Noah Syndergaard’s elbow was a nuisance.
There was no particular pitch that triggered acute pain, no specific moment when he was struck by the fear of the baseball gods and the possibility of Tommy John surgery. It just kinda, sorta bothered him, minimal but persistent, so he had it checked out in March. And he was stunned to learn that he had a torn ulnar collateral ligament, needed baseball’s most famous operation and wouldn’t pitch until at least early 2021.
“It was not by any means debilitating,” said Eric Cressey, a prominent strength and conditioning coach in the baseball world who has known Syndergaard since 2017. “He had thrown one of the best bullpens of his life in the 5-7 days before the actual diagnosis.”
That was close to four months ago. Now, Cressey is overseeing Syndergaard’s rehabilitation at his private South Florida fitness facility, Cressey Sports Performance, and things seem to be going very well.
Cressey, whom the Yankees hired as director of player health and performance last offseason, said it was “pretty clear” that Syndergaard’s elbow issue was chronic. But it is impossible to tell if that damage was there for weeks, months or years. And it’s not that the Mets did anything wrong, Cressey added. Such is the nature of pitching. That dynamic is not unique to Syndergaard.
Because of the chronic nature of the injury, the initial shock eventually yielded to optimism. If Syndergaard threw as hard as he threw and pitched as well as he pitched — with a career 3.31 ERA after last year’s personal worst of 4.28 — with an arm that wasn’t necessarily structurally sound, what can he do with a better, healthier, surgically repaired elbow?
“This was a little bit of a ticking time bomb,” Cressey said. “Particularly with the arm speed he throws at, it was a matter of time before a ligament that was not in necessarily great shape long-term was going to just go on him.
“It makes you start to realize, ‘Hey, I got this year to take really, really seriously to get my body right, and all of a sudden I’ve got a new elbow. I can be better when I come back.’”
Cressey saw Syndergaard six days per week for three months before recently shifting more of his focus to his Yankees duties. Syndergaard is still another month or two away from throwing, if he follows the average progression. But he has advanced to a stage that Cressey calls “actually kind of a fun time” amid what has been a smooth rehab process.
The arm brace is gone. The more intense physical activity is back.
“You go from being a patient to becoming an athlete again,” Cressey said. “That’s when the rehab and the strength and conditioning start to blend together.”
Cressey described Syndergaard as a “recovery ninja.” He has explored everything from ice baths (which Syndergaard has posted about on Instagram) to hyperbaric chambers (a preferred recovery method for Marcus Stroman). He has a rental near CSP’s Florida location in Palm Beach Gardens, about 50 minutes south of Port St. Lucie. And he has a personal chef.
Syndergaard and the Mets haven’t decided if he will do his entire rehab with CSP, but for now that is where he is based.
“It’s probably the easiest and safest option,” Cressey said. “I don’t think they’re looking to add extra people to major-league clubhouses. But I think each team is going to handle their rehab cases uniquely.
“Nobody knows what a pandemic does to the start of a throwing program, either. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been thrown around in a number of different circles, and I’m sure it applies to Tommy John rehab, as well.”
Also unusual is the reality of a Yankees employee working so closely with a Mets star. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen declined to comment.
The Yankees are comfortable with Cressey continuing his private practice — he made sure during the hiring process that that would be OK — even if it means he helps their intracity rival. And other clubs likewise have not pushed back on their players working with someone who is now on the Yankees’ payroll, Cressey said.
One reason for everyone’s comfort with such an arrangement: Over the past half-decade or so, major-league teams have become increasingly open-minded toward private-sector, analytics-infused baseball companies such as CSP, even looking to them when it comes to making hires.
The Yankees, for example, appointed Matt Blake, a former Cressey employee, as pitching coach over the offseason. The Phillies use CSP Florida co-founder Brian Kaplan as a consultant. And the Mets brought on Kyle Driscoll, the pitching coordinator for Cressey’s facility in Massachusetts, as a pitching and movement analyst in March.
Among the dozens of major-leaguers who have worked with Cressey and at CSP through the years — including Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber and other All-Stars — are a handful of Mets recently.
Robert Gsellman, a close friend and sometimes roommate of Syndergaard, is a client. Michael Wacha spent time there during baseball’s pandemic hiatus. And J.T. Ginn, the Mets’ second-round draft pick who also had Tommy John surgery in March, is doing his rehab at CSP Florida, just like Syndergaard.
With the season approaching, Cressey is back in the Northeast, which means working with Syndergaard from afar. That includes daily conversations with the pitcher and his CSP-based physical therapist, Eric Schoenberg.
Syndergaard has been “incredibly locked in” and asks good questions, Cressey said.
“He’s always been a total nerd for this stuff, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible,” Cressey said. “If you get a hundred Tommy John guys, I wish I had a hundred that all took it as seriously as he does."