CLEARWATER, Fla. — Five years ago, when the Phillies undertook a massive, down-to-the-studs rebuilding project, they overhauled some departments and created others that had been either neglected for years or ignored entirely. The result was a fundamental change to the organization’s overall infrastructure.
But one area remained mostly untouched: the training staff.
For four decades, in fact, the Phillies' athletic training staff had been remarkably stable. Jeff Cooper took over as head trainer in 1981 and held the position until his retirement in 2006. His replacement, Scott Sheridan, was still on the job at the end of last season, his 17th year overall with the team.
It was notable, then — even though it was buried in a news release about manager Gabe Kapler’s dismissal — that the Phillies decided in October not to renew Sheridan’s contract. Chris Mudd, Sheridan’s assistant for five seasons and a 15-year team employee, also wasn’t brought back.
Two months later, the Phillies hired Paul Buchheit away from the Boston Red Sox and Aaron Hoback from the Milwaukee Brewers to replace Sheridan and Mudd, respectively. Shawn Fcasni, an assistant athletic trainer since 2011, remained in his role, while Joe Rauch was promoted from the minor-league training staff to the role of physical therapist.
The Phillies also created a four-person department — dubbed “integrative baseball performance” — to help improve the coordination among the medical, training, and conditioning staffs; new manager Joe Girardi and his coaches; and the growing research-and-development division.
“We’ll just be a little bit more united,” said Sam Fuld, a former major-league outfielder tasked with overseeing the newly formed group. “Just the collaboration piece will be easier with this department.”
Why, though, after all these years, were the Phillies compelled to sweep out two mainstays in the trainers' room?
"We made some changes, both in terms of personnel but also in terms of what guys are doing in the athletic training room," general manager Matt Klentak said, "to try to make the players feel as comfortable as they can be and as confident as they can be."
Klentak wouldn’t elaborate much. Sheridan, recently hired by Major League Baseball as director of sports medicine and performance for umpires, took a pass on commenting. Ditto for Mudd, who landed with the Miami Marlins as assistant athletic trainer.
Based on conversations with multiple sources, changes to the Phillies’ protocol, if not necessarily to their personnel, were in the works for a while. It was more than a year ago that Klentak first broached the subject of creating Fuld’s new group to foster better collaboration among departments.
But it took last season, when the Phillies were among the unhealthiest teams in baseball, to prompt action.
Twenty-two Phillies players combined to spend 1,750 days on the injured list, the fifth-highest total behind the New York Yankees (2,884), San Diego Padres (2,188), Pittsburgh Pirates (1,850), and Marlins (1,764). Only the Yankees reached the postseason. No other playoff team racked up more than 1,400 days on the injured list.
The Phillies were overrun by injuries in the bullpen, in particular. Eight relief pitchers spent a majors-leading 967 days on the shelf. David Robertson (elbow), Tommy Hunter (flexor tendon), Pat Neshek (hamstring), and Victor Arano (elbow) had season-ending surgery. Seranthony Dominguez (elbow) and Adam Morgan (flexor) escaped the operating table but didn’t pitch again after June 5 and July 31, respectively.
In many cases, they tried to come back after the initial injury but either stalled in their rehab or had a setback.
During the final week of the season, after the Phillies were eliminated from the wild-card race at Nationals Park, team officials met in Washington to review what went wrong. Managing partner John Middleton sat in on those meetings. The injury spike, especially in the bullpen, ranked as a primary point of discussion.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on it, trying to figure it out, but we’ve not been able to boil it down to any one thing,” Klentak said. “There aren’t always clean answers to questions like that. Not every injury is the same, and it’s really hard to isolate one particular reason that something happens.”
Sheridan was popular within the organization and respected across the game. Chase Utley credited Sheridan with playing an important role in helping to manage his knee problems late in his tenure with the Phillies. But with Sheridan and Mudd reaching the end of their contracts, the Phillies realized an opportunity for fresh perspectives.
Buchheit spent 16 years with the Red Sox, generally regarded as a progressive organization in most areas. He was the assistant athletic trainer on their major-league staff since 2015. Hoback worked for the Brewers for 17 years, most recently with their triple-A affiliate.
The Phillies have enlisted Fuld and his group with helping, too. Part of their charge is to explore advances in sports science to aid in injury prevention at all levels of the organization, from the big leagues to rookie-level affiliates.
For instance, Klentak said teams can now attempt to measure a pitcher’s level of fatigue — and therefore estimate his risk of injury — through the use of wearable technology in bullpen sessions.
"There's a really rapid growth in resources, technological and otherwise, that everyone is trying to keep up with," Fuld said. "I think we're not doing our job well if we don't self-evaluate all the time and say, 'What can we be doing better?' That's an important part of developing as an organization."
Girardi also figures to play a role in injury prevention.
Kapler, fired after last season at Middleton's direction after nearly two weeks of deliberation, drew frequent criticism for his bullpen management. Klentak, for one, disputes the narrative that Kapler’s patterns of deploying relievers sparked the injury epidemic.
But when the Phillies hired Girardi, Klentak and other team officials highlighted his reputation for smart, savvy use of relievers. In his first spring-training meeting with the pitchers, Girardi detailed his guidelines, including a strong preference for not using a reliever on three consecutive days until later in the season.
"I think it definitely helps," Robertson said. "I played for Joe for a long time [with the Yankees] and maybe a handful of times did I throw three days in a row. That's just how Joe is. He wants you on the field at your best."
In 2017, his final season at the helm of the Yankees, Girardi used a reliever on back-to-back-to-back days seven times, only one fewer than Kapler last year with the Phillies. But Kapler went to that well earlier in the season, including once in April and once in May with Morgan.
“The prize is really in the month of October, not in the month of April,” Girardi said. “Fatigue injuries are something that, I feel it’s our job to assist the player in preventing them. We will work very hard through the medical team, the communication we have with the players through the coaches. That’s a big part of my job — keeping those guys healthy. I take it personal when a guy gets hurt. I do.”
Hunter said Girardi’s philosophy is appreciated. But the 33-year-old veteran also believes injuries are unavoidable. Throw enough innings and any pitcher will eventually break down. In 2018, Hunter led Phillies relievers in innings (64). Last year, he was able to throw only 5⅓.
"You play at a high enough level, your body is going to wear down over time. That's just the way it works," Hunter said. "I think wearable technology that tells someone else that you're tired is bull----. You're going to tell me how many innings I'm going to pitch in a year? Nobody knows that."
Maybe injuries are an unavoidable consequence and some years are worse than others. But considering how many other areas of the organization the Phillies have tried to advance over the last five years, it follows that the athletic training staff would eventually be reviewed, too, in a continuing attempt to evolve.
"There are some areas where we're the Marines and some areas where we think we're still behind," team president Andy MacPhail said.
It’s clear now where the Phillies believed their athletic training department fell on that spectrum.