On the far end of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, where the jerseys of the longest-tenured players hang each day, Ryan Zimmerman was pulling on his socks as Jayson Werth shared his early take on the team’s new medical setup.
“It’s a good model,” Werth said. “It’s not something we’ve had in the past. I’d say if you ask around. . . . ”
“We’d all appreciate it if you kept it a secret,” Zimmerman interrupted. “So that not everybody has it.”
His protectiveness speaks to the general clubhouse sentiment after two-thirds of a season: Though it is still early to judge the overall effect, the changes the Nationals made to their medical approach are making enough of a difference to constitute a competitive advantage — at least to some degree.
“We’re happy with it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday. “We’ve got a good mix of people in there, a lot of diverse background, a lot of outside-the-norm hires. It was a grand plan that we put together, and we like the short-term results, but ultimately this is focused toward injury prevention all the way through to the lowest level of the minor leagues.”
In mid-November, Rizzo led a news conference in which he unveiled a new organization-wide medical plan he suggested could be “the new Moneyball” — a medical system that would take a more proactive approach to keeping players on the field.
“Thirteen-hundred disabled list days from core players. How much does that cost us?” Rizzo asked then, in the wake of a disappointing season in which the expected starting lineup materialized twice. “This is really a money-saving operation.”
The Nationals created what they call a “medical advisory board” in partnership with Inova Health System that included Executive Director of Medical Services Harvey Sharman and Doctors Robin West and Keith Pyne. It relies on hands-on expertise and analytics to identify trouble spots before they become injuries and monitor the total health of Nationals players.
“The old go-till-you-blow philosophy was never my philosophy. But that’s the state of professional sports medical staffs unfortunately in a lot of franchises,” said Werth, who has often prodded the organization to improve its approach to player well-being since signing in 2010.
“Here, we’ve accomplished a proactive approach where you treat stuff before it becomes a problem. I don’t think it’s rocket science. It’s not that tough of a thing to look at it that way. But it’s not the norm.”
At the time of their initial overhaul, the Nationals added five full-time medical staffers. Add that to the equipment required for testing, improved food quality and what has to be gallons of hydrating drinks the team drinks each day, and the cost becomes what one member of the organization called “significant.”
No one wanted to go into the details of the new medical plan, and the Nationals’ front office declined to make those helping to implement it available to talk about it.
In spring training, the team’s personnel evaluated each player’s mobility — biomechanical baselines, basically. The idea is that as players fatigue, their biomechanics show the strain. When players, or more accurately their muscles, fatigue, they are at greater risk for injury. Those baselines provide a means of comparison, helpful in determining whether a player is fatiguing in a way that might put him at risk.
Tracking biomechanics is not unique to the Nationals. But the Nationals’ commitment to data has continued into the regular season. Corrective exercise specialist Joe Cancellieri — one of the new hires — paces the clubhouse each day with a tablet, surveying players about how they feel, how much they slept and other similar details.
The Nationals also tested players for allergies and other nutritional intolerances. Some players were asked to alter their diets in the hopes that little tweaks could improve their health.
The kitchen staff in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park now places a greater emphasis on the quality and nutritional value of its food. Grilled chicken, fresh fruit, sweet potatoes and rice are part of what players say is a more healthy mix than they have had in the past.
“Good, healthy food,” outfielder Ben Revere said. “I’d say this is probably the best team food-wise I’ve been on.”
Outside of an increased aversion to fast food, players say the biggest difference in this year’s medical staff is the number of people on it. “The biggest difference I notice?” starter Max Scherzer said. “There are young guys in the training room.”
The effort is led by Sharman, the new executive director of medical services, who formerly worked for Leeds United, the English professional soccer club.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever been around,” outfielder Bryce Harper said. “. . . Really finding the problem and making sure to get it going and get everything going around it. Everybody goes in there, and these guys really take care of us. It’s the best thing this organization has done in a long time for the players.”
Rizzo said the Nationals tried to bring in people like Sharman — who had never dealt in baseball before — who have a variety of backgrounds. Players say they sense a commitment to their well-being that transcends the often precarious balance of trust between trainers, players, and their managers.
“I’ve been places — I won’t say where — you feel like you can’t say something,” reliever Shawn Kelley said. “They’re just going to run and tell the manager — oh, you don’t need to play him today, he’s hurt. They have a responsibility if it’s something serious, but you gotta be able to have a communication with them, that hey, I’m a little stiff today. I slept wrong. . . . When their first priority is not to cover their own backs but to help you get ready to play that day, that’s awesome.”
During that 2015 season, 11 Nationals spent a total of 1,024 days on the disabled list that cost them $32 million, according to SpotTrac, a website that tracks these things. Surprisingly, neither number led the majors, though both ranked in the top 10.
This season, as of about the two-thirds mark, 10 Nationals players spent a total of 367 days on the disabled list at a cost of $6.8 million. Perhaps because of the changes — or perhaps, as Zimmerman pointed out, the sample size may be too small to tell — those 11 injured Nationals averaged 93 days each on the disabled list. This season, those 10 injured Nationals have averaged just fewer than 37.
Manager Dusty Baker admits that luck may play a part in the Nationals’ relative health so far. Certainly, the Nationals have had their fair share of injuries — Revere’s oblique strain, Zimmerman’s rib cage strain, Stephen Strasburg’s upper-back trouble, Joe Ross’s right shoulder swelling. They have not been immune, and the soft tissue injuries that biomechanical analysis should help limit have popped up anyway.
“I know the care is light years ahead of where it was,” Werth said. “. . . There’s going to be nicks, bumps, there’s going to be injuries. All in all, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of putting players in a position to succeed.”