Stories involving Noah Syndergaard tend to develop quickly, like the man himself. Not too long ago, this was Noah Syndergaard:
Every 18 months or so a new Syndergaard would emerge, like a cicada. Over the past decade, Syndergaard has She’s All That–ed himself from doughy teen to future Dallas Baptist position player to sandwich-round draft pick to top-10 global pitching prospect to rookie hotshot to one of the best pitchers in baseball by any standard. It’s amazing how quickly it happened.
Five days ago, the Mets’ ace was scratched from his start against Atlanta with “biceps discomfort,” the result of tendinitis. On Sunday, a better-rested Syndergaard took the mound and allowed five runs to the Nationals while recording only four outs, then walked off the mound in pain and in the company of a trainer.
In between, news broke that the Mets had booked Syndergaard for an MRI on his injured arm, but the 24-year-old had refused it, telling reporters, “I think I’m pretty in tune with my body. That’s why I refused to take the MRIs: I knew that there was nothing happening in there and that’s encouraging to know,” which scores high marks for irony. Monday morning, the Mets, having wrangled Syndergaard into the tube, released the following:
Three issues immediately come to mind.
First, there are worse things for a pitcher to tear than his lat muscle. We know what Tommy John surgery looks like — the pitcher’s out of game action for 12 to 18 months and doesn’t regain full effectiveness for two years. We know that shoulder injuries frequently bring pitchers’ careers to an end. The lat injury has a few variables, not least of which is that Syndergaard’s lats must be the size of a side of beef, and “partial tear” is ambiguous. Clayton Kershaw tore a lat muscle in March 2014 and missed about six weeks before coming back to win not only his third Cy Young in four years, but the NL MVP as well. Roy Halladay tore a lat muscle in 2012 and never pitched effectively in the major leagues again.
Even on an optimistic time frame, this is as huge a loss for the Mets as you’d expect it to be. New York entered the season with a ton of starting pitching depth, but with Steven Matz’s elbow barking and Seth Lugo’s elbow torn, the team has already used it up. So imagine replacing two or three months of a pitcher who’s going to get Cy Young votes with a replacement-level pitcher; that’s at least two or three wins statistically, but it also puts a greater strain on the bullpen, and the Mets, who are already 6.5 games out of first place in the NL East, don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Syndergaard’s lat tear doesn’t kill the Mets’ season, but it does precipitate a crisis.
Second, Ben Lindbergh and I talked about this in some depth on today’s Ringer MLB Show, but the Mets have a troubling history of botching, if not injury treatment and prevention itself, then at least the messaging around player injuries. They’ve been slow to adapt to the shorter 10-day DL, and the 2015 tug-of-war over Matt Harvey is just one of a series of incidents involving players’ health that have eroded the public trust, insofar as that matters. Because Syndergaard’s injury developed so quickly, I don’t know what else the Mets could have done from a messaging standpoint, but the fact that his refusal to get MRI’d became public before the injury went from minor to serious feels like part of a pattern.
Finally, Syndergaard’s refusal to take the MRI is bizarre, but illustrative of a larger, mostly unspoken tension between the medical needs of the athlete and the competitive exigencies of the team. There’s no obvious reason why Syndergaard would refuse the MRI. If he believed he was healthy and wanted to pitch, the MRI could have validated that belief. If he knew he was hurt but wanted to pitch anyway, he could have taken his chances with the scan, then discussed his options with the training staff. If he didn’t think they’d listen, I’m not sure what his plan was — gut through a serious soft-tissue injury for another 3,000 major league innings and hope nobody noticed?
And it’s not like an MRI is some bizarre experimental procedure. Like, if the Mets wanted to surgically graft Wilmer Flores onto his back, saying no makes sense, but the MRI is a test, and a routine, noninvasive one at that. No needles, no exertion — you just sit in a small tube with lots of lights and banging. It’s no different from pitching in Wrigley Field in that respect.
With that said, there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the medical autonomy of athletes, because while both player and team are broadly interested in the player staying healthy, those incentives don’t always align perfectly. Professional teams have a longer view of pitcher health than a college coach who sends a draft-eligible junior out to throw 140 pitches in the College World Series on three days’ rest, but MLB teams’ relationship to their pitchers is like an NFL team’s relationship to a running back, or the relationship the robots from The Matrix had to humans: The human body is a resource to be used for a specific purpose for a finite period of time and discarded afterward.
It’s easy to understand why Syndergaard would look at the Mets, particularly considering how Matz and Harvey have struggled to stay healthy, and wonder if he knew his own body better than a team that might overuse him and wear him out before free agency, or underuse him and lose a shot at a World Series with a lesser pitcher on the mound.
But the trick, when making your own medical decisions, is to make wise ones, and while it’s anyone’s guess whether Syndergaard’s injury is worse now than it was on Thursday, the optics are ugly. For the Mets, that makes this story all too familiar.