New York Mets: Keeping players healthy by genetic testing

Could the secret to keeping members of the New York Mets and other athletes healthy involve more genetic testing?

As in any professional sport, there are mental and physical components that play as keys to the success of an individual player and to the team. What can be done to maximize the chances of success?  What are the keys to predicting health and then maintaining it? Is genetic testing too controversial a method to employ by the New York Mets?

During the shortened 2020 season, the Mets team batting average was .272, SLG was .459, OBP .348, and OPS .807. That was the good news. In August it was reported that the Mets team BA with runners in scoring position was .208, and a paltry .132 with two outs (both ranking 29th in the league). Adding insult to injury, the average number of runners left in scoring position per game was 3.77 (last in the league – the best was 2.6 by the Twins). On top of that, injuries played a major role in how the team was managed, with multiple players going down for too many absent “work” days.

What can the Mets do in order to improve on their situational hitting, and what, if anything, can a team do to stay injury free?

My first thought regarding the first question came naturally to me as a practicing Psychotherapist – build up the players’ mental skills by providing them with professional counseling.

Well, we know that Dr. Jonathan Fader, who served two seasons as the Director of Mental Conditioning for the New York Football Giants, also served as the team psychologist for the New York Mets for nine seasons. Moreover, among the changes ushered in by former general manager Brodie Van Wagenen was a new mental-skills department head.

In an April 2019 article by Newsday’s Tim Healy, Brodie was quoted as saying: “Our mental performance department was something that was a priority for me as we try to continue to improve our character and makeup development. Trying to give guys the resources to reach their peak performance is a priority across the entire organization…if we can make marginal gains in every area, the aggregate of that is going to put us in a position to be successful.”

After a rare strong outing, Steven Matz said that the Mets’ mental-skills coach “has been great for me.” Dom Smith credited the coach for his surging confidence, getting him to a point where “I don’t care who’s on the mound. I don’t care who we’re facing. I feel like I’m going to get the job done.” However, as Healy further reported, this new department was not universally accepted inside the Mets’ clubhouse. One player seemed not to know who the new mental performance coach was. Another was adamant that “that’s not for me.” As one pitcher put it: “Some guys, if you tell them they need to be mentally stronger, that makes them mentally weaker.”

So with all of the various psychotherapeutic modalities and tools introduced to the players such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness exercises, 1:1 performance coaching, motivational interviewing, and more, why were the Mets dead last in situational hitting in 2020?

I am not sure I have an answer to that. Back in 2017 Sandy Alderson did address the mental aspect of the game by beginning to build a mental skills coaching staff.  I would imagine that in his new role as President of the Mets, Sandy will enhance the ability of this department to be more effective especially in those areas where improvement is critical to winning.

Let’s now move on to the second question: how can the Mets stay injury-free throughout a whole season?  I recently had a discussion with a prominent Internal Medicine physician on Long Island, who wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article, and who also happens to be a huge Mets fan. He suggested a number of interesting ideas, some of which may already be espoused by the Met’s medical staff, such as good nutrition and better sleeping habits especially among those players who are playing too many video games into the wee hours of the night.

But most interesting was his advocating genetic testing in order to see who is more injury-prone and as a result, be able to take the known data to modify and tailor their individual workouts with lighter weights, avoiding repetitive motion injuries, and plan off days accordingly.

In the January 2015 Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine entitled “The Dawning Age of Genetic Testing for Sports Injuries“, the authors write that the regular demands of training and competition make professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes highly susceptible to injury.

Treatment of sports injuries costs at least $160 billion per year in the U.S., and Major League Baseball lost $1.6 billion in payroll between 2008 and 2013 because of injuries to players.  Several direct-to-consumer genomic companies offer genetic tests that indicate risk for sports injuries, such as soft-tissue injuries and concussions. Others provide information about sports performance, muscle fiber type, and VO2 max. This genetic information is then used in the development of injury-prevention programs tailored for each individual.

In the past, the MLB genetic testing policy has come under fire thus raising questions concerning its ethical implications (i.e. privacy) and legality. To be fair, MLB’s original intent was to prevent identity and age fraud since teams have been the victims of such trickery. Having said that, it is true that before signing a major contract, this type of testing can potentially be used against a player because the data show much more evidence beyond age and identity.

While this remains a huge topic beyond the scope of this article, I would like to limit my remarks here as to the manner in which genetic testing can be employed in a directed/positive way subject, of course, to its legality.

With the consent of a current player, it would behoove the team’s management to conduct genetic testing in order to prevent a likely debilitating or career-ending injury. For example, after Tommy John surgery, perhaps it could point to additional markers that could enhance and protect a recovering pitcher, such as Noah Syndergaard. It may have helped Jed Lowrie get back on the field these past two years. Going forward, it may give some more insight into protecting against recurring injuries to both aging and younger Mets and of course to the entire pitching staff.

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Under new owner Steve Cohen, I believe that this particular use of genetic testing ties into what he stated in his introductory press conference. He wants to grow his own team, develop and cultivate them for great success by giving them the tools they need. Why not, then, have management utilize the information from genetic testing solely for the betterment of the player’s performance and ultimately for the team’s overall level of play?