and makes no mention of John Zajac (head physical therapist).