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Luke Voit’s true health goes beyond the status of his knee

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There’s more to Voit’s health ongoing than just his repaired meniscus.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Yankees received some welcome news over the weekend: Luke Voit will be playing rehab games in Somerset this week and, assuming all goes well, he’ll be back in the Yanks’ lineup shortly thereafter. Voit, having undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in March, will be a welcome sight on the lineup card.

That said, we need to be realistic. Voit has dealt with three weighty injuries since becoming a Yankee, which averages out to more than one weighty injury per season. Perhaps because he lacks league-wide star recognition, and also lacks a star’s contract, his injuries and absences haven’t been pored over as much as other notable players. But make no mistake: He’s been less than one hundred percent or out of service relatively often.

Before we prognosticate about the chances of him remaining healthy and productive through 2021 and beyond, let’s take a step back and have a quick chat about functional anatomy. To paraphrase Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus:

Warning: Gory Biomechanical Details Ahead!

The knee is essentially a hinge. Like all hinges, it’s designed to flex and extend forward and back. It is not designed to rotate. It possesses minimal rotational capabilities as a defense mechanism, to protect us from unexpected demands like impact to the knee or being forced to land awkwardly — but it’s not supposed to rotate. If it’s forced to continually rotate, the constant micro-trauma will eventually lead to a breakdown.

An apt analogy is to compare it to smoking cigarettes: One day of smoking isn’t going to get you cancer, but if you smoke every day, you’re likely to have a problem at some point. The same thing is true of the knee — one small rotation isn’t likely to affect you. But rotation after rotation, day after day, and eventually …

Unlike the knee, the ankle and hip are designed to rotate and be very mobile. Problems arise when either the ankle or hip lose mobility. The ankle and knee are connected at different ends of the same bone — when the ankle can’t rotate, the knee rotates as a result. The hip and knee are also attached to different ends of the same bone — when the hip can’t rotate, the knee rotates as a result. It should also be noted that you and I need moderate levels of hip and ankle mobility, whereas a professional baseball player needs massive amounts of hip and ankle mobility.

Bottom line? Knee problems are rarely knee problems. They are usually the end result of reduced mobility in either the ankle or hip which forces the knee to rotate more than it is designed to. This leads to continual stress and micro-trauma on the knee, inexorably leading to injury. In fact, tears of the meniscus occur by forceful, horizontal plane rotation of a partially flexed and weight-bearing knee.

In English, that means the exact position the left knee is in when a right-handed batter swings a bat.

Furthermore, when we’re injured, our central nervous system restricts movement of the injured area whether we realize it or not. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism that accelerates the healing process. If you’re injured at the ankle or hip, for example, you may or may not consciously limit movement in those areas, but you can rest assured your brain does it for you, even if it’s to an imperceptible degree.

Note that I’ve written the ankle “or” hip several times. In 2019, Voit underwent surgery to reattach ligaments to both hips. In 2020, he received platelet injections to address plantar fasciitis. In other words, both his ankle and hips had restricted movement for extended periods of time. Movement is restricted when pain is first present until well after medical interventions have taken place.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in biomechanics from Stanford to see what’s occurred. For Voit to remain healthy now that the meniscus has been repaired, mobility at the hip and ankle must be addressed. Otherwise, we’re likely to see another breakdown at some point — if not at the knee, perhaps the low back, which is another typical victim of limited mobility.

Although that’s a simple solution, it’s not an easy one. Exercise science is indeed a science but it’s not an exact science. There are innumerable variables involved in the rehab process, and almost as many exercise and training choices — far, far too many to explore here. As I’ve mentioned here before, the Yankees have some very smart people assigned to address such issues.

That said, I can say pretty confidently there are things that won’t help Voit’s long-term health: slamming oversized tires with oversized hammers, unilaterally loaded one-arm bench presses, and box jumps with loose objects on the landing surface. Those things may look cool (to some) and may be great for clicks but they sure as heck aren’t going to help hip or ankle mobility. “Ego-based exercise selection,” as it’s known, rarely has benefits.

To be clear, that’s not a criticism of Voit. Everyone who’s ever worked out has involved their ego at some point. Ego is a good thing — it motivates you to get to the gym and keeps you on task once you’re there. But once one is there, one needs to be less concerned with clicks, and more concerned with addressing the goal at hand. Mobility drills may not look cool on the YES Network’s pregame, but they’re more likely to keep Voit on the field and at one hundred percent.