Signing Gerrit Cole wasn’t the only significant offseason move for the Yankees.
Somewhat less publicized was an almost complete restructuring of the club’s medical and training departments after a record 30 players ended up on the injured list in 2019 (a total of 39 stints).
One of the many moves was hiring Eric Cressey, among the biggest names nationally in exercise and performance science, as the club’s director of player health and performance, a newly created position.
Those losing their job responsibilities — or jobs outright — included longtime trainer Steve Donohue, who was given the proverbial kick upstairs to director of medical services. He was replaced by the highly regarded Tim Lentych, in whom some other teams had an interest, as head trainer. Strength and conditioning coach Matt Krause was fired, replaced by Brett McCabe. And those were just a few of the changes.
Maybe the overhaul will pay dividends in 2021.
This season? It's been nothing short of a train wreck in the injury department and, proportionally speaking, it has been worse than 2019.
When the Yankees put James Paxton, Luis Avilan and Gleyber Torres on the injured list Friday, it gave them 10 players on the list 25 games into this 60-game season. It took them 162 games to reach 30 players hitting the IL in 2019.
It would be overly simplistic, of course, to blame the changes in the training staff for a second straight season of injuries. But 2020 mirroring 2019 proves what an inexact science sports medicine is.
And never given to easy solutions.
“Very complex question,” Aaron Boone said Saturday as his team — whose weekend series against the Mets was postponed because at least two members of the Mets tested positive for COVID-19 — worked out at the Stadium. “I think the uniqueness of this season is a contributor, without question. And while we did the overhaul, the overhaul came in January, so we haven't had an offseason yet since we've overhauled it. This has all been kind of on the fly and getting up to speed through spring training and now into the season in what's been a very unique year.”
The uniqueness of the season can’t be disputed. After about a month of spring training, Major League Baseball went on a nearly four-month hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, players stayed in shape via various workout programs, many of them under the direction of Cressey’s department. Still, many of those workouts were done not knowing when, or if, the season would resume.
Once it was decided that there would be a Spring Training II, players scrambled to get to their respective home cities, the beginning of a rushed three-week run-up to the regular season. Then the torrent of injuries predicted by experts inside and outside the game quickly came to fruition, not just for the Yankees but for every team.
“I think it’s pretty simple: short spring training,” said Paxton, who was put on the IL with a flexor strain and hopes to be able to return before the end of the season. “We didn’t get enough time going at a lower speed to kind of build up. And now you’re seeing, a few weeks into the season, guys are not fresh anymore and it’s just the tiredness is building up, we don’t have that base that we normally have.”
That undoubtedly is true, and it can’t be a coincidence that there have been so many injuries league-wide, with players, managers, etc. pretty much in agreement that the shortened summer camp is at least some kind of contributing factor.
However, it is worth pointing out that the Yankees, before the coronavirus shuttered spring training, already were experiencing their share of injuries. Luis Severino, for example, was lost for the year when he underwent Tommy John surgery in February. Neither Aaron Judge (right rib fracture, collapsed lung) and Giancarlo Stanton (right calf strain) would have been ready for the originally scheduled season opener March 26. Indeed, the soft tissue injuries that have plagued the Yankees for a few years now have continued unabated, for whatever reason.
The Yankees aren’t likely to retake the field again until Tuesday night, when they are scheduled to start a two-game series in Atlanta. Boone expects Judge, put on the IL Aug. 12 with a right calf strain, to be in the lineup that night. The return of the potent bats belonging to Stanton (left hamstring strain) and DJ LeMahieu (left thumb sprain) are not imminent, though they are expected back at some point before the end of the regular season. Boone expects Gleyber Torres (left hamstring and quadriceps strains) back in two to three weeks.
“Confident in our team, and in our strength and conditioning team, that we are going to do a good job and hopefully prevent certain things [injuries] from happening,” Boone said Saturday of the offseason changes. “Hopefully when we look up in a few years, we'll really start to see the dividends being paid.”