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The Yankees’ handling of Gerrit Cole’s hamstring problems raises questions

Gerrit Cole is the most recent Yankee to have a hamstring problem, raising more questions about training protocols.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole left Tuesday night’s game in the fourth inning with what we later learned was “hamstring tightness.” The next afternoon, the Yankees passed along relatively good news in that the issue appeared to be a minor one, with manager Aaron Boone proclaiming Cole was “off to the treadmill.” Then during the game broadcast on Thursday, reiterating that the Yankees didn’t deem Cole’s situation a serious one (he’s likely to start Tuesday), the YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits reported that Cole “did not undergo an MRI” and “worked out the treadmill this afternoon.”

That’s when one of my eyebrows raised. Not over the issue of whether or not to have an MRI; the part about another treadmill workout. I’ll even give you a sneak peek into what it’s like watching a game in my home: my wife raised an eyebrow as well, confirming for me that it wasn’t just my Yankee-induced irritability and disagreeable nature that caused my skepticism. Given a confluence of circumstances, treadmill usage just seemed odd.

For those of you who’ve read my articles before, you know I love to paraphrase Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus, so let’s do it again — warning: gory bio-mechanical details ahead!

There are a few things that can cause a feeling of tightness in the hamstring, trauma from over-extension being one. Cole may have over-extended a hamstring covering first base or perhaps from a slight slip on the landing foot when delivering a pitch. This seems unlikely given there was no mention of anything of that nature and it likely would have necessitated an MRI.

Far more often, other lower body muscles — like the quadriceps or glute muscles — are not firing correctly or sequencing correctly, which results in tension in the hamstring due to being perpetually shortened, or overworked. In cases such as this, a tight hamstring is a symptom, not the problem.

A comprehensive explanation of these processes is far too expansive to cover here but here’s a quick synopsis: A quadriceps that doesn’t fully contract and fails to completely extend the knee prevents the hamstring from ever fully extending, leaving it in a perpetual state of “shortness” which creates tension (and increases the chance of injury when it does have to fully extend powerfully and quickly). A glute muscle that doesn’t fire correctly when extending the hip forces the hamstring to assist in hip extension — this overworks the hamstrings and can also cause tension and tightness.

Here’s the important point: We don’t know what’s causing tightness in Cole’s hamstring. It’s more than likely that even Cole and the Yankees’ training staff are just taking educated guesses. Regardless of the root problem, getting the quadriceps and glutes actively involved in the recovery process would help the situation. It would likely alleviate tension in the short term, and reduce the likelihood of recurrence long term.

“Cool, but what does this have to do with a treadmill?” you might ask. Good question, glad you asked.

When using a treadmill, we have to lift our front leg with our own power, but then when we put our foot down, the conveyor belt moves our leg backward for us. Simultaneously, we lift the other leg, then when we put it down, the conveyor belt moves that leg back for us. So the muscles that are designed to propel us forward — quadriceps and glutes — aren’t really used on a treadmill as the conveyor belt is doing their job for them. So in Cole’s case, the muscles that need to get involved to alleviate hamstring tightness are not involved. To make matters worse, I’ll give you one guess which muscle group is highly involved in moving the front foot and leg forward. To get our leg in front of us when using a treadmill the knee needs to bend, and yes, the hamstrings bend the knee.

The end result of treadmill usage is the muscles that may help alleviate hamstring tightness and prevent hamstring injury are not being used, while the muscle experiencing tension is being repeatedly used over and over with each step on the treadmill. When on a treadmill, the hamstring flexes hundreds, perhaps thousands of times depending on workout duration, but never fully extends — which logic would dictate will only create more tension and shortness in the hamstring.

You may wonder, “Is this really a big deal? Cole’s hamstring tightness is apparently a relatively minor situation, and if Cole likes a quick walk, jog, run on a treadmill, so what? It’s not going to hurt him after all.” That wouldn’t be a crazy position to take and many prominent strength and conditioning coaches would agree with you. (To be clear, none of us know if a treadmill is something Cole is comfortable with and enjoys or if he was directed to it by team staff — that is a completely different discussion we’ll have another time.)

Here’s how I would answer that question: because it’s not actively helping the issue or addressing the problem. This isn’t like the average gym-goer, who might prefer a certain exercise and we it because it’s less tedious for them than other exercises, so they do it just to “do something.” After all, you and I don’t need to be on a Major League mound — but Gerrit Cole does.

The better question is, “Why not do something to proactively improve the situation rather than just ‘do something just because?’” There are countless drills* that can improve triple extension — a skill that’ll improve hamstring flexibility — why not spend time on them instead of doing what’s likely just a time killer until he feels better? Even if such drills are being incorporated into Cole’s activities already, that still doesn’t answer the question of why use an implement (treadmill) that may be exacerbating the issue?

*Although, to be fair, when Anthony Rizzo and Gleyber Torres were returning from the IL and the YES Network showed them in the outfield doing such drills, the trainer with them didn’t seem too interested in monitoring or correcting their form.

Again, whether that’s Cole’s choice or the training staff’s we’ll never know. What we do know, is the 2021 Yankees’ roster has had a multitude of hamstring and lower back issues, which I’ve covered previously. Perhaps that’s why any blasé attitude about another hamstring issue seems odd to me. Similar injuries are a far too frequent occurrence with this team and I think more concern and better long-term solutions than “off to the treadmill” protocols are necessary.