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Dec 13

Are healthy diets the next MLB market inefficiency?

Somewhere in Major League Baseball, there has to be a smart owner who will quit ignoring the next great, and cheap, competitive advantage. Compared to the price of one free agent, this thing would cost very little and would strengthen the chances that each minor leaguer can contribute more at the MLB level.The thing is Nutrition. Why is this so widely ignored?

At the University of Nebraska, where I went to school, there’s a special dining hall for Husker athletes. Begrudgingly, they allow regular students to eat there too, but only because they’re required to. (Something about how the money for their food comes from the same budget that feeds the huddled masses of non-athletes.) The athletes had quite a spread, and if a team nutritionist thought something was lacking, you could bet that whatever was lacking would be added right away. The student-athletes may not get paid money, but they had everyday access to the foods they needed to fuel their bodies and keep them in top shape.

In Minor League Baseball, by contrast, nobody cares about the players’ day-to-day food intake and they have little choice but to eat a garbagey diet. A couple of factors lead to this:
-Budgets. This is the most obvious thing. Every ballpark has a clubhouse attendant who serves each visiting team as they come in. The clubbie does get some money to feed the teams, but it’s never much. 25 hungry guys + 1 overworked clubbie + a tiny budget = inadequate nutrition for all.

-Schedules. What time does an average night game end? And food establishments are still open at that time of night? Fast food. I can’t even stay in good enough shape to be a debt collector on a fast food-based diet. Ba-da-ba-ba-bahhhhh, I’m lovin’ it.

-Ease. With all the workouts, side appearances, and of course games, ballplayers don’t have a ton of free time, so it’s not like they could play chef for themselves every day. So eating the clubhouse spread is often the easiest route. So if there’s unhealthy food in the clubhouse, that’s what a player is stuck with.

[Side note: In Omaha, this isn't so much of a problem, as we learned earlier this year. Strength and conditioning coach Joey Greany heavily emphasizes good eating habits for the Storm Chasers, and Greany says the players hold each other accountable when one sees another eating junk food.]

Let’s look at the numbers:

You’ve got roughly 25 guys per team, at 8 minor league levels. I know the lowest levels have more players than that, but let’s just roll with 25.

According to this cost calculator, it’s possible to feed 25 twenty-something males 14 healthy meals (7 lunches and 7 dinners) for $405.00 per week. That’s the bare minimum, of course, and I recognize that athletes probably need more of certain things like proteins that would jack up that cost. So let’s give that budget a little bit more breathing room and call it $600 per week, per team.

If I’m looking at all the teams’ schedules correctly, there are a total of 135 weeks’ worth of minor league games. Take that times our $600 budget, and it would cost $81,000 to feed an entire minor league system.

Maybe you’re calling B.S. on that calculator, and you want $700 per team per week. That’s still just $94,500 per season to feed the entire organization. $800 per week? $108k for the season. Still small potatoes compared to even a MLB minimum contract.

So for significantly less than even half a season of  Chris Getz, a GM (hey Dayton, are you listening?) could transform his entire minor league system into a healthier group of athletes. Healthier athletes = better performance, and perhaps fewer injuries and longer careers. For that relatively tiny cost, it’s absurd that no GM has bothered with this.

Draft picks turn into prospects, and prospects turn into the future of a team. Whether a prospect makes it big with the club that drafted him or becomes part of a trade,  why would you sink so much money into signing a guy and then feed him worse than a blogger’s diet?
I spoke with shortstop-cum-Zone Training expert Buddy Biancalana about this a few weeks ago. I’ll publish that conversation in the next few days. Until then: Which team do YOU see embracing hardcore nutrition as an organizational philosophy?

EDITED TO ADD: A fair question is “but who would make the food?” It’s not like clubhouse attendants, who already work 15+ hours every game day, can magically have enough time to prepare square meals for all their players. So let’s add a chef at every level. (Gosh, spending someone else’s money is so easy.)

Apparently the average salary for a chef who would be appropriate for this job is $35-$40k. So again, if a club has a full 8 levels, that’s 8 chefs for an added cost of up to $320,000. Since they’re not even working a full year it would actually be a lot less than that.

So, all told, you can buy enough food to feed every player in the system, and then pay 8 chefs to prepare that food, and it still costs just one MLB minimum salary. (And actually, the cost for chefs would be less since they would not be working a full year.)

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2 comments

2 pings

  1. VVV

    Got here through Haviland’s Twitter.

    I worked as the strength and conditioning coach (CSCS) for a Low A team (lots of 19 year olds and college aged) during 2011. That also included 3 months of off-season and Spring Training. *I* had a 50$ organizational-provided budget for the pre-game “spread.” Only for away games, though. Let me preface by saying that (unlike many strength coaches) nutrition has always been a strong point for me and it’s how I first got involved on the industry.

    Let me tell you why nutrition is a tricky subject.

    When you talk about improving nutrition? Do you mean as in providing the amount of food of all kinds available for all players? Do you mean having fruits and vegetables available at all times? Do you mean having protein shakes and bars readily available? Do you mean having chicken breast or tuna available with every meal?

    Education is really the key…but the problem lies on whether the player WANTS to be educated. Or even worse, apply what he learns.

    You have to remember these players live on their own. I can have all the fruits of the world in the clubhouse but if X PLAYER wants to eat McDonalds on his way home, there’s nothing I can do. You think a Latin kid that just got out of Dominican after spending the last 2-3 years there wants to hear about the importance of protein and hydration?

    In my case, I bought as many calories as I could with the 50$ budget. There were more players that struggled to keep weight on than those that needed to lose fat. It was a constant battle but I made a decision that would benefit the team the most.

    Calories are energy and when they needed 3000 calories in the 16 hours they were awake (minus 2 on buses, 4 on the field, 1 in the weight room) I had absolutely no issues with them eating pb & jelly sandwiches or even twinkies. Yes, evil-killer twinkies. We were lucky to have relatively unlimited access to protein drinks so it wasn’t hard for me to have them complement the “candy” with 30grs of protein.

    Am I saying “don’t eat fruits” or don’t eat “clean”? No, that’s fine. But is that absolutely necessary for ultimate performance as I implied from your post? I don’t think so. Not at all.

    We kept close tabs on their bodies. Weekly weigh-ins along with their performance in the weight room and the way they moved on the field. We ended up only having three soft tissue injuries in 4 months. The longest a player was out was 9 days and incidentally, that player was a huge fan of eating Paleo (including his nutritional supplements, but that’s another story).

    Nutrition IS important. But saying it’d be a competitive advantage? That’d be a stretch. More money for better food in the clubhouse would be excellent. I concur. But your overweight pitcher may just as easily overindulge in [insert 'healthy' food']…and remain overweight.

    This is professional baseball. As long as they’re on the field and producing…they can be as fat/skinny/slow/weak as they desire. And it’s only when they struggle that we (the training staff) have to come in and ‘fix’ the athlete. Or in cases, even take the fall for it. (See fried chicken-beergate in Boston.)

    It would be great having an amazing dining hall like the one Nebraska (or any D1 school) has. But it doesn’t guarantee victories or performance. It may not even guarantee you healthy players.

    As harsh as this sounds, don’t forget whole minor league teams are built around developing and maintaining 2 or 3 potentially legitimate prospects. They are making pennies. If you asked any player if they would prefer a $150 monthly salary raise or better food before games, I’m sure the answer would be more money.

    PS. Things are much different in AA and AAA. Older minor league players tend to take better care of their bodies. But even when a player has “better habits,” when we analyze those, they’re not even really that good anyway.

    But like some say, “if it got me to AA…”

    It’ll never be perfect.

    1. Minda Haas

      Wow, thanks so much for taking the time to respond. I have also heard from another insider this evening who brought up some similar points. I will make more time tomorrow to address both him and you, because I truly appreciate the things you brought up.

      of course most players would prefer a salary bump over better clubhouse spreads, and if you look at some of my other writing you’ll see that I’ve spent years advocating higher salaries for minor leaguers. But as a fan of a penny-pinching small market team I’ve been conditioned to recognize that every little bit of competitive edge matters, and it’s foolish to waste an opportunity for an edge – even if it’s an imperfect solution because of the reasons you brought up.

      Again, thanks for responding, even if you think I’m full of it. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

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