Let’s dispense with the usual Fourth Wall. I know who’s reading this. Sit down, front-office types. We need to talk. (And yes, this is about the minor-league wage thing.)
I don’t quite know how to ask this one, so I’ll just go direct with it. Have any of you ever taken a class in human development? I know that most of you were business and finance majors back in college, so it probably wasn’t a requirement, but did you?
The reason I’m asking is this: I’m sure you’ve all heard the arguments that start off with some form of “well, you guys all made $83 gazillion last year and you can afford to spread the money around a little bit,” and while I’m generally sympathetic to those arguments, I realize that’s not going to move the needle. Now (officially) you don’t have to pay minor leaguers much more than $290 per week. You’re already paying them around that much, and obviously there’s no shortage of people trying to make it through that gate to take those wages. You can honestly say that no one is forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. And hey, since when has a business ever turned down willing, cheap labor?
Some of you, privately, will say to me that you really do wish things were different (and I honestly believe you), but you’ll point out that many of these decisions come from ownership, and there’s nothing you can actually do about it. And then there will be those of you who will make living on $10,000 per year (but playing baseball!) sound like some sort of camping expedition, but for grown-ups. Or at least 20-year-olds. Yeah, you live by the seat of your pants, but it’s fun! And it’s not like they’re going to be making a lot at age 20 out in the real world anyway.
So, since you were mostly business and finance majors, I’ll ask the question in a language that’s a little more familiar: Are teams getting the best ROI they can?
Warning! Gory Neurological Details Ahead!
Let’s talk about your human capital. The minor leaguers. Does it make sense to pay them $10,000 per year, given what you are asking of them? I realize they are willing to live that lifestyle in exchange for the chance at playing in the majors (and what other choice do they really have if that’s the end goal?) and this has been the order of things for decades, but does it still make sense to do things that way? There are plenty of stories about minor leaguers living five or six to a two-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the floor, and eating fast food because it’s cheap and gives them plenty of calories for the large amount of physical exertion they are asked to do. Some of you have gotten better about the food thing, but there’s more to it than that.
We need to talk about chronic stress. Usually, when people think of “stressful events” they think in terms of what psychologists call “episodic stress.” A bad thing happened today. Your car broke down. Your dog ran away. You had a big argument with your significant other. Those are all stressful, no doubt, but there’s another sort of stress that can cause problems in a person’s life. What, for example, do you call it when you always have to live with the thought in the back of your head that you might not be able to make rent at the end of the month? It’s not that you got evicted today. It might not even be the case that you do end up falling short, but it’s going to be tough and getting through to the first of the month is a daily struggle.
What do you call it when you constantly have to devote energy to come up with creative ways to make ends meet? That’s chronic stress. Everyone has a little bit of it in their lives, but some people have more than others. It doesn’t have to be financial, but financial problems are a big driver of chronic stress. Now consider the life of a minor leaguer who might be netting a salary (and we’ll add in the per diem money) somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 from his baseball work. Of course, he’s expected to play the games during the season, but he’s also expected to train in the offseason. As front office people, your hope is that all that training eventually pays off in the form of a useful major leaguer.
To get there, he’ll have to train himself into one of the finest athletes on earth. But from the stories we hear, especially in the low minors, he might not be eating a particularly healthy diet (ahem, fast food) and sometimes there’s genuine worry about getting enough to eat. If he’s living in a crowded apartment, it might be tough to get to sleep even when he’s ready, and his body needs rest and recovery time. In the offseason, he might have a job to make some extra income, but that means in addition to all his training work he has to spend a few extra hours each day on his feet helping people find the vacuum cleaner aisle at Target. What if he didn’t have to worry about his shift at Target after his shift in the batting cages and he could just let his body and mind rest?
That chronic stress takes a neurological toll as well. Chronic stress activates the part of the nervous system that is commonly associated with the “fight or flight” response. “Fight or flight” is great for what it was designed to do, which is to get the body ready in the event of a time-limited serious threat. It isn’t meant to be left on like a light bulb. Eventually, some of the hormones associated with this system, including cortisol, begin building up in the blood. That has some serious consequences for the formation and maintenance of the billions of neurons that make up the nervous system. That’s bad news because becoming an elite athlete is about more than just building muscle. It’s about building the neurological framework that can manage those muscles and learning the mental side of the game. It’s as much brain development as it is body development.
To properly build and maintain itself, a brain needs good nutrition, but also good rest. One of the functions of sleep is that it’s a time when the brain consolidates what it learned during the day and builds neurological connections. All of those curveballs that your minor leaguer looked at during his hitting reps today—trying to figure out little tells and strategies that he might use in a real game—everything he figured out now has to be formalized with new neuron tracks from his visual-perceptive system to his motor activation and coordination system, and all the stops in between on that route. All so that when he sees that curveball, he’ll swing at it.
If he’s not getting good sleep, it’s less time for his brain to make those connections. Also, if he’s not been sleeping right, he’ll have more lapses in attention the next day when he’s trying to learn more. Maybe he misses something. It’s not that his neural system will collapse. It’s just that all of this chronic stress eventually means that not as much can be done. And on top of all that, the fact that he’s in his early 20s is important too. Sporting culture focuses a great deal on the body, and the body stops its final growth spurt (puberty) somewhere between 16 and 18. (Indeed, as a culture, we confer “legal adulthood” on people at the age of 18.) But there’s more to human development than physical development.
The early 20s mark the beginning of the second-most important period of neurological development in the life cycle (ranking only behind the first year of life). It’s a period of growth that lasts into the 30s, and it’s mostly focused on the area at the front of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which does all the fun high-level stuff that we as a species are so proud of ourselves for being able to do. Things like pattern recognition, long-term planning, and the ability to not do whatever crazy idea pops into your head (behavioral inhibition). Those are important skills in baseball, but also in just functioning as an adult. That development is going on as well, and it’s important for human development.
Over time, if you put enough chronic stress into the system, you end up poisoning your own well. It becomes the slow bleed of what might have been, had conditions been better. Maybe someone missed an insight or building a skill that would have made all the difference between an organizational guy and a player you can actually use at the MLB level. You have the ability to make those conditions better. You can take away a lot of that stress. All it really costs is money.
Now comes the part where you all say to me, “Yeah, we know, but …”
For one, the players you really think will actually make it got decent signing bonuses and have more of a cushion. Frankly, the rest of the players are just there to make up the numbers. And if you all had a better track record of being able to predict who was actually going to make it to the majors, based on those bonuses, I’d be quicker to believe you. The evidence suggests that there are major leaguers among the guys who are just there to fill in the spaces, and maybe some of them would show themselves if you made it a little easier on them.
Then there’s the business logistics of it. Innovation like this is a hard sell to ownership, especially when it comes with a significant price tag. We’d take all the risk, and even in a best-case scenario, we’d only hold the early adopter advantage that came with success for a few years.
Well, here’s my proposal: You need a demonstration program. Take one of your affiliates. I recommend the low minors for the twin reasons that you pay them the least and the effects of chronic stress are cumulative over time, so you might as well start early. Raise the wages of those 25 guys by $40,000 apiece. (I know it’s not quite that simple, but I did that so it nicely multiplies out to a million dollars.) That puts them at an income of about $50,000 for the year. It’s a little below the national median income in the United States, but it takes away a lot of those chronic stressors. And just watch what happens.
Oh, I’m sure you’ll want to do more than just watch what happens. You should evaluate the program in fine detail. You all have analytics departments. Hopefully someone in that office knows how to do a program evaluation. It’s probably a little different type of analysis than you’re used to. Baseball analytics has, for a long time, focused on delving into the data to describe the reality of baseball as it exists now. This would be spending money to create a little bubble of a new reality and to observe what happens in it. If it works, you can scale it up.
I’ll spare you all the usual paragraph about how a win on the free agent market costs … oh, you know. Realistically, the better baseline is to think about how much you would surrender in resources to get even one C-level prospect from another organization as a lottery ticket. What if you used some of that money to instead scratch the lottery tickets you already have in your pocket a little harder? And don’t cry poor. Half of you are tanking this year anyway.
In essence, I’m asking you to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I’m no fan of low minor-league wages, but I understand why they happen and that you’re not running a charity. What I’m asking is whether you’ve considered all of the implications of those wages, including the ones that are incredibly selfish—that you’d simply get a better ROI out of the minor-league system by investing more in the players. I would bet that the answer is yes. And really, it would just take you a million dollars to find out.
Now which one of you will be the brave one who actually tries it?
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now