Recently, I had a conversation with White Sox general manager Rick Hahn about his pitching staff. Talented as it is, it’s also superbly injury-averse. As we talked, he mentioned how infrequently Chicago’s pitchers get hurt. As of last March, only three teams had its pitchers undergo fewer Tommy John surgeries than the White Sox since 2005. And from 2001-2015, and from the previous five season split, no team has had its players miss fewer games on the disabled list–a stat collected by the great work done at The Hardball Times.
In pointing to some reasoning for this, Hahn mentioned the White Sox pitching coach, Don Cooper, and their trainer, Herm Schneider. Both have been with the club in those roles for the whole duration. It was a reminder to me of how organizations view injuries. That they are not just flukish and unlucky all the time and that they believe there could be systemic reasons for preventing them.
It’s something I’ve thought about recently as I’ve watched the Mets, again, fall into this injury-abyss. This year’s set of problems seems to be even worse than last year. Along with David Wright, they now have Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz pitching through bone spurs in their pitching elbows. Last year, it was just the offense that was mostly bruised in-season. Now, it’s that rotation too.
This also is not a new dilemma for the organization. The Mets are … what’s the word here–habitually snakebitten?–by injuries. It’s something of a running joke amongst its fans. The only person guaranteed to get booed at Citi Field on Opening Day is trainer Ray Ramirez. The Wall Street Journal had a telling infographic last year about the team’s injury prognosis.
I’ll just leave this here. pic.twitter.com/EGJv58Jnmy
— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) July 8, 2015
The numbers are more telling than the rhetoric. Only the Rangers lost more games on the disabled list than the Mets last year. And they rank in the top-five in days on the disabled list over the last three-year (fourth), five-year (fifth) and 15-year spans (second).
So is this just a long period of bad luck or is this systemic?
Only the Mets executives know best. They are the ones with access to the medical procedures their training staff and medical staff uses. And the best understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.
But it’s also interesting to watch as organizational medical staffs become one of the most recent sources of change in baseball. The Nationals restructured theirs this past offseason and brought in the former head of medicine for Leeds United, an English Soccer team. Mike Rizzo, Washington’s general manager, was abundantly clear on why he made the change.
“Maybe the next Moneyball,” he said of injury prevention. “Keeping players on the field.”
This is both new but no longer innovative. The Dodgers and Rays have deals with Kitman Labs, a sports health technology company that also works with Everton FC.
There’s a reason that teams are heading down this route. European soccer teams are considered to be more advanced in injury prevention and team health tactics that American sports teams–that’s why it was a surprise last year when Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge went to rehab with Red Sox staff, though both teams are owned by Fenway Sports Group, John Henry’s ownership conglomerate. Without the constraints of a CBA and a players union as strong as the own in Major League Baseball, European soccer teams have more resources and wherewithal at their disposal. And it’s likely that this trend will continue, with more MLB teams rearranging or changing their medical staffs. The Mets, despite all their many injuries, seem to have remained static the last few years — or at least have not given any public notice on their own medical staff. The only change they’ve announced is a shuffle in their strength and conditioning leadership.
But if injury prevention is the latest way to gain a significant marginal advantage, those that don’t look for it can get left behind.
Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports