Directors of player health and performance, Casey Stengel once said, are like umpires and weather forecasters. We talk about them only when things go wrong on their watch.
(OK, you got me. Casey surely never uttered the words “directors of player health and performance” in that exact order. Just plug in “Railroad conductors” or “Milkmen” and a) Casey probably said it, and b) the sentiment remains the same.)
We are talking about Eric Cressey, the Yankees’ first-year director of player health and performance, because 2020 quickly has turned into an undesired repeat of the defending AL East champion’s 2019 injury nightmare. On Saturday, a day off thanks to the Mets’ COVID issues, the Yankees worked out at Yankee Stadium and made three people available to the media via Zoom calls: manager Aaron Boone and, fittingly, pitchers Zack Britton and James Paxton, both of whom suffered deactivating ailments during the Rays’ Yankee Stadium takeover.
It would be beyond unfair to primarily blame Cressey, a celebrity hire of sorts, or his underlings for the damage incurred on their watch. Too many events beyond their control have led to an astounding 10 Yankees players joining the injured list with the regular season celebrating its one-month anniversary Sunday. Yet it would be journalistically derelict to not discuss the ongoing agita of Yankees injuries.
“While we did the overhaul, the overhaul came in January,” Boone said, referring to Cressey’s arrival. “[We] haven’t had an offseason yet since we overhauled it. It’s kind of all been on the fly, getting up to speed through spring training.
“I’m confident in our team and in our strength and conditioning team to do a good job hopefully preventing certain things from happening. But hopefully when we look up in … a few years, we’ll really start to see the dividends being paid.”
Long-term optimism hardly tempers the stress of the short term, of the Yankees expecting to activate Aaron Judge off the IL for their next game, most likely Tuesday in Atlanta, yet no one else likely to rejoin the effort for a couple of weeks beyond that. As Luke Voit said Thursday, the day the Yankees lost both Paxton (left forearm flexor strain) and Gleyber Torres (strained left hamstring and quad) as the Rays swept past them at Yankee Stadium, “It’s crazy it’s happening again.”
Of course, this entire Major League Baseball season has been crazy. As I pointed out in a separate column, the 30 clubs had collectively used the injured list 146 times for a total of 1,461 missed days through Thursday’s games, the 29th day of the regular season. Through 29 days last year, those numbers stood at 93 and 1,280.
“I think it’s pretty simple: short spring training,” Paxton said, referring to the spring training 2.0 that lasted less than half the length of spring training 1.0. “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. The tiredness is building up. We don’t have that base we normally have.”
In line with that, Paxton attributed his injury to ramping up his changeup too quickly, something that wouldn’t have occurred in a standard-length spring training.
Britton, who is down with a strained left hamstring, passionately defended Cressey, even as he took pains to not divulge any proprietary information about what Cressey has introduced to the team.
“These guys are doing some special things in there,” Britton said, referring to the Yankees’ clubhouse. “Obviously they have a very short window this year to implement a lot of the things that we’re doing just because of the circumstances that we’re in. But I think from a medical side, a strength-training side, we’re doing an outstanding job of the new programs that are in place. … I think the injuries, it’s not a reflection of those guys whatsoever.”
The Yankees declined to make Cressey available to speak, as is their standard practice. He’ll get plenty more time to make this right. To live up to his hype. To try to get people to stop talking about him, the ultimate goal, as Casey would’ve put it, for this particular line of work.