Monday, July 7, 2014

Nolasco and Injury Culture

Mike Berardino, Pioneer Press—SEATTLE – Eighteen starts into his Twins career, veteran right-hander Ricky Nolasco finally admitted he has been struggling with some level of soreness in his throwing elbow since spring training.
Nolasco, signed to a four-year, $49 million free-agent deal during the offseason, left the team on Monday and flew back to the Twin Cities. The Twins’ Opening Day starter was due to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Tuesday, when he will be examined by Twins medical director Dr. John Steubs.
According to Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony, Nolasco had not sought treatment from the club’s training staff all year. Nolasco mentioned the elbow issue during a Monday meeting with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson.
“After some coaxing he finally admitted he’s been struggling since spring training with a bit of a sore elbow,” Antony said. “He said he can’t get loose more than anything. Said it gets tight. Some days it’s better than others. (Sunday) he had a real difficult time getting loose, so we called it a day after two innings.”
Nolasco, 31, was pulled after two innings and 42 pitches on Sunday after giving up six earned runs to the New York Yankees. That start pushed Nolasco’s earned run average to a career-worst 5.90.
Just six of his 18 starts have been quality starts: six or more innings with a maximum of three earned runs.
Over his past 11 starts he has posted a 10.64 ERA in the first inning. He held opponents scoreless in the first inning over his first seven starts.

After signing the richest free agent contract in franchise history, it’s no secret that Ricky Nolasco has been absolutely awful and thus far a huge disappointment.  His 5.90 ERA is more than 1.5 runs higher than his career mark entering 2014.  He is striking out fewer batters, walking more, and giving up more home runs than his track record would suggest that he should.  He’s leading the league in hits allowed.  It’s no question his deal has been one of the biggest disappointments from free agency this past winter.  After seeing these facts or simply watching him pitch a few times, it’s evident he’s not the same guy he’s been for the majority of his solid big league career.  No one should be overly surprised that he’s been pitching hurt. 

Ok, so he’s hurt, and that sucks, but at least there’s an explanation to why he’s been so underwhelming.  Seems like a pretty straightforward story, right?  That’s where this starts to get interesting.  Pioneer Press Twins Beat guy Mike Berardino, who wrote the piece above in italics and who does great work covering the Twins night in night out, tweeted this out not long after his story was posted:

@MikeBerardino: I asked Gardy if he wants his pitchers to tell him when they're sore. He suggested he did not want to know until it rose to a certain level.

I like to picture Gardy volunteering this small look into his philosophy in the clubhouse, in between giving Eddie Escobar a quick instructional on the art of the sacrifice bunt and watching an episode of M*A*S*H on his tube RCA TV that Tom Kelly bought new in 1986.  Try harder to sound like the game has passed you by Gardy, you can’t.  I mean, he sounds to me like someone’s dad talking Twins at a bar.  Mauer’s soft, Nolasco’s soft.  They’re all soft these days!  Unless you’re really hurt, you go out there when you see your name on that galdang lineup card!  Every time.  Period.  Gotta try to go the distance and get the win!  Bartender, gimme another Busch Light!  Seriously, this kind of tough guy, sack up, you’re not injured you’re hurt BS is so outdated in today’s game.  What exactly is that “certain level” Gardy?  Because it’s evident to me that Nolasco reached that certain arbitrary level of injured a while ago.

If this is the kind of mindset that Gardy wants his players to have, a 1980s bite-the-bullet, grit it out approach, then he is no longer a viable option.  Berardino’s article says word-for-word that only after some coaxing could the Twins Brass get Nolasco to admit that his arm has been tight since Spring Training and that he hasn’t been right all year.  I’m not in the Twins Clubhouse on a daily basis (shocker, I know).  In fact, I have never set foot in the Twins clubhouse, so I don’t feel comfortable making these broad generalizations about a company that I have no internal knowledge whatsoever, but it certainly screams culture problem to me.  Why else would Nolasco, a very good and most durable pitcher whom the Twins have a lot invested in, be compelled to hide injury and pitch ineffectively for months on end rather than feel comfortable admitting that he isn’t right and needs some time before he’ll be able to get out on the mound and pitch to his talent level and perform up to the expectations of his contract?

There is no point to playing injured or feeling like you should have to hide an injury.  I realize that it’s a long season (cc MightyFlynn) and no one is 100% as the season wears on, but there is a difference between sore/hurt and injured.  And as it stands, Ricky Nolasco at whatever x% he was pitching at isn’t a very good pitcher.  Had he felt comfortable going to Gardy and saying, “hey, I’m not right, I need some time, put me on the DL,” the Twins could have easily gone to the minor leagues and gotten someone who could have helped the team more than an injured Nolasco has for the past couple of months.  Trevor May or Alex Meyer potentially could have come up and helped the club.  I have no knowledge of the internal workings of any other clubs either (again, shocker), but I imagine smart teams do their best to make sure their players feel more than comfortable disclosing injuries and getting treatment.

Instead of the approach, the Twins Twins’d and Nolasco toughed it out for a handful of starts, being ineffective and possibly further injuring himself and hurting the club’s investment in him.  I do realized this is a culture problem with layers upon layers upon layers.  I ripped up my shoulder in high school and didn’t tell a soul until months after it happened, afraid of what answer I would get.  Who knows if I hurt it worse by continuing to play baseball while eating Advil like they were Skittles.  No one wants to admit they’re hurt or to miss any time.  It’s incredibly frustrating.  So I get that this is not all the Twins’ fault.  Nolasco has probably been conditioned to go out there every 5th day, no matter how he feels, for upwards of a couple decades.  That being said, I’ve become less and less enamored over the past few years with how the Twins do business.  When something like this happens I feel justified in thinking that the Twins brass is filled with people who are simply incompetent boobs.  I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m not. 

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