PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The man who could save the Mets won’t throw a pitch for them this season. He won’t swing a bat, steal a base or make a diving catch.
And to be clear, let’s add this disclaimer.
Could. With a capital C.
Because Jim Cavallini, the Mets’ newly hired director of performance and sports science, isn’t in a business that offers guarantees. You can’t make promises when it comes to the fragile nature of a person’s health, or the medical variables affecting a professional baseball team.
Sometimes, bad breaks happen.
But there is unlucky, and then there is the logic-defying, injury-riddled history of the Mets, whose egregious misfortune in this area over the years would suggest 13 black cats had taken residence under a ladder somewhere at Citi Field.
The root cause, however, is less curse than clinical. Now it’s Cavallini’s job to troubleshoot what previously went on in Flushing, use his knowledge to upgrade the program, and simply put, prevent the Mets from consistently cracking at their weakest points, as they did during last season’s disintegration that claimed Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Steven Matz, Michael Conforto and Jeurys Familia.
There has been no greater threat to the Mets’ ability to live up to expectations than the failure to keep their best players healthy, especially the starting rotation. That’s undeniable, and this winter, the Mets viewed fixing that defect as their No. 1 priority.
The result of those exhaustive efforts, spurred by Fred and Jeff Wilpon along with Sandy Alderson, is why Cavallini, 39, now occupies the room a few feet off the Mets’ main clubhouse at First Data Field, shared with lieutenants in charge of every aspect involving fitness and baseball-related conditioning.
“You can’t perform at a high level if you’re not playing, so that’s kind of the 101 of it,” Cavallini said. “But it really goes back to what high performers in any field do. So if we look at the fundamental practices that make people great, it starts with a performance mind-set, the choices I make are going to determine whether or not I’m successful.
“You’re looking at it from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed. How can I become better today? And then it goes to your sleep, your nutrition, your training. All the fundamental factors.”
Cavallini makes it sound basic, but his expertise is built, in part, on advanced analytics, only with a concentration in the biometric field rather than the sabermetric principles used upstairs in the front office. This is the new market inefficiency — making sure your most valuable players are fit to deliver that value — and Cavallini, who worked with NCAA athletes before joining EXOS as a military contractor training special ops forces, believed the timing was right to employ these methods with a baseball team.
So, too, did the Mets, a franchise that found itself searching for answers toward the end of last season. Despite being affiliated with the Hospital for Special Surgery, home to some of the most highly acclaimed orthopedists and specialists on the planet, the Mets routinely were tripped up by either communication snafus inside the organization or trouble relaying that information to everyone else. While medical records are private, these calamities unraveled daily for the public to see, between players crumbling on the field or never making it off the disabled list.
Many predicted the Mets to go to the World Series last season. They ended up 70-92, their worst finish since an identical record in 2009. Both campaigns were crippled by medical catastrophes.
“Look, the entire narrative last year was injuries, and that was true from probably the first six weeks of the season,” Alderson said. “So we knew we had to change the narrative. But the only way you really change the perception is by changing the reality.”
That can’t be done by flicking a switch. It’s a process, and Cavallini is responsible for engineering that culture change. Spring training, essentially a six-week baseball boot camp, is the perfect laboratory for what he’s trying to implement.
“We’re taking a layered approach,” Cavallini said. “So right now, we’re building the foundation. And so we look at the most fundamental data that we can collect that’s going to tell us as much as possible about these guys. But it’s also something that they’re going to do — that’s the key. We’re starting with the simple stuff. Building the foundation, getting very comfortable with basic routines, educating them on how it’s going to help them stay healthy, and potentially be a better player today and tomorrow.”
Once the precamp physicals give his staff a baseline for each player, a head-to-toe blueprint of their unique history and physical condition, Cavallini then collaborates with the other in-network departments — medical, nutritional, training, coaching, massage therapy — to customize individual fitness regimens that emphasize performance. New manager Mickey Callaway, a vital link in this chain, describes it as “prehab.” The streamlining of this operation, and the seamless communication, is something the Mets players already have noticed.
“They all know what’s going on,” said newcomer Adrian Gonzalez, a 14-year veteran who marveled at the synchronization. “A lot of times, we don’t know what we’re doing and what’s being done to us. We don’t know the medical language or the terms. And now we don’t have to try to explain it from person to person. They already know what needs to be done.”
Each day at the spring-training facility begins with every player weighing in on a special scale that measures hydration levels as well as other bodily systems. From there, depending on the players’ condition, there could be any number of therapies, from soft-tissue massage to higher-tech treatments, all tightly coordinated from station to station.
Just as critical is the dietary component, and the team’s newly hired nutritionist, Maureen Stoecklein, has been working with the Mets’ skilled longtime clubhouse chefs, captained by Theresa Corderi, whose goal this spring was to make already popular dishes healthier by cutting out refined sugar, using wheat flour and emphasizing lean proteins. During spring training, players eat at least two meals in the clubhouse, so the benefits can be significant.
“It’s huge,” Cavallini said. “It’s a very large part. Theresa can take food that is very good for you, but also make it taste very good. And that’s often the big challenge. Let’s be honest, bad food taste good. so we want our food to taste like that food, but react differently when it’s ingested.”
After every workout, and before lunch, players step on the scale for another hydration reading, with fluids then administered as necessary. The ice chest in the middle of the Mets clubhouse is stocked with healthy options — including lactose-free milk — to make recharging as easy as possible.
This isn’t the first time the Mets have tried to revamp their training program. Back in 2010, following that broken 70-win season in 2009, they tried a different tack, posting shield logos around the clubhouse with the slogan, “Prevention and Recovery,” perhaps as a psychic balm for the injury-related misery of the previous season. It didn’t pay off as the Mets improved by only nine wins that year.
With Opening Day still more than a month away, it’s difficult to gauge Cavallini’s impact so far from such a small sample size. But there are some early numbers to go on. During the final five weeks of last season, the Mets emailed daily injury reports to the media, aiming to cut through the clouds of confusion that hung over Citi Field. Often those lists were in the double-digits.
This year? There has been only one such email, sent Feb. 15. It included just two names, minor-league pitchers Matt Purke (flu) and Adonis Uceta (hamstring strain). To date, every Mets starter from their vaunted rotation is on schedule, and every position player, aside from the rehabbing Michael Conforto, is functional, except for some soreness.
Does this mean Cavallini’s protocols are working? Time will tell. But there is a network in place now that might be a game-changer for the Mets, and listening to Cavallini, he’ll explore every angle until he gets the desired results. His desk area is piled high with boxes containing the newest tech devices, but his powerful motivation for improving the Mets is the machine that will make real change possible. There’s no gadget for that.
“We want the guys to know that everything we do is about their performance,” Cavallini said. “That’s the message. What we’re here to do is improve the performance, and we’re going to kick down every door and flip every rock to find what we need to do to make them optimally prepared on a daily basis.”
And the man trying to save the Mets? Cavallini’s goal is to make sure you never need to hear his name again.
THIS IS SICK
18 different Mets spent time on the disabled list in 2017:
(We’ll list them alphabetically)
60, 10, 10 elbow
60, 10 elbow
60, 10, arm stress
10, 10 thumb
60, shoulder clot
60, torn lat
Degrees: Masters in sport biomechanics from Ball State (2005); bachelors in exercise science from Ithaca (2000).
Work history: Assistant strength and conditioning coach at Drexel, Ball State, Iowa and Virginia (2002-09); performance training for U.S. Army special ops (2010-15), and director of performance for Army special ops at Fort Bragg (2015-18).