Feb 23, 2014; Viera, FL, USA; Washington Nationals staff Lee Kuntz poses for a picture during photo day at Space Coast Stadium . Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
I’ve got a quick question: Can any of you name one person on the Washington Nationals’ training staff? I see a lot of blank stares out there. For those of you raising your hand with an answer, congrats! Your Erik Metzroth autographed glossy is in the mail.
So we’re all on the same page; allow me to get everyone up to speed. The Nats employ two primary Athletic Trainers (ATs): Lee Kuntz and Steve Gober. Head AT Kuntz has been with the club since 2007 and has an additional 20+ years of experience around the game. Assistant AT Gober joined the team last year after almost a decade of work in the Expos and Nationals minor league system. They both seem like solid individuals with all the credentials one would need to succeed in their chosen field. So why do the players they oversee seem to get hurt on a weekly basis?
This isn’t football or hockey. Guys aren’t smashing into each other hundreds of times per week (in games and at practice). It’s not soccer, where they are expected to punish their legs for 90 minutes by running back-and-forth across a huge chunk of pitch. Heck, it’s not even as taxing as NASCAR when you really think about the heat and g-forces the drivers subject themselves to almost daily.
No, baseball is not a physically taxing sport. Position players are confined to a very small space and rarely have to run all-out more than once or twice a night. Pitchers exert a lot of strain on their arms when they’re on the mound, but they also get a lot of days off. Honestly, the thing that probably takes the biggest physical toll on MLBers is the grind of playing for almost six months straight. While this can’t be overlooked, it also needs to be put into context. Only 59 guys played in more than 150 games in 2013. That’s about two per team in a sport that has 8.5 everyday spots (when you average the two leagues).
Again, I must wonder aloud: why are so many athletes on the Nationals getting hurt for more than a few days at a time? [Given the comparison to other sports I made above, I won’t call them peak athletes, but most are pretty darn close. Sorry Bartolo.] Let’s briefly recap the biggest names. Zimmerman. Ramos. Gonzalez. Fister. Harper. LaRoche. Are Kuntz and Gober in any way responsible for the injuries suffered by these stars? Taking each injury individually, I’d say no. But when you consider the collective group, I find it hard to assign 0% of the blame to the ATs. Either they must be doing something wrong or the team’s system is broken and makes it impossible for them to work effectively.
Rest assured, this article isn’t designed to start a groundswell for firing men with families. It’s more of a solutions-based, addition-by-addition argument. The Nats are one of only four teams in the National League to have but one Assistant AT, according to the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS) website. When you look around MLB, every team employs either two or three ATs, with the exception of the Cubs (who have four). The norm in 2014 is for the Head AT to have two assistants under him or her. Call it what you will, but an extra set of eyes can’t hurt when you have 25 people to monitor.
Case closed, right? Wrong. Further research into the team shows that the medical and training staff is far more robust than the two men mentioned thus far. The Nationals also employ a Medical Staff Assistant, two team physicians, two strength and conditioning coaches, three physical/massage therapists, a chiropractor, a nutritionist, even an optometrist and a dentist! [I left off the two mental health care professionals since we are focusing on the physical side of the game.] So, would adding one more person with the AT designation really change the fortunes of the team, given the size of the support staff? I still argue a profound YES and here’s why…
Kuntz and Gober come from eerily similar rehab backgrounds. Both men served as Minor League Rehabilitation Coordinators for about five years before being promoted to their current roles. As stupid an exercise as it may be, ask yourself what kind of players they probably excel at treating. Hurt ones! Is there a chance that they aren’t as skilled at injury prevention? Maybe yes or maybe no, but their track record over the last two years would support the former.
Why wouldn’t the Nationals want to follow the example of the Kansas City Royals, who claimed last year’s Training Staff of the Year (and who GM Dayton Moore says “are very proactive in keeping our players on the field”)? I’m no HR wiz, but why not place a job opening on the PBATS site that stresses a background in preventative athletic training? Better yet, why not take this Google search I did and use it to identify a local professional you’d like to poach?
The Nationals have had a World Series caliber roster for the last 2.25 years. The primary thing that has prevented them from owning the NL East during that time is preventable: prevention! Please pass this piece onto the proper people since postseason play is personally and professionally paramount!