by Paul West
Over the past few years, one recurrent refrain among those who follow the New York Mets–expressed, varyingly, as gallows humor or outright exasperation–is that when a Mets player is briefly felled by what’s announced as a minor ailment, it’s just a matter of time until they’re shut down indefinitely with a significant injury. It seems as if moreso than any other organization in Major League Baseball, the Mets are almost comically bad at recognizing the difference between, to borrow an old phrase, ‘hurt’ and ‘injured;’ and the problem dates back to the last time the Mets were playoff-relevant. Before leaving for Colorado, Jose Reyes‘ once-uneven gait began to pile up lower body injuries; meanwhile, David Wright‘s yippy shoulder began to show early signs of wear and tear, manifesting in erratic, jittery mechanics and wandering soft-tissue injuries. On the Mets’ watch, Ryan Church circled the drain from athletic, serviceable corner outfielder to struggling cipher as he piled up one concussion after another and was trotted back onto the field prematurely after not just said concussions, but physical injuries–likely making him more injury-prone, and creating the kind of downward spiral that’s left countless professional (and recreational) athletes prematurely aged. The following chart of ill-fated and overly optimistic Mets’ diagnoses was posted by Jared Diamond in 2015, and it’s telling:
Another subtle manifestation of the Mets’ struggles with knowing whether their players are okay played out at the end of the 2015 World Series. In a widely lamented chain of events, Matt Harvey was in the dugout after having thrown eight gut-check innings against a tough Kansas City Royals team. In a scene which played on national television, he strode up to manager Terry Collins and demanded–in no uncertain terms–a chance to start the ninth inning. In a move virtually everyone understood, Collins complied, giving Harvey a chance to continue to be great. Harvey opened the inning throwing one adrenaline-fueled fastball after another, abandoning the chess-match approach which had made him dominant for most of the night; the Royals, likely relieved, got the first two runners of the inning on base. They won the game, and the World Series, that night.
Just a week ago, Yoenis Cespedes–a large-framed, athletic power hitter with a lengthening history of leg injuries–was hampered by a nagging hamstring issue. He was removed from the starting lineup for a handful of games, during which he was warmed up to pinch-hit multiple times. He was then caught on video responding with cringeworthy discomfort to a batting practice swing, pivoting off of a leg which he clearly wasn’t able to load with his natural, power-producing knack; yet the Mets put him in the lineup for a day game after a night game, in which he legged out a double and suffered a hamstring injury which landed him on the disabled list.
And now, Mets fans are agonizing over the latest, and arguably the most frustrating, manifestation of the Mets’ inability to protect their players from themselves. During this past offseason, Noah Syndergaard–the looming, intimidating, dagger-eyed competitor whose combination of power and repertoire was already one of the great marvels in baseball history-inexplicably announced his desire to pack on pounds of muscle, and ‘throw 100.’ Some took the bait, lauding his competitive fire and desire to raise his physical ceiling; others, including yours truly, questioned the wisdom of deciding to further test the limits of human physicality–instead of realizing that 97 miles per hour with a varied and terrifying repertoire was worth cultivating in its won right. After starting the year in the dominant fashion baseball fans have come to expect, Syndergaard was scratched from a start due to what was diagnosed as biceps tendonitis; and here’s where the story took its most mystifying turn. When the Mets’ organization prescribed Syndergaard an MRI, he reportedly refused it. “I know my body,” he opined, and to be fair–any player or person is well within their rights to make precisely this declaration. But with that understood, it is not just the player’s responsibility to themselves, their own well-being, and their team and teammates, but the organization’s responsibility to same, to carefully weigh all factors before passing up on the sort of precaution that can diagnose and prevent more grievous injury.
Syndergaard is now on the disabled list with a torn lat muscle underneath his throwing shoulder; and somehow, there are people who fail to recognize that max-effort power pitching when one’s kinetic chain is compromised could have led to such an injury. Addressing the absurdity of the ‘shoulder is nowhere near the biceps’ argument would require an entire full-length article unto itself; but a few key points are worth noting.
First, there’s the possibility that Thor’s reluctance to undergo an MRI might be due to discomfort with the procedure. I can personally relate to such a reluctance, as I happen to find them nerve-wracking and claustrophobic. But if this was at all a concern, a Major League Baseball franchise in 2017 should have access to open MRI facilities and other accommodations which could help alleviate related anxiety.
Second, I am on record as an outspoken advocate of the value of strength training for people in most walks of life; but strength training to support one’s natural ability and cultivated repertoire should always be the purpose, not chasing numbers on a radar gun.
Lastly, there are the renowned hazards of being a professional pitcher in the first place–much less doing it in the stupefying ways Syndergaard has done it for years. Quietly, beneath the swell of applause for his heroics, a number of onlookers have reminded us that Thor’s pitching style might not be sustainable. Unless he’s a once-in-a-generation ‘freak of nature’ like Randy Johnson and few others before him have been, Syndergaard has arguably been an injury waiting to happen since he first became the pitcher he is today.
This last point, in particular, only highlights the necessity to protect players from both the game and themselves. One key component of coaching and managing is knowing when to listen to your player’s self-reportage, and when to take the ball and say, ‘sorry, kid, you’ll get ’em next time.’ This applies to managing innings or pitch counts, but it also extends to such matters as concussion protocol in a widening umbrella of popular sports.
For all of the organizational virtues which have allowed the Mets to become a perennial playoff threat, their fatal flaw seems to be managing their players’ health. Perhaps Ray Ramirez and their training staff is the problem; perhaps it’s as simple as the aforementioned problem with knowing which players’ self-analysis to trust. But this is a problem that’s cast a shadow over the past years’ successes; and it remains to be seen whether Syndergaard’s injury will turn out to be the last straw.