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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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Eddie Bajek

My main question here is: do we know that no teams have tried this? The Cardinals come to mind as a team that a) had forward thinking people in the front office and b) have had several late round draft picks blossom in the past couple of years.

Oct 29, 2012 05:55 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

There are teams who have "looked at" this issue. You mentioned the Cardinals and MLB ran this on them a while back: http://stlouis.cardinals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20100223&content_id=8127110&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

A few other teams have nutritional consultants who work with the players and some teams do provide some food. But even then, you're talking mostly about giving out good advice to players rather than proactively setting food in front of them. Information alone does not solve public health problems. I'm saying that a team who went fully into a comprehensive program, even if it were expensive, would net some games from it.

Oct 29, 2012 07:04 AM
 
deep64blue

I think there's a wider opportunity here than just food, what about travel etc? Some early adopters could get better results from their Minor Leaguers whilst others are injuring their best prospects on Marine assault courses ....

Oct 29, 2012 07:50 AM
rating: 4
 
Agent007

I've often wondered about this too. Teams often do not seem to be operating in their own best interests. What you eat affects brain development (the ability to learn) too. Why would teams leave that to shallow-pocketed players? Then there's those who do not speak English. Remember the movie "Sugar", where the Dominican players all eat pancakes because they don't know how to order anything else? Chances are, that is a reasonably accurate depiction.

Oct 29, 2012 08:09 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

That's massively exaggerated. A player may have limited English, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have survival skills. One of the first things that he will likely do is to figure out either where he can get food and order in his native language or he will prioritize words related to food in what he looks up or he'll ask a friend on the team.

Oct 29, 2012 10:37 AM
 
niffoc4

I agree. I lived in China for two years, and while I can't negotiate a business deal in Chinese or talk politics, I know how to order the foods that I like in Chinese (both Chinese food and western food). It's definitely the first thing one learns when living in a foreign country.

Overall I like the article though. My one concern is that national caterers don't tend to have reputations for making the tastiest food, so figuring out how to cater something the (potentially picky) 21-year old males want to eat that is ALSO healthy for them could be quite difficult.

Oct 31, 2012 09:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Bob1475

I think any program like this needs to consider that there are issues beyond availability. Will the kids really eat their veggies? I think a review of high school cafeteria garbage will give you the answer.
For wherever they are there would be other food available if there was demand. You can get a salad at McDonalds, a low cal meal at IHop. Supply is not the issue. Education may help but providing a spread will not force that salmon into their mouths.

Oct 29, 2012 10:09 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I agree on the issue of whether or not kids... erm, prospects will eat their veggies. Plus, you can't stop them from stopping off and grabbing a not-so-healthy bite to eat after the game. My argument would be not that this will solve all problems, but that it is better than the current situation.

As to the salad, the problem is that a salad is offered by restaurants as a low-calorie option. Baseball players need their calories, but unfortunately, the only thing that can provide them with those calories comes in the form of high-fat food. The body needs protein and complete carbs as well.

Oct 29, 2012 10:27 AM
 
jsdspud

Interesting article. Teams pay millions in signing bonuses each year but then nickel and dime players once they are part of the organization. With the new rules limiting bonuses and TV deals exploding, the industry should have a lot of extra lying around.

There are just too many jokes regarding the Pirates implementing this plan that my brain is on overload.

Oct 29, 2012 10:11 AM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

My wife and I have always thought it ironic that our the buses carrying our kids -- high school athletes -- always stop at fast food places on their way home from away games. At this level it's somewhat justifiable, because it's inexpensive food and everyone can afford it, and because the kids are going to eat when they get home or at least eat breakfast at home the next day.

At the minor league baseball level, when players are trying to do this for a living, this seems like low-hanging fruit for a franchise. It's easy to believe that improved nutrition will eventually lead to better results on the field. And $2 million seems like a minimal investment.

Oct 29, 2012 11:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Doom Service

You can offset a portion of the additional nutrition costs by eliminating the (now unnecessary) per diems. I'll bet you could also use it to lower signing bonuses (marginally, no doubt) by guaranteeing prospects three square meals a day for as long as they're playing.

Oct 29, 2012 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
JoshT

This is something that's been bothering me for a long time. The problem, as you point out, is money but even more than that, logistics. How do you get the nutritious food to players in remote outposts (although Rancho Cucamonga ain't one of them--it's smack dab in the middle of LA's Inland Empire megalopolis) on a daily basis? Then you have to get it to them while they're on the road as well. Sure, you could set up a catering service in Peoria, but what happens when they're in Burlington, IA? A week of box lunches?

Then there is the issue of getting them to eat the food. I'm not sure this is as big a problem as it might seem. From reading the twitter accounts of minor leaguers, a lot of them seem to care a lot about what goes into their bodies. This makes sense. Almost all of these guys were elite athletes at their HS or College and they've been around people for a long time who have been stressing nutrition as a way to a better body. Sure, they down an occasional Big Mac, but they do make an effort to seek out better quality food whenever possible. At least they claim that they do.

Now that leaves out the Latin players. Obviously food is going to be the biggest issue for them. Some of them were living in conditions of malnutrition all of their lives. All of them have trouble gaining access to the food that they grew up and are used to. They're likely the ones who need the most help in this area and are the least likely to get it.

I wonder if there's not a compromise between your catering option and the handing out of meal money checks and telling them they're on their own. I would think that if the clubhouse was stocked with free grains, fruits and vegetables, players would take them and supplement their own diet with them. Teams already do this to a certain extent, but it could be aggressively expanded.

On top of that, they could design a nutritional program for each player to follow with suggestions as to how to meet them. It would be just like a training program. If the players fail to follow this advice, that's just another way of weeding out those who weren't going to make it anyway for lack of self-discipline.

Oct 29, 2012 11:31 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

With apologies to Bush 43, we have to ask, "Why isn't our prospects developing?"

Oct 29, 2012 13:15 PM
 
timber

Having spent many years in the restaurant and catering business - and with the caveat that I have been out of that business for almost 15 years now - $25 per head per meal sounds crazy high for what you are proposing. I think this can be done for much less, particularly at lunch.

Oct 29, 2012 14:24 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I always budget things high, and I put in there a little bit about how a team could probably negotiate a pretty good price give the size of that sort of contract. If the price falls, then the amount of gain that would ahve to come for it to make sense goes down too!

Oct 29, 2012 18:49 PM
 
rweiler

It seems like people are forgetting that most major league teams don't own their minor league affiliates outright and many of the players, particularly at the lower levels, aren't under contract to the MLB team and are just roster filler. I supposed you could insist that the affiliates institute some sort of nutritional programs and pick up the tab for better food, but at the end of the day you are going to feed a lot of guys that are never going to make it to MLB. Given the billions in revenue that still might be penny wise, pound foolish, but I can understand why it doesn't happen.

Oct 29, 2012 16:25 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Yeah, there will be a lot of deadweight loss in that a lot of food will go to guys who will never see a major league uni. But how do you do it otherwise and not cause a knife fight. Even with the extra expense, it's still cost effective and maybe you strike gold with a guy who just needed a good sandwich.

Oct 29, 2012 18:43 PM
 
Coraliano

I'm a scout in Asia and I can tell you this is an oft-cited reason used by professional teams here to NOT sign with MLB clubs. The bad treatment of minor leaguers in general is a stumbling block in signing players here, but the food is sort of the representative complaint.

Oct 30, 2012 03:17 AM
rating: 6
 
PrimiTimpano

Between the advantages of team bonding and healthier players, this is a no-brainer. If catering is an issue go to a restaurant that will serve a group meal (no menus) dictated by a nutrition consultant.

As far as costs go, what do you think Detroit, SF, and Philly would pay to scratch a few pounds from Fielder, Sandoval and Howard?

Oct 30, 2012 16:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Kendall Guillemette

If you removed their meal allowance and had control over the menu, the teams would be able to dictate the diet of their players. Of course, as you said, you can't prohibit guys hitting Wendy's at 2am, but it would greatly reduce that.

The $2M number seems like an obvious choice for teams. I wonder about the spread in major league clubhouses and how that affects the diets of MLB players.

Oct 30, 2012 21:47 PM
rating: 0
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Excellent article Russell! As far as getting the players to eat the better food, they get trained in other best practices, such as conditioning, and there's no reason that training in nutrition could not also be persuasive.

Nov 04, 2012 06:50 AM
rating: 0
 
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