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October 29, 2012

Baseball Therapy

The Proper Care and Feeding of Minor Leaguers

by Russell A. Carleton

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A couple of months ago, I got on a plane to Orlando, not to see an anthropomorphic mouse and a duck who doesn’t wear pants, but to do actual work. It’s not often that I travel for work, but I do enjoy a good plane ride, because it’s one of the few times that I can sit down and read a book without feeling guilty. On this trip, my companion was Dirk Hayhurst’s Bullpen Gospels, which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. For those who haven’t yet read it (what are you doing with your lives?), Hayhurst discusses his travels through the minors and the real life that happens in between the last out and "play ball!" (and yes, I got that right). It could double as an anthropological field study of a very curious culture: the minor-league baseball player.

In one particularly enlightening chapter, Hayhurst talks about the feeding habits of this heretofore undocumented group. In short, they were the kind of habits that would make any public health worker blanche. All of Hayhurst’s teammates were human beings (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and humans in general need to eat, particularly humans who make their living through intense physical activity. What’s striking is that when it came to meal time, the team generally handed the players a bit of meal money and said, “You’re on your own.” Last week, at Grantland, BP alumnus Jonah Keri interviewed Tigers reliever Phil Coke, who talked about his trip through the minors and discussed many of the same issues.

Not surprisingly, left with little cash, a need for calorie-dense food, and no infrastructure with which to purchase and/or cook healthy food, baseball players fall back on food that is quick, fatty, and cheap, not to mention available everywhere: fast food. Fast food every day? That would make for an interesting documentary.

Players’ nutrition habits are part of the unseen underbelly of Minor League Baseball. Now, in fairness, it's not fast food all the time. In talking to a couple people in the know, I learned that sometimes, a team will spring for a post-game spread for the players, although the frequency of these meals varies from organization to organization and even from level to level within a system. But especially on the road, players do end up eating a lot of fast food—in a business where prime physical conditioning is something of a job requirement.

*blink*

Huh?

When people are forced, primarily by geography, into a situation where they have limited access to fresh, healthy food and must rely on processed food instead, we call this a food desert. There's even a certain segment of the population that will rise up in a political tizzy over food deserts. In this season of elections, where are the candidates who will stand up for the starving minor leaguers?

(OK, I'll concede a couple points, but only in parentheses. Baseball players burn more calories than the average bear, and if anyone's metabolism can handle a largely fast food diet, it's that of a 21-year-old male. And in the defense of the team, a lot of these players will never sniff a major-league game and are there only to make up numbers on a roster. So, why spend extra money on them... right?)

***

A modest business proposal to all 30 major-league teams: please feed the kids. It's better for them and for you in the long run, not just from a humanitarian angle, but for your bottom line.

Here's why.

The effects of poor nutrition are more than just weight gain and poor physical conditioning. There are some obvious cases where a player has eaten himself out of his prospect status or lost his blue-chip status to the potato chip. Weight gain puts extra stress on the body, particularly the joints, and that can result in a greater likelihood of injuries. But poor nutrition has a bunch of other not-so-obvious consequences, because they take the form of things that fail to happen and things that happen slowly and over time. People are a lot better at spotting what happens than what doesn't.

For one, while fast food provides easy calories, it is low on nutritional value. It will provide that nice "full" feeling, but being full is the not the same as being well-fed. Eventually, the body will need nutrients to maintain some basic functions. But what's more, poor nutrition impacts learning, and the whole point of a minor-league system is to be a training ground for young players. In some sense, these men are in a type of school and majoring in baseball.

There's a rather apt comparison here: schools that offer breakfast to low-income kids. Politics aside, the reason that these programs got started was that schools realized that a hungry child will have trouble learning, and if she/he can't learn well, what's the point of coming to school? It's cheaper to offer breakfast than it is to bear the costs of kids repeating grades or eventually dropping out of school.

Minor leaguers are learning too (How to hit a curveball 101!), through developing pattern recognition and muscle memory. Learning requires the construction of new synaptic pathways between areas of the brain. The brain needs nutrients to build these neural fibers. It's not that fast food is devoid of these nutrients, it's that more nutritious food means more raw materials with which the body can work. Additionally, a well-cared-for body sleeps better, and sleep is the time when the body and brain consolidate what they learned all day. By placing players in a situation where they have access only to nutrient-poor food, teams are systemically depriving players of the materials that they need to fully grow and develop. In other words, teams are shooting themselves in the feet. Slowly.

When the body is malnourished (or tired), the brain begins playing a game of triage with cognitive functions. The first ones to go are the higher neurological functions, like attention, pattern recognition, and planning/decision-making centers, followed by fine motor control... things that might be helpful in playing baseball.

These are the hidden cognitive effects of poor nutrition. They're hard to observe because a player will still show signs of development and will still perform, and it's hard to make the argument that "well, he could be a little better." It's the slow creep of what might have been, but didn't happen that's the hardest to guard against. Over a day, it won't be apparent. Over a few years...

SO, here's what I propose. Instead of the "YOYO" (You're on your own) philosophy of meals, get into the school lunch (and dinner) business. Seriously.

Let's do some math.

Warning! Gory... ah, it's just multiplication, you'll be OK

  • You have six minor-league teams (AAA, AA, High-A, Low-A, short-season A, and rookie). Let's assume that the parent club is spending nothing on providing food.
     
  • On each, there will be 35 or so folks to feed, including the players, coaches, and the clubhouse guy.
     
  • They are on company time 180 days out of the year (or so).
     
  • You will feed them a nutritious lunch and dinner, whether you are at home or on the road. This will probably involve interacting with several local catering companies or a national food service company that's big enough to have offices in places like Rancho Cucamonga. You can do it buffet style, and you don't need table linens. You might also want to look into specialty catering that is savvy to the dietary needs of athletes.
     
  • Let's say that you have to spend $25 per head per meal. That's around what I saw for a one-off, full service, on-location buffet style dinner with set up and tear down. Seeing that this would be a very large contract, there's probably some room to negotiate. You can also stop giving out meal money and count that as a net savings.

The exact numbers would be a little more fluid, but under these assumptions, the final cost would be $1,890,000 per year. Plus, you'd probably have to hire someone in the office to serve as a culinary logistics coordinator. With that salary and benefits and overhead, let's just call that an even $2 million in costs. Whether or not the exact dollar amount is correct, that's at least the correct order of magnitude.

Two million bucks is a lot of money. And there's more bad news. Just providing meals will not solve all of your food-related problems. There will still be players who eat their way out of baseball. People over-eat for all sorts of reasons, including emotional reasons (anyone on the team homesick?) or just not being very educated about eating. It’s not like 21-year-old men in general—or come to think of it, the people of the United States as a whole—are known for their ability to construct a healthy diet, and you can't stop them from eating after they leave the park. There are some additional cultural issues with which to contend. In United States culture, men, especially when around other men, often over-eat as a matter of trying to gain status. Then there's the realization that some players can be perfectly fed and it won't make a difference... some guys just have a bad attitude. And, to top it all off, even if this works, you probably wouldn't see any results at the major-league level for a few years.

It's tempting to want to solve the whole problem right now, but that's not how public health works. I'd love to convince everyone to quit smoking, but if I can show a project I worked on stops 100,000 people from starting, then I will do a little dance of joy. What $2 million really buys in public health terms is replacing a structural obstacle to proper nutrition with an easy access point to that nutrition. Most players understand that they need to eat right (or can be taught). When you combine increased access to something good with an understanding that it is good, good things happen.

While we're at it, the program would probably provide some additional fringe benefits. Players who don't have to wander in search of food have one less opportunity to be doing something that will get them in trouble. (Remember: 21-year-old males.) Word would probably get around, and players might figure that all else being equal, they’d rather go to the organization with the better food (hey, one less thing to worry about!). Plus, the meal would probably be served in the clubhouse. People bond over food. It's hard to be angry at someone when you break bread with them. It makes for a nicer place to work. Maybe that makes your organization a destination that people take a second look at. Come for the food, stay for the seventh inning.

Let's look at those $2 million from the point of view of a return on investment. I'm assuming that the cash would have to come out of some other pot of money. The draft bonus pot and the international signing budgets are both capped in the new CBA, and it doesn't make sense to take from there anyway. But the free agent budget...

It's generally assumed that a win above replacement costs about $5-6 million on the free-agent market. Again, the exact dollar amount isn't as important as the order of magnitude. Our $2 million would buy something under half a win.

To make the case that pouring the money into a comprehensive food program makes sense, I suppose I'd have to show that the program would make someone in the minor-league system half a win better. Now, it's not quite that easy. It would have to be someone who actually has a chance to play for the big-league team. There are some org players who, even at the peak of their development, if plopped onto the MLB roster for 150 games would produce value that was downright Francouerian. It makes no difference to a team if you take someone who is going to be a negative five-win player and turn him into a negative-four-and-a-half win player. He's not going to make the squad either way, and so feeding him would provide no extra value. It has to work on the guys who are legitimate prospects and who will eventually wear the big-league uniform.

Still, making a single non-org player half a win better (or two a quarter win better each) over the course of the several years that he toils in minor-league ball seems like a very low bar. We're talking about taking a guy who profiles as a decent fourth outfielder and turning him into a second division starter. Or maybe growing a decent utility infielder in your own system, rather than having to buy a veteran one. And that's just to break even. If the program makes two guys ever-so-slightly better, it's pure profit.

The trick is to avoid the trap of thinking of the $2 million as an expense, rather than a long-term investment. But still, the price tag would be hard to swallow, and admittedly, my argument isn't based on hard data, but on conjecture from other sources of information. Still, if the price tag were a little off-putting, but a team were at least interested in the concept, maybe they might try a demonstration site. Pick one affiliate, let's say High-A, and spend a "mere" $300,000-400,000 as an experiment. It's not free, but it's cheaper than hoping that some bottom-of-the-barrel free agent pitcher still has some magic left in his right arm.

A team could do a simple pre-and-post evaluation design. Simply create a series of markers that the team values in its organizational development philosophy and some ways to measure them.  Take a look at how much progress was made last year on those indicators at that level under the old "you're on your own" system and then how much is made under the new system. (If you're an MPH student who secretly wants to work in baseball...) If there's improvement, it's not necessarily entirely (or at all) the result of the intervention, but it's at least one promising data point that maybe merits a second year and another affiliate to join the group.

If this idea works, teams who implement it will have a structural upgrade in their minor-league system, and producing good, cost-controlled talent from a minor-league system is critical to any team's success. As my wife pointed out to me, it's a lot cheaper to shop in your basement. And yes, if it works, there will be copycats, but the early adopters will have an advantage for a few years. And in baseball, a few years of advantage is a wonderful thing to have.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

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