MASTER NOTES: Noah's Arc (Part 1)

Noah Syndergaard’s fantasy owners got a nasty slap in the kisser (which is way worse than a kiss in the slapper) this week when the Mets’ fireballer was put on the DL with a torn lat muscle. I don’t even know what a lat muscle is, as anyone who has ever seen me in person will suspect. Whatever it is, the torn muscle has also raised questions in the baseball commentariat about Syndergaard’s behavior and his attitude, first because he didn’t agree to take an MRI at the team’s request, and second, because he didn’t agree to discuss his health situation with reporters.

It seems like Noah Syndergaard against the world here. And as usual, the sports media establishment is courageously taking the world’s side.

Also as usual, the sports media establishment is wrong on both counts. Syndergaard wasn’t quite as obliged to take the MRI as we’ve being told, and he sure as hell didn’t have to talk to the media about his health.

Oh, his aching back

The story started when Syndergaard was scratched from a start on April 27 because of stiffness in his throwing shoulder and soreness in his biceps. The team asked him to take an MRI the next day, and he refused, saying a good bullpen session had convinced him the MRI was not necessary. “I’m pretty in tune with my body,” he said to “And that’s exactly why I refused to take the MRI. I knew there was nothing happening in there.”

Nothing much happening out here, either, as it turned out. When Syndergaard started two days later, he opened by fanning Trea Turner on some 100-mph heat, then gave up:

  • A single
  • A walk
  • Another single
  • A wild pitch
  • Two more singles
  • An intentional walk
  • And still another single (by the pitcher)

There was a strikeout in the middle somewhere. If you're keeping score at home, it was one inning, five runs, five hits, two walks. After hammering fantasy owners’ ERAs and WHIPs with that performance, he left the game in the second after one more out. He looked as though hurt something in his armpit area while throwing a 1-0 curve to Bryce Harper. One more near-100 heater and Syndergaard was in clear discomfort, and was lifted.

The day after the second disastrous start, Syndergaard went and had an MRI, and was diagnosed with a torn lat. (Through my usual diligent research, I can now announce that this muscle is in the upper back area, next to the hilariously named trapezius.) He’ll be out for months.

So there are two issues at play here: the health issue and the media issue, and media commentators had a field day hot-taking both. Let’s start with the health issue. I’ll just put it out there: On balance, it seems Syndergaard was within his rights to refuse the MRI.

Not Worth the Paper It’s Written On

The universal player contract says a player “when requested by the Club, must submit to a complete physical examination.” But there’s no definition of “a complete physical examination,” which has already caused some disagreements in other organizations.

But when most of us think of a “physical examination,” we think of going to the doctor’s office, reading a few eight-year old Entertainment Weeklys (Jennifer Aniston broke up with Vince Vaughn!), before going into the exam room. In there, the doctor will ask some questions about what ails us, write down a few billing codes, provide a few a few palpitations, write down a few more billing codes, maybe write up a prescription for Placebonix, write down a few more billing codes, and, if the prostate might be involved, give us the old whoopsie. And write down a few billing codes.

What the physical exam doesn’t typically include is advanced diagnostics like medical imaging. MRIs and other scans are ordered as follow-ups, after the physical examination has led the doctor to believe the imaging is medically necessary, either for the correct diagnosis or because he’s a part owner of the MRI clinic.

The Mets chose not to push the issue by trying to force Syndergaard into the tube.  Maybe they thought he was in the right. Maybe they were afraid to anger their most visible, high-profile star, who might be the face of the franchise (and is definitely its hair). What’s more, according to some media reports, the Mets’ medical staff told Syndergaard that the MRI would be good to have but was not medically necessary, based on the status of the injury at the time.

Some of the hot-take artistes complained that Syndergaard was putting his interests ahead of the team’s. If so, turnabout might be fair play. Before this season, the team offered Syndergaard a second-year one-year contract for $605,000. That’s barely over the minimum, for a guy who became the hair of the franchise last year, with a 5-WAR year worth about $50-million smackers to the Mets.

So did the team put Syndergaard’s interests ahead of the team’s? Like hell they did. The CBA gives the team the upper hand in the first years of player’s career, and since Mets’ ownership is pretty tight with the post-Madoff bucks, Syndergaard had no leverage, and had to sign for 1.2 cents on the dollar. Pretty curious, then, that the team and its media defenders would argue that he's being selfish.

But the leverage situation changes after this year, because Syndergaard will hit his first arbitration eligibility. That’s when teams often start talking about big-money, long-term extensions for stars like Syndergaard. That puts Syndergaard (or his agents) in the driver’s seat—but only if his arm is OK.

That means Syndergaard had a significant financial interest at stake when he was deciding whether to take that first MRI. If he agreed to the team’s MRI, and it showed a serious arm problem, his negotiating position could have been undermined or even destroyed. Perhaps he wanted to wait until he found out what was going on, protecting his coming long-term payday. With the lat diagnosis, and not an arm problem (although the two injuries could be linked in a “kinetic chain”), he was OK to take the Mets' MRI.

But, But... He’s Just Being a Jerk!

I get that the Mets had a legitimate beef here, mostly for contractual reasons. Syndergaard had signed the player contract willingly, and was under a legal, moral, and ethical obligation to abide by its terms (note how “moral” and “ethical” are separate from “legal”).

But the MRI, while it seemed like a reasonable request under the circumstances, did not fit the definition of what the team could request under the contract, especially since the team’s own doctors had said the MRI wasn’t medically necessary. And since Syndergaard had a vested interest in not taking the MRI, he was right, and within his rights, to decline.

Yes, I know there are those who think Syndergaard declined the MRI simply to be obstinate, tweaking the team—after it used the letter of the rules to its advantage in the contract discussion, he used the letter of the rules to refuse the MRI. There’s another theory that says maybe the Mets are just not very well run. Whatever the case, this round goes to Noah Syndergaard.

If I were a Syndergaard owner this year (and I wouldn’t have been because I trusted this well-reasoned article last July), I don’t know that I’d be counting on him returning at all this year, as the Mets sink slowly out of sight and see no point in bringing him back. Even if they do, being the Mets, I don’t like his chances of success in the short term, but even more in the long. Like many, I’ve been following the growing evidence that throwing hard is a leading cause of arm injury.

I could go on, but since I’m already at the word limit for this week, I’ll wait until next time to get to why Syndergaard was also right to not talk with reporters about his health.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.