by Micah Greenhill

Gaining a Competitive Edge in Player Development

At the beginning of the 2022 season, Nick Krall declared that the Reds’ strategy to build a competitive team would be through investing in the player development pipeline. Many teams have used this strategy to great success, such as the Tampa Bay Rays. However, only examining the teams that succeeded invites survivor bias to cloud one’s perspective. Yes, teams that have succeeded with this strategy, but many have failed. The famous #GetThePitching movement in 2019, is evidence of this in our own backyard. If the Reds strategy truly is to grow a competitive ball club through player development, they cannot afford to make mistakes and need to seek every competitive advantage available.

The last several years have seen a paradigm shift at the Reds, as they have embraced a modern, analytically driven approach to roster construction. However, this modern approach just puts the Reds on a level playing field as other professional teams. To put a World Series winner on the field, the Reds are going to have to outpace other clubs in terms of player development. They need to be on the bleeding edge of player development and analytics.

To get an idea of where the industry is going it helps to understand where things have been.

The last few decades have seen a dramatic shift in the way baseball is played, largely due to the influence of advanced analytics. Whether you bemoan analytics as ruining the game, or you enjoy nerding out over advanced metrics (or both at the same time!), there’s no doubt that the arms race for information and actionable insights has changed the landscape of the game. Many people cite the publication of the book, Moneyball, as the beginning of this revolution. The Moneyball movement, at its core, was more about using metrics that provided a more accurate representation of a player to discover diamonds in the rough.

In the years since Moneyball, the information arms race has picked up speed and expressed itself in many ways. Many more books have been written about the topic. After the 2017 World Series, Ben Reiter wrote Astroball, which explored how the Astros managed their rebuild and married advanced analytics with traditional scouting. (Astroball has not aged quite as well. Something about trash cans comes to mind…).

Many have written about the impact of Statcast as well. In fact, Statcast provides significant input into the analysis discussed on this site. It’s the ultimate expression of the Moneyball movement. Due to high speed cameras and advanced radar systems installed in ballparks, MLB front offices now have advanced information about players that goes incredibly deep. Even the casual fan can get closer to the game than ever before, examining the spin rate of pitches, launch angle of batted balls, the exact sprint speed of players and so much more.

The “You are Here” Moment

The proliferation of such in depth information has created a new movement in baseball: Enhanced player development. To oversimplify a complicated subject, this concept goes beyond seeking diamonds in the rough. Rather, it’s about transforming that same rough into a diamond using data and modern training methods. Kyle Boddy, founder of Driveline Baseball, has been a key thought leader in this movement. His research and coaching have helped players reach new levels of talent that weren’t previously there. Rather than asking what the ceiling of a player is, front offices are now wondering what the ceiling of a player could theoretically change into.

Whatever your opinion of him is, Trevor Bauer has become a great example of this movement. For years, he has argued that he’s not actually a very talented pitcher in the traditional sense. Rather, he has used advanced analytics and unconventional training and preparation methods to build himself into an All-Star and Cy Young winner. Regardless of his personal life (which has absolutely ruined his career), Bauer serves as an example of how the ceiling of an individual player can be raised through the right program.

If we were to look at a map of the baseball analytics movement, this would be the “You are here” moment. Teams have already been transformed by the power of data to more accurately value players, so their attention is now turning to unlocking new levels of talent within existing players. Honestly, it sounds like the ultimate Moneyball dream.

So, all of this raises the question: What’s next in the field of baseball analytics?

What’s Next in Player Development?

I examine patterns for a living. I look at data and trends and point to what this means for the future. More than suggesting where the ball is headed, my role involves making recommendations in light of what the future will bring. After all, what’s more valuable: Predicting rain, or saying that someone needs to build an ark? When we look at the history and trend line of the analytics movement, there is a clear next step that needs to be taken by teams to fully capture greater value on the baseball diamond.

That next step is called Sport Nutrigenomics.

I’m no doctor, and I don’t play one on TV, but let me do my best to explain the concept.

The world of Sport Nutrigenomics is an evolving and cutting edge science. Essentially, a person’s dietary choices markedly influence their athletic performance. A personalized approach to health and wellness can optimize physical capabilities. The Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal published research claiming that a modern view of nutrition is shifting away from the traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach and is becoming increasingly personalized. Baseball teams are (rightly) focused on proper training and mechanical approaches to the game, but this concept would literally be about helping athletes reach their actual physical peak.

Today, we’re improving a swing.  Tomorrow, we’ll be improving the biological elements that go into that same swing.

Or, as the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal puts it:

“Personalized nutrition strategies for athletes will continue to develop as research identifies new genetic markers that enable these valuable targeted interventions. Genetic testing for personalized sport nutrition is an effective and widely available non-invasive tool that can be implemented into the practice of sport clinicians, nutritionists and coaches to guide nutritional strategies and meal planning with the aim of optimizing athletic performance.”

There are several practical applications of nutrigenomics. One example is how caffeine effects different individuals. In a recent study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers found significant variability in the impact that caffeine has on different people. Some athletes showed no significant changes, while others demonstrated enhanced athleticism. There were others that expressed adverse effects. In the realm of professional sports, companies are beginning to test individual players’ DNA to learn whether caffeine would be beneficial or not.

The research shows more than just the impact of ingredients. It can also help provide measurements for vitamin absorption and identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (This is a complicated concept. In a nutshell, a SNP is a common genetic variation found in people in which it may replace a specific nucleotide in a strand of DNA. This has no effect on health or development, but these genetic differences have been shown to predict a person’s response to certain drugs or a predisposition to certain health conditions). There is even evidence that this DNA approach to nutrition can help prevent injuries. Scientists who study this evolving field have come to the conclusion that nutrigenomics is a possible way for teams to achieve a safe and legal competitive advantage.

In the world of sports, it’s generally accepted by the scientific community that an overlap of customized training and dietary plans helps to unlock new levels of ability in athletes. The problem that scientists need to overcome, however, is data related. This field of science is simply so new that there is insufficient information for athletes to work with.

This is going to be the next information arms race.

And the race has already started.

MLB Implementation

Over the past several years, there has been an increased focus on the importance of nutrition among MLB athletes. In fact, since 2017, the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement requires all clubs have an advisory council that works with a full-time chef and registered dietician to improve nutrition. In spite of this, some teams have decided to make nutrition a greater area of focus.

After the 2020 season, the Los Angeles Angels declared that one of the ways they’d seek to improve on-the-field performance was through investments in off-the-field nutrition. They created custom dietary plans for each of their athletes, taking into account different body types and athletic abilities. These plans revolved around the right calorie content, as well as macro and micro nutrients.

Individual players have jumped on the bandwagon. For example, relief pitcher Mark Melancon carefully monitors his cortisol and nutrient intake levels. He uses a web-based platform called InsideTracker to help with this goal. The program, created by trained nutritionists and scientists from Harvard University and MIT, has grown in popularity to help players track their nutrition. The program goes deeper than just nutritional intake, also measuring hormones, glucose, cholesterol, vitamins and other key biomarkers. When asked about this approach, Melancon posited that improvements in nutrition will translate into performance improvements on the field.

During his time with the Reds, Dick Williams made advancements in this space of nutrition. In a 2017 interview with FanGraphs, Williams said:

“We’ve put a lot of money into nutrition. This something we’ve done more and more of in recent years, but this year was kind of a quantum leap with the amount of money we’re spending on pre- and post-game meals at all of our minor-league affiliates.”

He went on to discuss the creation of a sports-science department tasked with biomechanical measurement devices, biometric wearable technology, virtual reality and more. This marriage of nutrition and personalized training is innovative and is one step away from pure Sport Nutrigenomics.

Even with the departure of Dick Williams, the focus on a personalized approach to nutrition never left the Reds’ front office. For example, a few months ago, the organization posted an opening for a Performance Nutrition Intern. Two of the key responsibilities included:

  • Prepare individual smoothies based in individualized plans made by the Major League Dietician
  • Stock individualized supplements based on individualized plans made by the Major League Dietician

An individualized nutrition plan is part of the Reds’ strategy to get the most out of their players. Similarly to the Angels, the Reds are creating nutrition plans built around the skill sets and body types of their different athletes. The only way that this process can be improved is by developing a deeper understanding of the role individual athlete’s DNA plays.

Outside of Baseball

Sometimes, the most successful idea novelties come from outside of one’s space. To learn more about how nutrigenomics can impact MLB, let’s change sports to see its effect on the NHL. Katie Strang wrote that nutrigenomics might be the next horizon for hockey.

The article discusses how Jorie Janzen, a registered dietician working with the Winnipeg Jets, likes to challenge traditional norms and find innovative ways for her athletes to reach their true athletic ceilings. Janzen claims that she has found nutrigenomics to be, “a sound, scientifically-backed strategy that she has incorporated into practice.”

Dieticians in the NHL have been using DNA testing to discover how certain ingredients are metabolized, as well as to discover vitamin inefficiencies. Based on of how certain nutrients impact an individual’s body, customized nutrition and supplementation plans are created to help reduce these nutritive inefficiencies.

Conclusion: The Race Has Started

The Moneyball A’s started an information arms race, with teams looking for diamonds in the rough by using advanced statistics to properly assess player’s value. The new race in MLB is to turn the rough into diamonds through enhanced player development practices. Right now, the world of Sports Nutrigenomics is an evolving science, and there are simply too many existing knowledge gaps for us to fully understand how it will impact players.

At the beginning of this season, Nick Krall and Phil Castellini declared that, for better or for worse, their plan to build a competitive team would be through player development. If this is true, they need to go all in on helping their players reach the full extent of their athletic abilities. This can take the form of individualized training plans, but it should also extend into individual diet and nutrition plans. The bleeding edge of science in this space is nutrigenomics. Unlocking the insights in this area of research could help the Reds establish a real competitive edge in player development.

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.

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Thomas Green
Thomas Green
13 days ago

Fantastic article, Micah. Thanks!