BEFORE Noah Syndergaard registered his first triple-digit radar gun reading this season or Yoenis Cespedes launched his first light-tower home run, the New York Mets stars pushed their bodies to the limit in the weight room.
Syndergaard opened a window into his offseason workout program in an interview with Men's Fitness magazine, which chronicled his fondness for "squat heavy'' days and a protein-heavy diet highlighted by venison, buffalo, sweet potato hash, avocado and an egg-laden concoction known as the "Bowl of Doom.'' As if a 98-mph fastball weren't lethal enough, Syndergaard concluded he could take his game to even greater heights by reconfiguring his body and throwing even harder.
"Noah Syndergaard added 17 pounds of muscle this offseason,'' blared the Men's Fitness headline in February. "Now he's stronger than ever.''
Cespedes, who signed a $110 million contract in November, also embraced the bigger-is-better philosophy. During a March 4 video segment with ESPN's Jessica Mendoza, he lifted 990 pounds while using a Kaatsu band, a device that moderates blood flow during exercise. In the video, Cespedes attacks a massive stack of weights with encouragement from Mets strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Barwis, who pumps him up with the exhortation "come on, Vin Diesel'' before his first rep.
So how did all that grunting and sweating work out? Syndergaard, a fastball-throwing machine, won't be throwing heat until after the All-Star break as he recuperates from a partially torn lat muscle. And Cespedes, who went on the disabled list April 28 with a strained left hamstring, hopes to return to action during a homestand next week.
As the Mets struggle to overcome the injuries, it's impossible to pinpoint precisely where things went awry. Drawing a straight line from Point A to Point B and declaring a training regimen directly responsible for an injury is a dangerous and risky proposition.
But the results clearly aren't what anyone in Flushing had envisioned and have helped perpetuate a reputation for chaos that the Mets would love to put in the past.
When Syndergaard left the mound in pain and closer Jeurys Familia went down with a blood clot in his shoulder, it forced tortured Mets fans to relive the concussion issues incurred by Ryan Church and Jason Bay, Jose Reyes' run of hamstring injuries, the soap opera surrounding David Wright's spinal stenosis and a lengthy run of pitching injuries in recent years.
General manager Sandy Alderson and other Mets officials contend that the team is singled out for excessive scrutiny by the New York media and criticized for garden-variety issues that might earn other teams a pass. But interviews with multiple baseball sources debunk the perception that the Mets are simply unlucky. Those sources shared insights that suggest it might be time for the Mets to engage in some serious introspection in several facets of their operation.
Multiple people familiar with the Mets' operation -- most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity -- say the team has a less-than-optimal command structure that allows routine problems to fester until they become major conflagrations. Too often, the Mets' approach leads to communication breakdowns, mixed signals or a lack of trust between the team and its players.
"It's the same old, same old mistakes,'' one industry source said. "The Mets are a successful, profitable organization. But no organization, over a protracted period of time, has more significant players on the disabled list. There's a failing across the board. And what changes have been instituted, if any?''
The media guide resumes are impressive enough. Head athletic trainer Ray Ramirez has 25 years of experience in the majors with the Mets and Texas Rangers and nine seasons in the minors before that. Dr. David Altchek, the Mets' medical director, is a respected surgeon whose New York office is on a short list with Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Neal ElAttrache as a go-to destination for pitchers with arm injuries.
But Altchek, with his busy practice at the Hospital for Special Surgery, is not a regular presence at Citi Field. And Barwis, the top strength and conditioning employee, works out of an office in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and is primarily responsible for training players in the offseason.
"Ultimately, these areas of expertise and coordination fall under my responsibility. It's not Jeff or Dr. Altchek or Mike Barwis. Whether it's coordination, or we're sending guys to the right rehab facility, or we have the right people visiting players in the offseason, this is all my responsibility." General manager Sandy Alderson
So who's in charge? Multiple sources said the lack of a single medical point person allows for greater involvement by COO Jeff Wilpon in areas where he's lacking in professional expertise. They describe Wilpon as a micromanager who creates an environment in which the Mets simply whipsaw from one crisis to the next and are too often governed by how their decisions will be publicly perceived.
"Jeff gets in the middle of everything that's going on, and he ends up doing more damage,'' said a person who has been involved in the Mets' internal operation. "He meddles. I can't come up with a more appropriate term.''
While Alderson concedes the Mets have room for improvement, he disputes the notion that Altchek isn't at the ballpark enough, or Wilpon is too involved in the medical and strength and conditioning operation, or Barwis' training methods have been less than effective.
"David Altchek does our minor and major league surgeries,'' Alderson said. "He has a particular role, and the rest of our professional medical staff is a function of that. We do not have any single doctor here continually, but we have orthopedic coverage every night.
"With respect to Jeff, I would not say he's heavily involved in the medical side. He is sort of marginally involved, as any owner would be. Ultimately, these areas of expertise and coordination fall under my responsibility. It's not Jeff or Dr. Altchek or Mike Barwis. Whether it's coordination, or we're sending guys to the right rehab facility, or we have the right people visiting players in the offseason, this is all my responsibility.''
HOW SHOULD A medical department be judged? Keeping players productive and on the field seems like a reasonable place to start.
By that definition, the Mets are hardly MLB's biggest offenders. According to the website www.ManGamesLost.com, the Los Angeles Dodgers led MLB clubs with 7,169 games missed because of injury from 2010 to 2016. The Rangers, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies were next in line, while the Mets ranked seventh with 5,545 games lost to the disabled list.
As industry experts point out, DL days can be deceptive. One or two Tommy John surgeries in a season can skew results, and some players are going to suffer injuries that are beyond a team's control.
"Nothing you do from a strength and conditioning standpoint can prevent a guy from getting hit by a pitch and breaking his hand, or running into a wall trying to make a catch and cracking his ribs,'' said Mike Boyle, a longtime strength and conditioning coach who held the position for the 2013 world-champion Boston Red Sox. "It's different if you're looking at things of a soft-tissue nature. If you're doing a good job there, the general trend should be a decrease.''
New York's young pitching rotation of Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler poses particular challenges -- just as the "Generation K'' trio of Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen posed challenges in the 1990s.
"We know that young pitchers get hurt more. We know that hard-throwing pitchers get hurt more. So is it really that surprising that a bunch of young, hard-throwing guys end up with a bunch of injuries?'' said Will Carroll, a longtime sports medicine writer who now works for Motus, a company specializing in wearable technology to provide biomedical analysis for athletes. "It's like driving a bunch of Ferraris against a bunch of Honda Accords. The Ferraris are going to win every time, but they're going to spend half the time in the shop, while that Honda keeps motoring along.''
The Mets attract a lot of attention because of the high-profile players they've lost to injury. According to Nathan Currier of ManGamesLost.com, the Rangers and Mets lost more wins above replacement to the DL than any other teams between 2010 and 2016. Only the Rangers lost a higher percentage of their payroll to the disabled list during that period.
Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight's Rob Arthur used a different set of calculations and determined that the Dodgers lead the majors with 42.8 games in WAR to injury from 2010 to 2017, and the Mets are eighth at 32.8.
The damage varies from year to year. In 2014, the Mets lost 426 games to the DL. They fired strength and conditioning coach Jim Malone and named Barwis as their new senior adviser for strength and conditioning, a position he still holds today, and their DL days more than tripled from 426 to a National League-high 1,332 in 2015 before dipping to 886 in 2016.
Through the end of the past week, the Mets had amassed a total of 179 games lost to the 10-day disabled list this season, according to ManGamesLost.com's weekly report. That total was the fifth highest in baseball behind the Dodgers, Rockies, Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels.
A PHILADELPHIA NATIVE, Barwis made a name for himself as strength and conditioning coach for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan before his college football ties led him to the Mets. Fred Wilpon, the Mets' chairman of the board, is a devoted Michigan alumnus. According to a 2014 New York Times story, his son Jeff met Barwis on the sidelines during a Michigan football practice in 2008. The two struck up a friendship, and Barwis joined the Mets as a consultant in 2011.
Barwis has a big personality. His personal pep talks are long on motivation, and he has been at the forefront of the use of "neuropriming'' headphones that stimulate the part of the brain responsible for muscle movement. In 2014, Barwis attained a heightened profile by training Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman and other football players on a show called "American Muscle'' that aired on the Discovery Channel.
"I think Mike does a good job of training athletes -- especially football, because that's his background'' said an industry associate who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity. "But that doesn't mean it always translates to baseball.''
Within the strength and conditioning community, Barwis is a lightning rod because of some of his methods and his unorthodox arrangement with the Mets. In the winter of 2014-15, a mini-controversy erupted amid reports that Mets players were required to pay to work out at Barwis' facility in Florida. While the Mets insisted that players were under no pressure to use Barwis' gym and the money went toward his rent rather than into the team's pocket, some professionals questioned the appropriateness of the arrangement.
"It's an unusual setup, to be sure, but I'm not against it just because it's different,'' Carroll said. "My question would be whether it's effective. I actually think baseball should do a lot more experimentation, but it all comes down to results. When those aren't there, everything else has to be questioned. I think the Mets have to be at that point now."
Barwis has a flair for showmanship that some of his peers find off-putting. In one segment of his show "American Muscle,'' former big-leaguer Nick Swisher emerges from a garage, stands in the snow and flings a beer keg more than 12 feet. The camera then shifts to Barwis, who observes that Swisher has been having difficulty hitting because he's not properly loading with his hips.
Even strength and conditioning professionals who are loath to critique their peers look askance at that particular video.
"I am unaware that visual inspection of a keg toss has ever been shown as a valid tool to comment and intervene upon a major league baseball player's swing,'' Dr. Charlie Weingroff, a physical therapist who has worked extensively with NBA teams, said in an email. "Using a more ergonomically efficient tool like a [medicine ball], sandbell, discus, shot put, even a hammer could provide a much safer environment to train rotary power.''
Boyle, who has worked in the field at the professional, collegiate and Olympic levels since the 1980s, was similarly taken aback by the sight of Swisher throwing a keg in the snow amid freezing temperatures.
"If you look at the techniques you see in 'American Muscle,' they're unusual for baseball players,'' Boyle said, "and some of them might not be safe with multimillion-dollar athletes. I don't know Mike Barwis. I haven't met him. But the internet videos do not paint a real flattering picture.''
Barwis was unavailable for comment for this story, but several people in the Mets organization say there's a different, more caring and committed side to him beyond the self-promotional side displayed in his videos. Barwis works with disabled children at his Florida facility and was active in helping Al Jackson after the former Mets pitcher suffered a stroke in 2015.
"We don't rely on Mike for hitting mechanics,'' Alderson said. "We do rely on Mike for the physiology of the relationship between the hips, the back, the shoulders, etc., etc. Those are all kinetically connected.
"Mike is one of the best additions we've made the last two to three years. There's always somebody on the outside who's going to bitch and moan about somebody on the inside because they don't like the fact he's new. You can talk to our old strength and conditioning coaches, and they're good guys. But my guess is they're going to have something nasty to say about Barwis or the current people we have here. That's the way things are.''
THE METS ARE navigating the same changing landscape as teams in all professional sports. Baseball has been especially challenged to come to grips with the strength and conditioning surge, which keeps pushing players to be stronger and faster in ways that can test their physiological limits.
Syndergaard's winter workout regimen produced considerable second-guessing. While he claims to have added 17 pounds of muscle, the Mets said he actually reported to spring training a mere 3 pounds heavier than the previous season.
The hysteria went up several notches when Syndergaard passed on a request to undergo a precautionary MRI three weeks ago. On April 30, he threw 34 pitches in a 23-5 loss to the Washington Nationals before departing with a lat injury.
Could the Mets have taken a harder stance and told Syndergaard he wouldn't be allowed to pitch unless he consented to the test?
"That's a fair question to ask,'' Alderson said. "It mirrors a statement that I made to Noah himself. I said, 'OK, if you don't want the MRI, we'll decide when you pitch next.' Then we had him pitch a side session, and his symptoms had diminished, and we allowed him to pitch.
"Some people think this got to be a confrontation, and it really wasn't. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have the MRI. Would that have shown the lat was subject to a potential tear? We'll never know. Any time there's an injury, you can go back and second-guess everything. We try to go back and see if there needs to be some systemic change in what we're doing. That certainly has happened over the last few weeks.''
As the disabled list stints by Syndergaard and Cespedes drag on, it's only natural to ask how much responsibility players assume for their individual training regimens. Was it admirable for Syndergaard and Cespedes to keep pushing when they might have been better served taking a step back and admitting they weren't 100 percent? And what's the balance between teams babysitting players and giving them the latitude to train their own way?
"It's all suggestions,'' Mets outfielder Jay Bruce said. "Nobody's putting a gun to your head. In the offseason, I semi-follow what the team says. But I have my own work regimen that I've built for 10-12 years now. It's a team sport, but there's so much individuality that it's tough to put anything on one person or one way of doing things.''
If Wilpon, Alderson and the Mets decide to take a comprehensive look at their operation and make changes, they have plenty of examples to follow. In 2013, Baltimore Orioles vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson oversaw what the team described as a shift in their strength and conditioning "culture." Later that year, the Yankees made some sweeping changes in response to a disappointing season. Two years ago, the Nationals overhauled their own medical structure after an injury-filled season.
In recent years, the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates are among the teams that have hired directors of performance or sports scientists to help facilitate the flow of information between departments. Alderson said the Mets are exploring that possibility.
"Having a director of performance sciences is a relatively new idea that's been adopted by a handful of teams,'' Alderson said. "It makes sense to have someone who coordinates all of the various training and rehabilitation disciplines. That's something we certainly are looking at on an ongoing basis and may be considering in the future. In the meantime, that coordination is being done with the personnel we have, and I feel that coordination has worked well.''
In Weingroff's experience with NBA teams and Canada's national basketball team, successful franchises devise strategies that account for six variables: medical treatment, fitness, sleep, nutrition, psychology and load management, which gauges how much strain athletes can handle as they recover from injury. For an NBA player, that might mean minutes in a game. For a pitcher, it could mean a preordained number of pitches.
"The teams that do this well have a staff that acts as a single organism, that asks the right questions and finds the solutions,'' Weingroff said. "There are ways of measuring the fatigue or readiness of the body on a daily basis, and that's how we predict things. If the sum of the parts is going to be greater than the whole, everybody has to think in a similar way.''
Similarly, when the process breaks down, it's beyond the power of a single person to correct.
"You can have the best people in place and they can all be doing the right thing,'' Carroll said. "But if you're not all rowing in the same direction, you're just going to get conflicting information and do the wrong things. Until you're on the same page, you're going to waste the effort and hurt the players.''
The Mets' 2017 season is in jeopardy, in part, because of the damage they've suffered through injuries to their best pitcher, hitter and closer. Will they attribute the loss of Syndergaard, Cespedes and now Familia to more bad luck, or use the setbacks as motivation to take an exhaustive look at their operation? If they want to come up with the right answers, they might have to start asking themselves some more probing questions.