I normally save the off-field personnel to the end, but there are special circumstances here:
Nick Kenney, Kyle Turner, and the Rest of the Training Staff: A+
Two years ago, the Royals’ Head Athletic Trainer was Nick Swartz. He had been the team’s trainer for nearly 20 years.
That April, Joakim Soria was allowed to pitch through some shoulder pain. His pain worsened, and he went on the DL in early May for nearly a month. Around the same time, Mike Aviles, who had tried to play through some tenderness in his forearm, was finally diagnosed with an injury to his elbow that required Tommy John surgery.
In late May, Coco Crisp missed some time with a sore shoulder, which it turns out he had been suffering since spring training. He tried to play through the pain, the injury got worse, he rested some more, he played some more, the injury got worse, and finally on June 19th he was seen by Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery.
Two days later, Gil Meche took the mound despite some soreness in his shoulder, which he had noticed after throwing 132 pitches in a complete-game shutout his previous time out. Meche gave up nine runs that day, but was allowed to stay in the rotation, even after giving up four runs in five innings on June 26th, even after he complained of a dead arm. On July 1st, with that dead arm, Meche threw 121 pitches against the Twins, and was allowed to face the heart of the Twins’ lineup with the game tied in the sixth inning. He would make just 15 more starts in his career, just two of which were Quality Starts.
While acknowledging that the above decisions cannot all be blamed on the trainer – in particular, Trey Hillman and Bob McClure still haven’t answered for their complicity in the murder of Meche’s career – it was a breathtakingly terrible performance by Swartz. You may remember this.
Swartz was let go after the season, and the Royals hired Nick Kenney, who was previously the Assistant Head Trainer for the Indians, as his replacement. The Royals also brought in a new Assistant Head Trainer (Kyle Turner), a new strength and conditioning coach (Ryan Stoneberg), and this year even brought in a new team physician (Dr. Vincent Key).
In 2010, the Royals’ health performance was improved. Some injuries were unavoidable; Meche was already damaged goods, and Jason Kendall’s shoulder finally told the tale of his 15 years as a consummate warrior behind the plate. But you could already sense a change afoot.
In 2011, the Royals had one of the most injury-free seasons you’ll ever see.
Five different Royals – Billy Butler (159), Alcides Escobar (158), Melky Cabrera (155), Jeff Francoeur (153), and Alex Gordon (151) – all played in over 150 games. In the history of the franchise, only two other Royals teams had five players play in that many games in a season – the 1976 and 1977 Royals. Good company to be in.
The Royals’ starting outfield was so healthy and productive that Mitch Maier’s lack of playing time became a running joke among the fan base – Royals Review likened Maier to the kid at summer camp who never got to play. Finally, Francoeur and Gordon were shut down for the season’s last four games just so that Maier, along with Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, could get some reps in. Otherwise, the Royals would have had five different players appear in 155 games each.
That’s not unprecedented; the 2009 Phillies had six players appear in 155 games or more. But then consider that after he was called up on May 6th, Eric Hosmer appeared in 128 of the Royals’ remaining 131 games. (Counting his minor league time, Hosmer actually played in 154 games this season.) Mike Moustakas was promoted on June 10th, and played in 89 of the Royals’ remaining 99 games – and the games he missed were more about his early struggles than any injury concerns. From August 5th until the end of the season, Moustakas missed only three games.
Once Hosmer and Moustakas were in place, then, seven of the nine lineup spots were spoken for almost every night. The only exceptions were at second base, where the Royals struggled to find a player worthy of playing every day, and catcher, which by nature of the position requires the occasional day off. (Although don’t be surprised if Ned Yost tests those limits. Yost got 149 starts out of Jason Kendall in 2008, and you know he’ll want to do the same next year with Salvador Perez.)
As best as I can tell, the entire Royals offense only used the DL twice during the 2011 season: Kendall, who spent the entire season on the DL in a failed attempt to return from a severe shoulder injury, and Treanor, who spent a month on the DL (half of it on a rehab assignment in the minors) after suffering a concussion on a collision at the plate.
The Royals had perhaps the youngest offense in baseball, and young players are less likely to get injured. But there’s no way to spin this as anything other than a fantastic job by the Royals’ training staff.
There were more injuries on the pitching staff, but only a few more. Bruce Chen went on the DL in early May with a strained lat muscle, and missed six weeks; he returned in late June and had no problems thereafter. Kyle Davies was mercifully put on the DL with shoulder pain in mid-May; he returned in early July, but last only four more starts before he went back on the DL, and eventually was transferred to oblivion.
No other starting pitcher so much as missed a start as a result of injury. Luke Hochevar made 31 starts before he was shut down in late September when he reached his innings limit. More impressively, Jeff Francis, who missed all of 2009 with a torn labrum and a full month in 2010 with more inflammation in his shoulder, took the ball for all 31 of his scheduled starts this year.
Felipe Paulino was plucked off waivers in late May, went into the rotation after one relief appearance, and made every start thereafter. Danny Duffy made every one of his starts after his call-up in May. No other pitcher that started for the Royals this season missed any time with an injury. Vinny Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan missed time because they sucked, but that’s not the same thing.
The bullpen was equally healthy. Robinson Tejeda didn’t look right from day one, and after nine ineffective outings went on the DL for a month with shoulder inflammation; after giving up runs in his first two outings upon his return, he was outrighted to Omaha.
Joakim Soria got hit hard early in the year, which made us suspect a recurrence of his arm problems from 2009, but he managed to work through his struggles, which in the end were probably the result of an over-reliance on his cut fastball. Soria did miss the last three weeks of the season with a strained hamstring. Aaron Crow battled through a strained shoulder in the second half, and while he never went on the DL, he pitched ineffectively and infrequently after the All-Star Break. (He only threw 11 innings in the season’s final two months, and allowed 28 baserunners and nine runs.) In retrospect, the Royals should have just shut him down completely for a few weeks.
And that’s it. For the season, the entire Royals roster spent a total of 271 days on the Disabled List. That is astounding. And today, not surprisingly, the Royals’ health record earned their training staff the Dick Martin Award.
The Dick Martin Award was started by Will Carroll back in 2005, as a way of honoring the best trainers in the game. While Nick Swartz was the head trainer, the Royals never won this award. The Royals never came particularly close to winning the award. With Nick Kenney – who was the Assistant Head Trainer in Cleveland when the Indians won the award in 2007 – at the helm, the Royals won in their second season. Keeping players healthy is a skill, and Kenney seems to have that skill in spades.
I don’t want to rehash the events of the summer of 2009. I wrote some deeply critical things about Swartz, the Royals responded in kind. Both sides probably crossed the line. And in fairness to Swartz, the failure of the organization to keep its players healthy was a systemic issue that ran a lot deeper than any one person.
So it’s telling that when the Royals made changes after the 2009 season, they didn’t stop with Swartz; they turned over the whole operation. And this year, they reaped the rewards.
I have some regrets about the way I handled the situation. But I have no regrets about bringing the issues with the Royals’ training staff to the forefront. The team’s amazing health record this season is all the justification I needed.
In the aftermath of L’Affaire Swartz, I hoped I wouldn’t have to write about the Royals’ training staff ever again. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. A major weakness has turned into an undeniable strength. Let’s hope that what has happened with the training staff presages what happens with the organization as a whole.