The 2021 Yankees have had 11 players miss time this season due to an issue with their hamstrings or low back. Roster numbers are dynamic as the season progresses obviously, but however you want to slice it that’s a good chunk of the Yankees’ roster who’ve had problems with hamstrings and low backs.
You may be wondering why I’m lumping hamstrings and low back issues together, and you might be asking “Is there a connection between hamstring issues and low back issues?” The answer is yes, quite literally. If you’ve read my articles before, then you know I love to paraphrase Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus:
Warning: Gory biomechanical details ahead!
In baseball, hip extension is crucial to performance. (If you’re unsure what hip extension is, imagine the front of the hips at the top of a squat – flat in the front. The opposite is flexed hips which would be at the bottom of a squat, or when you’re seated, when there’s a crease in the front of the shorts or pants.) Hip extension is the first bio-mechanical step in throwing a ball, swinging a bat, and sprinting, so it comes up quite often in baseball. For a right-handed batter, the right hip driving the body forward is step one of the swing and generates a good percentage of the power, as one example.
The glute muscles are the drivers and are largely responsible for extending the hip and moving the body forward. The hamstrings which are attached to the pelvis can assist in hip extension, but it’s not their primary job (hammies should be busy flexing the knee). Additionally, if hip extension is inadequate or compromised in any way, often the muscles of the low back, which are also attached to the pelvis, get involved by extending the low back and trunk to propel the body forward. Similar to the hamstrings, just because the low back musculature can assist in extension, doesn’t mean it should – the low back should predominantly be stabilizing the torso, not assisting in movement.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles on Yankee injuries, a typically neglected aspect of this conversation is the neuro-muscular component. Our brain sends messages to our muscles to move us, then nerves all over our body send information back to the brain. The brain then adjusts accordingly depending upon the information received and sends different information back to the muscles depending upon what our next move needs to be. In the case of extension, what should happen is when a batter starts to swing or throw, the brain should send a message to the glute muscles to be the first to “fire” and to do the bulk of the work. If that neuro-muscular process is off or slowed even slightly, the result will be that the hamstrings and/or low back will get involved prior to the glute muscles, and/or to a greater degree than the glute muscles.
It’s not dissimilar to starting a car. You start the ignition and a computer orchestrates the correct sequencing and timing between the coil, spark plugs, distributor, rotor, cylinders, etc. If the message from the computer and proper sequencing is off, the car will still likely start — just not as efficiently and quickly. Ongoing, if certain parts are continually asked to do more than their share of the work, there will likely be a breakdown of those parts at some point due to the continuous extra workload.
The human body operates in a very similar manner. If the hamstrings and/or lower back are asked to do more of the work than the glute muscles, or if they’re asked to “fire” first by the brain, there will be both a decrease in performance, and wear and tear on the hamstrings and low back because they’re being asked to do what they’re not designed to. And similar to how your car might not fail immediately but will likely break down eventually, at some point there will likely be dysfunction and trauma (either acute or chronic) in the overworked areas – the hamstrings and lower back in this case.
To paraphrase a mentor of mine (who has a World Series ring as the strength and conditioning coach of an MLB team), when you see water on the floor, you need to look at the ceiling, not the floor. It’s hard not to see this much water on the Yankees’ floor and not assume what’s going on with the ceiling — it’s not a reach to say there are many Yankees whose hamstrings and low back musculature take over for the glute muscles. (If you want to impress your buddies at the gym, the term for this is “synergistic dominance,” for when the synergistic muscles take over for the prime movers.)
What would cause such a horrible sounding affliction? Among mortals like you and me, usually, it’s not more complicated than being uncoordinated and having sedentary lifestyles, neither of which are typical issues for professional athletes. For them, quite often it’s improper training methods — tons of reps on the hamstring curl machine or the back hyper-extension machine are great ways to train your brain to get the hamstrings and low back to fire first (as is any exercise done with shoddy form.)
To be clear, that’s not a criticism of the current strength and conditioning staff in the Yankees training room. Quite often, the groundwork has been set for some of the problems mentioned above long before an athlete gets to them. If you sunbathe every day for 20 years, it’s not your new dermatologist’s fault you have skin cancer — similarly, if an athlete uses poor exercise selection and poor form for years, the problem may not be the current staff’s fault.
However, “culpability” and “responsibility” are not synonyms. Just because the current staff may not be culpable, that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. If I were Brian Cashman for a day and I could speak to the Yankees staff, I’d ask, “Why do we continually embarrass ourselves on the bases, why do we continually hit the ball on the ground with runners on base, and why are we first in days missed due to injury in the American League?”
Although days missed and lost WAR due to injury (the Yankees are second in the AL for that one) include all injuries, hamstring and low back issues have been a big contributor. Frankly, if we had more time today, I could make a pretty good case for including Luis Severino’s adductor and Luke Voit’s knee in the above discussion as well, as they too are very closely connected bio-mechanically to glute function.
Regardless, it raises many questions about what is being done (or not done) to address the issue. When there’s smoke, we’re supposed to assume fire, and there’s a lot of smoke surrounding the Yankees’ hamstrings and lower backs — more than enough to assume there’s a connection.