Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Noah’s Bark Should Have Gotten a Mets Bite

By Jeff Kallman

It's one thing for baseball players to have the kind of contract negotiating autonomy they've enjoyed in the free agency era. But it's something else when the keys to the zoo get lifted by the animals, as the Mets may be learning the hard way. Players may choose for whom they play when contracts expire, but they still, alas, have bosses. Or so we thought.

Don't be surprised if the 23-5 terrorist attacks the Nationals laid upon the Mets Sunday afternoon have a lot of people wondering just who's been running the Mets.

Because when Noah Syndergaard — scratched from his start against the Braves last Thursday due to a bicep and shoulder discomfort — shenked an MRI appointment the day after, the purported ace of a team who swore they'd be monitoring their youthful pitching staff very closely no matter what, he made them look like liars.

Syndergaard and, it's been reported, a few coaches watching, swore he was fine throwing a bullpen session Friday. But come Sunday, he tried throwing bullets that went few places he wanted them to go, avoiding Nats bats being one of them. Then, he tried throwing a few off-speed pitches. In the second inning, with the Nats getting friskier, Syndergaard strained his right lateral muscle and had to leave the game.

That was just what the Mets' already overworked and beleaguered bullpen didn't need, after two days' worth of arduous work in containing the Nats long enough for the Mets to take the first two of a weekend set.

If the Mets had really been looking out for Syndergaard's and the team's well being, they'd have done what New York Daily News columnist John Harper suggested hours after the Sunday massacre, "exerted more influence, or flat told him that if he didn't get [the Friday MRI] he was going on the disabled list."

Manager Terry Collins himself told reporters gambling with Met arms in general, and Syndergaard's in particular considering last week's doings, was not an option. "It's quite obvious we cannot take a chance on him," Collins said, "hurting this guy, especially when you're talking about anything that runs into the shoulder to where he changes his delivery and other things happen."

Bergen Record columnist Bob Klapisch — who once wrote, with Harper, an excellent if troubling book about the horrific 1993 Mets, The Worst Team Money Could Buy — wasn't quite as forgiving in his expression as Harper was.

"Syndergaard could have made the [Friday MRI] episode easier for the Mets, if only he'd been less petulant about the MRI. There was no reason for him to refuse, other than to prove he could force the club to backpedal. Add that to an incident in the clubhouse, where Syndergaard berated Jay Horwitz, the 70-year-old media relations director, and you have the personality profile of an immature star, not a self-aware ace who understands the responsibility of acting like one.

"Remember this, too: Syndergaard was warned about the risk of a heavy weight-lifting regimen that added thickness to his upper body last winter. The Mets were against his unorthodox approach. Motion analysis expert Tom House said Syndergaard's obsession with new muscle was a "worst-case scenario." House told The Record two months ago that there was strong probability Syndergaard would be injured before June 1.

"Syndergaard, however, blew off the prediction as casually as he said no to the MRI. He knew better. "My arm is loose, my flexibility is good," Thor said back in February. "I'm not worried."

Instead of getting a duly-scheduled MRI after one issue got him scratched from a scheduled start, where a possible coming issue might have been prevented with a little smart management from there, Syndergaard played the side of old-school thought that gets old-school thought a bad reputation in the first place.

I don't need no MRI. I'm tough! I'm the Mighty Thor!! Thou shalt have no other gods of thunder before me!!!

Except that he wasn't, on Sunday. A Mets bullpen in dire need of at least two thirds of a day off got yanked into action early, with little enough reserve, and — after the Mets had carved their way back to within one run — the Nats violated their Eighth Amendment rights. General manager Sandy Alderson has since acknowledged he let Syndergaard start Sunday "with input with [a] variety of different sources," according to ESPN. Which of those sources were smart enough to warn that biceps and/or shoulder discomfort could lead unconsciously to a slight enough alteration in the motion no matter how hard Syndergaard threw?

It got bad enough as one after another early bullpen arrival got nuked that manager Terry Collins finally got backup catcher Kevin Plawecki to pitch two innings. If Plawecki volunteered, he should be nominated for a Nobel Prize. (He was told as early as the sixth to be prepared just in case.) The good news was Plawecki getting three outs to end the seventh.

The bad news was, he got them after Josh Smoker, perhaps the last man standing in the Mets' bullpen, surrendered an RBI double to Daniel Murphy, a run scoring on an infield error, and a 3-run homer to Matt Wieters.

Then, Plawecki got 3 outs in the eighth. The worse news was, he got those after Bryce Harper opened by hitting a ball-one pitch into the right center field seats, Ryan Zimmerman followed promptly with a base hit, pinch hitter Adam Lind followed that with a shot over the center field fence, and Anthony Rendon — adding a cherry-and-whipped cream topping to his history-making sundae afternoon (6-for-6 with ten steaks, the highest-ever RBI total of any 6-for-6 man) — blasted his third bomb of the day into the left field bleachers.

Take one for the team? Plawecki took the tail end of the London Blitz. The Nationals Park scoreboard operator was being charitable in calling what he threw "changeups."

I've written that baseball players shouldn't have to apologize for becoming injured in the line of duty. But if they're foolish enough with injuries, and it leads to disaster almost at once, maybe they should be made to write 100 times, "I will not shenk my MRI. I will not shenk my MRI."

I've also written that it's long past time for baseball brain trusts to stop looking strictly at velocity uber alles and start looking again at whether prospects can pitch; or, stop looking at who can throw harder than the last pitch each pitch out and start looking at the ones who seem as though they know how to manage their engines. Don't take my word for it. Try the word of a Hall of Famer, John Smoltz, who speaks from the experience of a two decade-plus career that included four elbow surgeries (one a Tommy John procedure) and a shoulder surgery.

"I call it the red-line factor," Smoltz told his Fox Sports broadcast partner Ken Rosenthal. "When you keep running your engine above the red line, you're going to blow it out. If you race your car hard for too long a period, it's going to overheat. We're getting dangerously close to every pitcher red-lining when he doesn't really have to. They're not preparing to learn how to pitch like it's a six-gear car. They're always in sixth gear. Never in fourth or fifth."

Institutionally, the Mets should have known better. Remember Generation K of the mid-1990s? Three pitchers — Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher — who could throw roasts past coyotes. So it was said. Isringhausen made a good showing down the stretch in 1995, but all three of those kids ended up with arm and shoulder miseries. Isringhausen ended up with the longest and most serviceable career, when he was dealt to Oakland, added a knuckle curve to his repertoire, and converted to the bullpen, becoming one of baseball's best closers from 2000-2009, hanging in another few seasons before calling it a career. The Mets learned little from Generation K's experience. So did a lot of other teams.

Syndergaard raised red flags even before spring training began. He'd worked out a lot extra during the offseason, added some muscle bulk, and said he wanted to throw even harder than the 97.9 mph he averaged to lead baseball last year. About the only ones who didn't see big trouble coming for the 24-year-old right-hander were the Mets themselves.

Don't even think about it: the Players' Association wouldn't have had a leg to stand on if the Mets gave Syndergaard the not-so-fast order when learning Syndergaard planned to shenk last Friday's MRI. As Harper pointed out, should the Players' Association have claimed the Mets were trying to strong-arm an uninjured player, the Mets would have countered what happened to be true: it was Syndergaard himself who first reported his biceps and shoulder issue last Wednesday night.

"Would the MRI have disclosed a lat issue or reaffirmed some concern about the bicep?" asked general manager Sandy Alderson about Syndergaard's stubbornness. "We'll never know." The Mets found out sooner than they thought. Because guess why Syndergaard wasn't available to talk after the Sunday game? He high-tailed it to New York for a Monday appointment.

For an MRI. Which showed Syndergaard with a torn lat muscle. The Mets said there was "no timetable" for him to return, but memory instructs that Steven Matz — who's also on (you guessed it) the disabled list since the end of spring training with a flexor tendon issue — missed two months with a torn lat in 2015.

And don't think the Mets weren't tempted to order the MRI operators to have Syndergaard's head examined while they were at it. But maybe the Mets' brain trust ought to schedule themselves for one for the head, too. They've been too lost in an apparent organization culture, two decades strong, from which injuries are treated by ducking, looking the other way, praying for the best, and falling into shock when they turn out the worst.

Collins — who flipped and threw a cup when an admittedly foolish reporter asked if he was upset over Syndergaard's lat strain (that's like asking Poland how it felt about being the receiving end of the war-opening Nazi blitz) — has always sounded the call of accountability from his players. If ever that call needed to be sounded, it was Sunday, before Syndergaard could escape. It should have been sounded to Thor and to a few of Collins's brain trust and the front office.

The Mets should have ordered Syndergaard to stay put until after Sunday, Bloody Sunday finally ended and he could face the press explaining himself. After he made them look like chumps before leaving his team to the Nats' human rights violations, it's the least the Mets could have asked of their purported ace. Because an already-beleaguered team's pitching depth just got reduced exponentially, and because the Mets themselves need to do something, anything to show they have some brains about handling the prime factor that made them formidable the last couple of seasons — pitching, and pitchers.

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