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  • Nolasco and Injury Culture

    Ricky 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 Nolascoís earned run average to a career-worst 5.90. Just six of his 18 starts have been quality starts. 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, itís no secret that Ricky Nolasco has been 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. Heís leading the league in hits allowed. 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, itís evident heís not the same guy heís been for the majority of his solid big league career. No one should be overly surprised that heís been pitching hurt.

    Ok, so heís hurt, and that sucks, but at least thereís an explanation of why heís been so underwhelming. Seems like a pretty straightforward story, right? Thatís where this starts to get interesting. Pioneer Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino, 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. He sounds to me like someoneís dad talking Twins at a bar:

    Mauerís soft, Nolascoís soft. Theyíre all soft these days! Unless youíre 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    Seriously, this kind of tough guy, suck it up, youíre not injured youíre hurt BS is so outdated in todayís game. What exactly is that ďcertain levelĒ Gardy? Because itís 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. Berardinoís article says explicitly that only after some coaxing could the Twins brass get Nolasco to admit his arm has been tight since spring training and that he hasnít been right all year.

    I have never set foot in the Twins clubhouse, so I donít feel comfortable making these broad generalizations about a company I have no internal knowledge of, but it certainly screams cultural problem to me. Why else would Nolasco, a very good and most durable pitcher whom the Twins have a lot invested in, feel compelled to hide an injury and pitch ineffectively for months on end rather than feel comfortable admitting he isnít right and needs some time before heíll 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 itís a long season 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 percent he was pitching at isnít a very good pitcher. Had he felt comfortable going to Gardy and saying, ďHey, Iím not right, I need some time, put me on the DL,Ē 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 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 that approach, the Twins Twinsíd and Nolasco toughed it out for more than a handful of starts, being ineffective and possibly further injuring himself and hurting the clubís investment in him. I do realize this is a culture problem with layers upon layers upon layers. I ripped up my shoulder in high school and didnít 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 theyíre hurt or to miss any time. Itís incredibly frustrating. So I get that this is not all the Twinsí fault. Nolasco has probably been conditioned to go out there every fifth day, no matter how he feels, for upwards of a couple decades. That being said, Iíve become less and less enamored over the past few years with how the Twins do business. I hope Iím wrong, but Iím pretty sure Iím not.

    Originally posted at troywilliamsonshands.blogspot.com
    Comments 71 Comments
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      I'm publishing this story for two reasons:
      1) It the main topic in Twins Territory today and deserves attention.
      2) It's a bit of a test to see how far our forums have come.

      This is the kind of topic that can inflame people on both side of the issue. Make no mistake: Twins Daily detractors and people who view forums as places where intelligent, civil discussion goes to die are waiting for this thread to prove them right. If you are afraid you are too fired up about the topic to remain civil or listen to others' point of view, you might want to think about removing yourself from the discussion. I'm sure the moderators will likely have a tight leash on this thread.

      The writer both expresses the frustration Twins fans feel, looks for someone on whom to vent blame, but acknowledges the challenges:
      - It's hard to know if you're injured or not (which he himself has experienced)
      - Nolasco likely hoped it was just soreness and would eventually fix itself, especially because he felt the pressure of living up to his new contract.
      - Gardenhire has almost no way of knowing if a player (particularly a pitcher) is having trouble "getting loose" if the pitcher doesn't tell him
      - The coaching staff is the tip of the iceberg when discussing injury culture. I've certainly heard Terry Ryan praise toughness and a player playing through injuries, but even that isn't the whole story. Every MLB organization does the same thing. But even that isn't enough. Most baseball culture preceding the majors does the same thing - but even that isn't enough. How about extending it to all sports? Or even to a Puritan work ethic, pervasive to American culture? Or to a even wider masculine culture?

      So let's try work through some of these challenges. Are there processes/changes the Twins can make to stop these from impacting their season so much?
    1. iTwins's Avatar
      iTwins -
      In an odd way, I was relieved to hear Nolasco had been battling through an injury. He has simply been terrible this year and even with the NL to AL switch - it didn't add up. He's no ace, but he's not a 5-6 ERA pitcher either.

      The dilemma surrounding soreness and playing through the pain is an interesting one. I'm sure Gardy is right that pitchers are constantly pitching when sore - look at the nature of the position and the stress they're putting on their arms / bodies. There absolutely will be some aches and pains.

      The question becomes where is that "level" that Gardy is talking about? It's clearly different for all players - but why, when he was struggling so badly, did Nolasco feel the need to keep pushing through the pain?

      I think there's blame to go around here, but I don't know that any one party's blame is so egregious that fans should be outraged. Did the "play through the pain, I don't want to hear about soreness" clubhouse culture that Gardy spoke about contribute to Nolasco "hiding" the injury? Possibly. On the other hand, Nolasco has to know enough to tell the team when he's hurting in a way that extends beyond everyday wear and tear. I'll be disappointed if Nolasco battled through an injury and caused further damage to himself, if we find out that's the case.

      Hopefully this injury is the root of Nolasco's issues and hopefully it can be "fixed" with some rest and rehab, rather than a major surgery.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      To be fair, at this point we don't know if there is an injury. We know there's soreness and that he is struggling to get loose.

      There is a difference in being sore or hurt and being injured. No one would ask a player, especially a pitcher, to play injured. But, players play sore and even a little hurt all year long.

      There are many that crucify Mauer for (allegedly) not being willing to play unless he's at 100% (which is not true, of course). Three seasons ago, people were bashing the Twins for being soft when they had so many players not playing in September.

      I don't get people being upset at Gardenhire. I think he's right. Unless he's told or aware that there is an injury, what can he do? He's seen so much bad pitching the last few years that he can't just ask guys if they're hurt all the time.

      The player has to be accountable for his career. The player is the one who knows his level of pain more than anyone else.

      And, most likely, Nolasco hasn't ever really felt like this, and he's trying to justify the big contract. He doesn't want to be the guy who got the money and now he's hurt... He likely sees how Twins fans choose to bash Mauer for not playing and doesn't want that kind of treatment.
    1. Winston Smith's Avatar
      Winston Smith -
      Nice job writing this. He said, she said is likely how this turns out and we may never know anything for sure.
      However, I hope this doesn't become an excuse for not signing free agents in the future. All free agent contracts carry risk even a large risk and having the largest ever given by TR turn out this bad, for now, could really put the brakes on taking this kind of gamble again.
    1. Monkeypaws's Avatar
      Monkeypaws -
      I share iTwins sentiment that if this explains why Nolasco has been awful, it is good news, regardless of the how the Twins handled it.

      The medical staff should have the final say on these matters, not the manager.
    1. Twins Fan From Afar's Avatar
      Twins Fan From Afar -
      I commented on this news a whole bunch on twitter last night, so you can find my opinions there.
      Just want to say here that this is a well written piece.
    1. Brandon's Avatar
      Brandon -
      In Nolasco's defense, sometimes its hard to know when to say when. Sometimes its hard to say I need to slow down or I need some help, especially when its for a task you feel you should have a handle on it. Sometimes as the one in the middle of it all you don't realize your causing a problem till its too late. Competition gets the better of you. But this has obviously been going on for a while, and that's the issue I have is that no one questioned him 5 or 6 starts ago. He's struggled all season except for a few decent starts in May.

      In baseball, its a daily grind so you should expect to play sore. If its affecting your play after a few weeks and your results aren't getting any better then you should look into it. The soreness may not be a major injury but having a player back at a level where performance improves is important.
    1. Brad Swanson's Avatar
      Brad Swanson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post

      Injuries happen in baseball. Players need to communicate that.
      I agree with this statement, don't get me wrong. However, this is where the culture comes into play. If Gardy, as the manager, has established a culture where players do not feel comfortable communicating injuries and even soreness, then that is a major problem.

      As a manager, shouldn't he want to know even the slightest discomfort/soreness, if only for his own knowledge? Gardy loves to give players days off and keep his entire lineup fresh, so can't he maximize how he does that very thing by knowing who is indeed fresh and who is sore?

      In addition, if a player has gone to their manager with reports of soreness and been told to "suck it up" or even "thanks for letting me know, but let's get back out there," then aren't they a lot less likely to report something in the future? It doesn't really matter the tone, if players are reinforced one way, they'll continue to do things that same way.

      "I told the manager my elbow was sore and he seemed okay with it, so I'm going to go out and play ball, because that's what I do." It's not even a macho thing, it's more just "well, it must be fine if they aren't concerned."

      If that's the case, it doesn't take long for players (who likely have little to no medical background) to simply stop reporting soreness, then they stop reporting minor damage and then they don't report major damage. It's a slippery slope, no doubt, but it seems like one that could occur rather naturally.

      Personally, I don't feel this is an offense that requires the removal of the manager, at least not for this alone. However, these cultural movements start at the top and if the Twins have an issue with injury reporting, Gardenhire has to make a conscious effort to help change that culture.

      As the manager, he should be clamoring for information, including injury information about his players, no matter how minor it may seem at the time.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      From Mike Berardino's article, Nolasco has said nothing to the Twins training staff or the manager all spring. That's on him.


      "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."
    1. jorgenswest's Avatar
      jorgenswest -
      Quote Originally Posted by Winston Smith View Post
      Nice job writing this. He said, she said is likely how this turns out and we may never know anything for sure.
      However, I hope this doesn't become an excuse for not signing free agents in the future. All free agent contracts carry risk even a large risk and having the largest ever given by TR turn out this bad, for now, could really put the brakes on taking this kind of gamble again.
      I don't think this would stop the Twins from signing another player long term when Nolasco's contract expires after the 2017 season.

      As for next year, I don't think another Nolasco like contract was going to happen this winter injury or not.
    1. adjacent's Avatar
      adjacent -
      If there is something that seems wrong to me, is that the manager makes health related decisions. I am no doctor, but I can imagine that at this point trained and medical professionals know tell-all symptoms that indicates an apparent inocent soreness can indicate a more serious injury. As soon as a player have some pain, report it and check it out. No need to get an MRI in every case. But it would be better if the decisions about when to play with pain are done by somebody thet knows something about sports medicine.
    1. diehardtwinsfan's Avatar
      diehardtwinsfan -
      Cannot blame Gardy if Nolasco says nothing. I do think management can be blamed if they've built a culture that discourages injury reporting. Don't know if that's what going on here or not, but every now and then you see head scratching things from guys like Neshek, Baker, and Slowey which makes you wonder....

      That said, I'm a bit more concerned about elbow tightness. That sounds like TJ, which essentially means that Nolasco won't be back to normal until the middle of year 3 in that contract... Not liking that at all.
    1. tarheeltwinsfan's Avatar
      tarheeltwinsfan -
      Thanks for this article and the disclaimer, John. I really appreciate this website and these forums and blogs. It's good to be able to have intelligent discussions about the ebb and flow of being a Twins' fan, the Twins' players and staff, the FO, the trades, the prospects, etc. Thank you everyone for your good manners and your thoughtfulness.
    1. brvama's Avatar
      brvama -
      Excellent piece. I think a factor in not quickly dealing with injuries could be the tendency for many males to disregard any possible physical ailments as being too minor to worry about. It's kind of like when the Dr. asks you pain level. Since I can tolerate pain more than another, I might rate it a 2 and someone else a 6.

      Then you add into the equation the competitiveness of an premier athlete and you can have a case of 'don't ask, don't tell'. That is where the disconnect begins. And even when a player says his sore it is difficult to tell the severity of it.

      That brings us to Nolasco and other newer players. As a new player on the team there is a lower level of understanding that exists. It takes time for new players (or managers) to become "known". That can create potential miscommunication, which unfortunately takes time and situations to fully grasp the makeup of a player.

      And as many have addressed, the culture of the club is extremely important. Is it ingrained in the team or a post-it note? Paraphrasing Doug Lipp, author of Disney U, you can't create a culture with paint, it needs to be in the walls. That is from the top and lived everyday.

      So, It is very important the manager articulates exactly what he expects and means regarding injuries and other things. I would hope that Gardy and his staff are very involved in knowing the health of his players.

      I hope this is a case of being a new player, but I am not sure I fully believe that. Thing is we really don't know what goes on behind closed doors.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      I'm curious to see if there is an actual injury. I can't shake the feeling that this is just an excuse.

      That said, I don't blame Gardy for him saying nothing until now. I do blame Gardy for sounding almost proud of his "old school mentality" and I have trouble shaking the idea that it is a culture because of comments like that.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      A player is in a tough spot here. Play, or not. Feel soft, or tough. Contribute, or not. I do think at times, they have been super wrong on the toughness question. .....see Scott Baker. But I have no idea what the culture is. For me, the player has an obligation to be upfront in this situation. It has to start there. If the clubhouse does not allow this, Gardy needs to go. If it does, then not sure what people want Gardy to do differently here. I blame Nolasco In this instance.
    1. brvama's Avatar
      brvama -
      While Gardy's lack of knowledge of any "soreness" or injury seems justified in this case, wouldn't one thing that injury could be one of the possible explanations for poor performance? If so, then persistence inquiry as to one's health should be the order of the day(s).
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Gardy's answer is fine. Pitching makes you sore.

      These two (Nolasco and Pelfrey) just signed 8 figure contracts. I imagine there is a lot of pressure to make good on them and the last think they wanted was to come out of ST in year 1 on the DL.
    1. Hosken Bombo Disco's Avatar
      Hosken Bombo Disco -
      One reason I feel this injury information came out at this particular moment, is because Gardy's post game conference where he told the media Nolasco is a sh!tty pitcher right now. And it was this mini melt-down that probably prompted this "clearing of the air" summit in Gardy's office (or wherever it was) with Anderson and Antony where Nolasco was finally put on the defense. That's one possibility, anyway.

      Not an efficient way to tease out information about an injury.
    1. drjim's Avatar
      drjim -
      I have a couple of thoughts:

      1. Does anyone here have any sense of how other team's operate? There is a lot of raging against the Twins and that they have some unique culture that leads to these outcomes, but I suspect pretty much every team deals with the exact same situations. Players don't report dings and management doesn't go out of its way to find injuries.

      2. Does anyone here have any insight at all into the mindset of an elite athlete? Or even a college athlete? Players hide injuries from management all the time. It is so gray preciously because it is such a fine line. He wasn't injured enough not to pitch, just injured enough not to pitch at peak performance. How does a team respond to that?

      3. I thought Gardy's comments to Berardino were spot on (all the comments in addition to the one you shared). If I was an athlete, I don't want a coach questioning me about injuries unless it is clear that I can't play - it wasn't clear Nolasco couldn't pitch, in fact he could pitch. If I had a bad stretch and the coach asked if I was hurt I would probably punch him.

      I thought the article was well written, but your conclusions were terrible. There is absolutely no context from other teams or what it might be like to be an athlete and how the interaction between athlete and coach happens in the real world.

      The idea that this will have any impact on future free agents or that there is some especially terrible culture here regarding injuries is laughable. This sort of thing plays out all the time across the league. Roughly 50% of pitchers and a got percentage of hitters spend time on the DL every year.
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