Developing minor-league players -- and people

Russell Carleton

Russell Carleton

Let’s play Family Feud. Name something that you need to be able to do on your own in order to be a functioning adult. I’ll wait while you write a few things down. Here, I’ll even give you a little room


1)
2)
3)
4)
5)

Your list probably includes mundane things like being able to do your own laundry or cook your own food. Maybe it contains bigger accomplishments like living on your own or holding down a real job. Maybe it’s managing your own money. Maybe it’s being able to have a stable relationship. But whatever you put down, take a look back over your list and think about how old you were when you were able to do each of those things. I’m guessing that there are two things to note about the answers. One is that you didn’t start doing all of those things at the exact same time. The other is that it’s not likely that the answer is “exactly on my 18th birthday.” Nothing magic happens on your 18th birthday.

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a gradual one. For example, I knew how to cook a little bit when I went to college, but it took the summer that I wasn’t on the meal plan when I was 21 for me to be able to plan out and execute actual meals. I fed myself that summer. I moved into my first apartment (in another city!) when I was 22. But I opened my first bank account when I was 18 and met my wife when I was 19. Then again, my parents were still supporting me financially (at least a little bit) until I was 25. At what age did I finally become an adult?

That range of somewhere between 18 and 25 sounds about right. It doesn’t fit for everyone, and some people might be further along in their development, but it's at least a good guideline. Now let’s take a look at Jason Parks’ preseason Top 101 prospects list, also known as the players who will determine the fates of all 30 teams. Take note of the ages of those players. Oh look! Smack dab in that 18 to 25 window!

We often encounter baseball players as little blobs of pixels that run around our TV screens or as characters in video games who politely swing when we tell them but don’t do much else. The reality is that players do not go into hibernation between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 p.m. the next day. In fact, they’re busy doing other things, including developing as human beings. Consider the youngest members of a major-league family. There are plenty of players drafted directly out of high school (20 in the first round, including supplemental picks, in the most recent draft) and plenty more signed at the age of 16 internationally. While these players most certainly have great baseball talent, they are often being sent to live in minor-league cities, potentially for the first time ever on their own, and potentially in a foreign country.

Not only that, but the data show that among US-born high school seniors (who make up a good chunk of the draft pool), teams are very likely drafting kids who come with risk factors already built in. Data from the 2013 version of the nationally representative Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which is administered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) paint an interesting picture.

For example, data show (and you can poke through more results, if you like) that among 12th grade males:

  • 25.3 percent had been in a car with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. (Lesson: 18-year-olds are not known for their amazing decision-making abilities.)

  • 10.8 percent had made a suicide plan and 1.7 percent had attempted and needed medical attention as a result in the past six months. (Lesson: Mental health concerns are real and, sadly, not often discussed.)

  • 11.2 percent had an episode in the last 30 days where they drank ten or more drinks in one sitting. Five drinks is generally considered a “binge” drinking episode. (Lesson: Moderate drinking is also not a strong suit in this population. Why does no one ever sit down with these kids and teach them how to pace yourself over the course of an evening?)

  • 42.0 percent did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse. (Lesson: They don’t always tell you the real reason for a disabled list trip.)

  • 13.4 percent had received no information on HIV/AIDS at school. In other studies, it’s been estimated that almost half of sexually active teenage males have never received any formal sex education nor spoken with a trusted adult before their first sexual encounter. (Lesson: I bet you didn’t think that teams would need to have “The Talk” with their players. Sometimes they do.)

  • 6.7 percent had eaten no vegetables in the past seven days. None at all. (Lesson: This isn’t to say that they will have no interest in healthy eating, but do they have a knowledge base of what a healthy meal looks like?)

  • 75.7 percent averaged fewer than eight hours of sleep in the past seven days. (Lesson: Sleep hygiene might be one of the most powerful forces in baseball. Teams are starting from behind to teach it.)

While the minor-league system is there to teach players how to eventually become major-league contributors (and no matter how talented the player, there is a lot still to learn!), teams also have to reckon with the fact that these minor leaguers are very likely replacement-level adults. Players may know how to throw 95 mph, but have they ever done their own laundry? Can they handle their own finances? Do they know how to shop for groceries? And can they avoid those risk factors we just talked about? A player who doesn’t know how to do these things will, at best, have a distraction to deal with, and when there is so much to learn, being distracted is not a good thing.

Teams are well aware of these issues, but I was curious how teams handled this particular issue. How can organizations help their players grow, not only as baseball players, but as full human beings who need to be able to function as adults?

Warning! Gory ... Actually, No Math This Time
I put in some phone calls and emails to some very gracious folks and spoke to several teams about this particular issue. They all have the kinds of job titles you would expect in player development and baseball operations departments. And no, you don’t get to know who they are. (They all pled with me to make them famous by mentioning their names, but I have my street cred to think about.)

The reason I know teams are well aware of these issues is that when I asked them, they had plenty of details. I’ve taken those interviews and distilled them into themes. My goal here isn’t to solve the issue of how best to teach these skills (as we’ll discuss later, I think that’s the wrong question) but to show different issues that might arise and could be fodder for research if an enterprising researcher wanted to do something to make her or his mark on baseball.

Common Themes

There were a few things that came up over and over with all of the folks I talked to. These issues aren’t surprising, but if someone is trying to design a program (or improve an existing one), they need to consider them.

  • The wide range of skills coming into an organization: Some players entering an organization are college senior signs. It’s possible that you have a young man who is 22, has been living a thousand miles from home because of school, and has already had the experience of renting an apartment and cooking his own meals. You may also have someone who is 17, living in the United States for the first time, and has never lived apart from his parents. How do you focus whatever instruction you plan to give so that it doesn’t waste the time of the 22-year-old, but meets the needs of the 17-year-old?

  • The language issue: Baseball is a game often played in two languages (English and Spanish). With teams increasingly exploring new markets for talent, including Brazil, the Caribbean, and various countries in Europe and Asia, a major-league clubhouse could soon resemble the United Nations. On top of that, there are cultural differences in how people view adulthood, as well as how they approach difficult, sometimes taboo, subjects. (Remember a moment ago when we were talking about alcohol, sex, and mental health?) In fact, a number of teams reported having someone on staff who was a specific liaison to the Spanish-speaking players.

  • Teams did teach a number of the issues that I mentioned above, and mentioned a few others, including basic social skills (what if a new guy doesn’t understand how to get along in a group?) and anger management (long bus rides ...).

Decision points

  • Who will get instruction and when? Most of the team officials I spoke to said that their organization does run what might be considered an orientation for their new players, either in spring training or when they get their first affiliate assignment. Many teams used a model where they had more general sessions in spring training on topics that would be important for everyone, and then more targeted sessions (or one-to-one meetings) to address specific issues of concern. However, teams varied in how much time they budgeted for this type of instruction. Some reported that this was a weekly seminar while others said that they had “a couple meetings.” More may or may not be better, but we don’t know the answer to that yet.

  • Who is in charge of this sort of program and teaching players these skills? Some teams reported that they hired consultants to teach things like sports nutrition or to speak on mental health issues. Some said that everything was handled in-house. But one thing that came up repeatedly was the fact that the messenger is as important as the message. Is a message about responsibly using alcohol going to be best received coming from someone who played baseball (I can relate to that guy, he’s been where I am!) or from a professional who may know more information? Again, we don’t know the answer to that question yet.

  • How to identify issues before they become problems that affect a player: It’s one thing to give players information, but another to expect them to use it. And yes, some players will still struggle with one of these issues, whether it’s as small as having trouble doing laundry or serious as having a substance abuse problem. Of course teams were prepared for this. Some (although not many) said that they train people who would be points of contact to be ready to intervene with a player. Many times it was domain-specific (trainers would intervene if the player was having trouble with diet, employee assistance people would intervene on mental health concerns). Sometimes there was a specific point person for all issues. Teams all reported that they tried to be proactive on things because ... well, they have every incentive to do so.

How to tell if the program is working

When I asked teams how they evaluated whether their efforts on these issues were working, the most common reply I got was that they met and discussed it at the end of the season. Few had a formal evaluation process in place where they collected data on their efforts. A couple of teams had very detailed protocols (one team had a checklist) and they could review how well they followed them and what worked and what didn’t, but no one was just winging it.

Here’s where I think this sort of research gets interesting. The way we normally conceive of evaluating something, an evaluation would involve gathering data on how all 30 teams do this and then converting it into WARP or Altuves. But this sort of evaluation calls for something different. If you drew a map of how each team connects a player with an identified problem to getting proper help for whatever the issue is, the maps would all look a little different. Some teams have a centralized person who handles all of this. Some don’t. But you can draw arrows from the player with a problem to the people in the organization who talk to the other people who talk to the other people who provide help. Those arrows would form 30 shapes across the 30 teams.

This is different from evaluating pitching or hitting, where the basic parameters are the same across all teams, and so in hitting and pitching, we evaluate the inputs. How fast does he throw? How quick is his bat speed? Here, questions of program structure aren’t really all that interesting. There are probably a few wrong ways to do it, but there’s no single right way. What’s most important is connecting players to the help they need. So, on that map, the important issue is the strength of the connections between the player and the help. If a trainer is the point of contact for issues around conditioning and diet, how well does that trainer do connecting with the players? Does he have the respect of the players such that if he pulled one aside and said “Listen, it looks like you need some help” the player wouldn’t freeze? Would players feel comfortable approaching him for help?

The actual procedures for getting these skills taught aren’t as important as making those connections. Once you’ve made the connections and gotten a player on board, the rest is self-explanatory. (Sure enough, when I talked to team folks, they spent a lot of time talking about how they try to make sure that they have good connections.) Those connections could be through a minor-league manager or coach, or maybe an on-roster social worker (i.e., “the clubhouse guy;" sometimes it’s easier to reach out to someone who has been in the same place you are). They could be through someone on the “office” side. And yes, these connections can be evaluated. Teams can look at their own system (whether formally or informally) and look at where the referrals tend to come from and where they don’t come from. Teams can survey their players about whom they would feel most comfortable approaching about a tough subject. And teams can most certainly train those points of contact not only to look out for problems, but to approach them with sensitivity to the needs of the player.

Now, because these were anonymous interviews, I’m not able to get into “Which team has the best system?” or tell you how many WARP or Altuves this is worth. And the list isn’t the point. In fact, I’d argue that teams only need worry about whether they have the optimal system in place that fits their circumstances and the people who they have on board. Carbon copying another team’s procedures and structure is a recipe for failure.

In sabermetrics, we don’t often get into system theory. We’re usually evaluating the inputs in a system (i.e., the players; think WARP). But here, the system itself is what needs to be optimized and this time, there isn’t a correct answer. But this is one of those great unexplored areas where the question of how the parts all fit together is more important than what the parts are.

One of the reasons that I chose this particular topic (other than my own personal and professional interest in it) is that I knew I could get team people to talk, if only anonymously, about the issue. Everyone knows that guys who are of minor-league age will have issues and that teams all have some sort of method for working through them. But there are plenty of other topics in player development, whether directly related to baseball (like how to best intervene with a player who has developed a problem with his swing) or related to “soft” factors (like how best to integrate players from other countries into United States culture).

Something that I worry about in the field of sabermetrics is the tyranny of the SUFf/x. In linguistics, there’s something called a morpheme. It’s the smallest unit that you can add to a word that will affect the meaning. A rather whimsical one is the suffix –gate. In United States culture, we recognize something that has –gate at the end as a political scandal. (It comes obviously from the Watergate scandal, although the Watergate complex is an actual place.) I worry that “f/x” has become the suffix that means “data.” That sort of granular, atomic-level detail is just peachy, but it’s not the only way to do real research with real baseball value. My goal in this research was to show that there’s an entire branch of analyses — not to mention the area of player development in general — that hasn’t been scratched publicly. Sure, some of those data are hidden, but my hope is that through this study, I might suggest a new way of thinking about what data and research methods are and what they can be. Now, it just takes a researcher who’s willing to get creative with some research methods.

I originally presented this research at this past weekend’s SaberSeminar in Boston. Thanks to Dan Brooks, who invited me, and my anonymous sources, who were very generous with their time.


0 Comments