This is Mike Hattery’s third piece as part of his September residency at FanGraphs. Hattery writes for the Cleveland-based site Waiting for Next Year. He can also be found on Twitter. Read the work of all our residents here.
While the adoption in recent years of bonus pools both for domestic and international prospects has prevented certain clubs from optimizing their pursuit of amateur talent, the player-development strategies within organizations remain a wild frontier. Teams continue to innovate and find advantages, no matter how small. And the effects of that innovation continue to manifest themselves, it seems.
Consider: of the 10 players recently identified by Jeff Sullivan as successful non-prospects, two belong to the Dodgers and another two to the Indians. A pair of baseball’s top clubs, in other words, just happen to have stumbled upon otherwise marginalized talent. Whether that’s mere coincidence or a reflection of organizational competencies, these are the sort of developmental successes that can open windows of contention, especially for a small-market club like Cleveland.
In their pursuit of a competitive edge, teams have looked beyond the traditional player-development staff and budget. The Indians, for example, hired James Harris last offseason to lead player development. On the one hand, the hire made perfect sense: Harris’s core competencies are biometrics and nutrition. On the other hand, Harris had little experience in baseball, having served as chief of staff to former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile — as part of their own efforts to improve development and player performance — earmarked $1 million towards healthier meals for the team’s prospects.
These individual examples illustrate the pursuit, within organizations, of a competitive developmental advantage. Which leads to a question: what additional avenues could be pursued to create a short-term competitive edge?
A possible answer to that question begins with late psychological theorist Abraham Maslow. Maslow constructed a five-level “hierarchy of needs,” the highest of those needs being “self-actualization,” or the fulfillment of one’s potential. In order to reach that state, however, it’s necessary for the individual to satisfy the more fundamental needs that precede it.
Maslow identified the first two “levels” of the hierarchy as physiological wellness and personal safety, in that order. These categories include food, health, security, and rest: the basic requirements, in other words, for navigating the world. While the relevance of these needs to player development in baseball might seem obscure at first, it exists nevertheless. Because, if the basic needs for existence aren’t met, the capacity for self-improvement becomes secondary. Food, security, and rest represent fundamental needs that are usually acquired via economic means, meaning economic pressure may adversely impact a player’s ability to develop.
The 150th pick in the 2017 MLB draft was assigned a bonus allotment of $329,800. While modest relative to the salaries of major leaguers, that sort of money provides some measure of comfort to the recipient. But most players in the minor leagues aren’t 150th-overall picks. International signees and those players selected between the 6th and 40th rounds enter professional baseball with limited financial footing. Nor does this even account for the significant cost liabilities which players can accrue before and after the draft: training, travel tournaments, talent showcases, etc. For those who enter minor-league baseball with limited available resources, the experience only serves to place them on the precarious edge of financial viability.
Former manager of the Akron Rubberducks and current member of the Cleveland Indians player development staff, David Wallace, provided his insight on the economic concerns that exist in the minors. Said Wallace via email:
“Absolutely have seen players and coaches impacted by economic stresses. Most players and coaches are well adapted to living a thrifty lifestyle, especially during the season. We’ve all heard the stories of guys living eight deep in a two- or three-bedroom apartment to save on rent, eating every meal at the clubhouse, and leaning on the ‘bonus babies’ for rides to and from the field.”
While the harm or stress of insecurity might appear at first glance to affect the individual alone, Wallace noted how many players have families relying on them for sustenance. He continued:
“What most don’t realize is that it is common for players to send parts of their paychecks home to help provide for their families. Although a very noble and commendable gesture, that is where I have seen the greatest stresses for players. ‘Is it enough to put food on their table?’ ‘Are they using it for good or wasting it?’ ‘My uncle now is asking me for money.’ It is an endless list of situations that come up that take a player’s focus and energy away from the game.”
This may paint a bleak picture of minor-league life — and it should. The non-bonus babies are so financially pinched that they live eight to an apartment and eat only what’s available in the clubhouse. This is a striking example of failure to meet the first level in Maslow’s hierarchy. Players are forced to pass their days battling and pinching for basic needs rather than being able to devote time to developing technically and physically.
While the reality of this economic burden is undisputed, Wallace thinks it can have both positive and negative impacts based on the player’s personality and makeup. “Low wages can absolutely present some challenges to development, but I have seen it mature and motivate players in a positive way, as well. They become more aware and responsible with their money. I strongly believe minor-league players and coaches deserve better compensation, but great lessons can and have been learned due to the low pay.”
While the burdens during the season are well documented, perhaps of greater concern are the duties of players in the offseason. The offseason is a time when significant adjustments and physical development can occur. However, these opportunities are limited when players are paid so poorly that they are forced to embrace demanding offseason employment. The most common and natural seem to be giving lessons for youth players and teams. “I know guys who have been substitute teachers,” said Wallace. “Guys have worked on custodial staffs at training facilities in exchange for the opportunity to work out there. Valet parking is another one that comes to mind.”
Indeed, it seems counterintuitive for organizations to sink a draft pick, a signing bonus, or international pool money into a player only to then allow that player to endure substantive economic burdens. Whether viewing the situation through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy is persuasive or not, numerous second-level prospects nevertheless spend their seasons and offseasons burdened with a fight for economic viability, which endangers development in the most basic sense.
While this piece might seem political at some level, there are some very practical questions at its core. For example, is it possible that teams are inefficiently developing their assets? Is it possible that they’re failing to protect investments? Would they benefit from constructing player development-housing facilities at every minor league level to provide affordable and secure housing? Is the financial cost of quality housing and food infrastructure for minor league players so burdensome that the potential developmental gains would be outweighed by the price?
The answers to these questions require further study; however, it would appear that there is a first-mover advantage for organizations to provide greater financial stability to their prospects.