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A new frontier for sabermetrics and minor league baseball

An interesting situation has developed in which teams are both harming and supporting players.

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When people think of sabermetrics, they typically think of numbers. "Metrics" is in the word even, so it's hard not to think of numbers. However, I use a broader definition of the word. Kindly provided by Andy Andres in the Saber 101 class at EdX, this broad definition of sabermetrics is the study of baseball through observation and experimentation. Math isn't necessarily involved in this broader definition. Sabermetrics is really the general science of baseball.

Consider this broad definition in the context of the minor leagues. I have long maintained that the next area for sabermetric improvement is in how teams both treat and develop their minor league players. This area doesn't have to be math-heavy, though math is surely involved. This area is about observing current practices and determining if those practices really are the best way of producing both men and players. Some teams are consistently better than others at identifying young talent; some teams are consistently better at developing the talent they have. This anecdotal thought suggests that there is a skill gap between teams in developing minor leaguers. I don't think that's a ludicrous suggestion. Luckily, skills can be improved, and sabermetrics can provide a means to improve these skills. Teams should want to improve these skills in order to gain an edge over other teams who decide not to look at their practices critically.

There is a problem, though. On the one hand, major league teams are businesses that don't want to establish a new norm of paying minor leaguers living wages. There are lawsuits against baseball due to the wage conditions endured by minor leaguers. Baseball says it can't survive paying higher wages, so it'll fight and probably win. Higher wages for minor league players are probably pretty far off.

On the other hand, paying minor leaguers a higher wage seems like an opportunity to produce better players. Minor leaguers living under better conditions might improve their chances of becoming more productive players for the team, but baseball has essentially closed one of the major avenues of achieving better living conditions: more money. How can baseball teams pay minor leaguers more without actually paying them more money?

Two teams have found a way. First, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who recently hired Gabe Kapler as their "farm director". Instead of focusing on his job title and what that might entail, focus instead on what makes Kapler unique. Kapler is a former player who runs his own blog on health and fitness. Central themes of the blog include questioning health and fitness norms, keeping a strong mind, and using observation and experimentation to arrive at best practices. That sounds like the broad definition of sabermetrics above — questioning norms, observation and experimentation, etc. Kapler brings a scientific mind to his position. Mark Saxon of ESPNLA has this regarding Kapler and his new role:

"I actually think we bring a lot of similar pluses," Kapler said. "We’re all devoted to developing better men in addition to better baseball players. I think we all have the philosophy of standing shoulder to shoulder with a similar mission while pushing each other and trying to extract the best possible answer to the tough question.

"I certainly don’t think being a baseball player gave me a leg up as regards my ability to always ask the question, ‘Why?’"

Kapler will bring his philosophy of trial and error, along with his particularly extensive knowledge of health, nutrition, and fitness, to change the way the Dodgers bring along their minor leaguers. He can educate young players on how to maintain their bodies properly and follow proper nutrition guidelines; he can provide individualized advice; and he can relate to struggling players and teach them how to deal with the grind. Granted, this knowledge doesn't increase the number in players' bank accounts, but these are tangible benefits. Paying minor leaguers more money won't help them live better unless they know how to live better. Again, since baseball teams themselves have decided that paying more money is not happening, this is how one team has decided to go about providing more benefits to their players.

The second team to try their hand in this field is the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox employed a mental skills coach from 2005-2013, but this year they have a different approach. Alex Speier reported that the Red Sox have hired Dr. Richard Ginsburg, who is the co-director of the PACES Institute of Sports Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, to head a new department of behavioral health. The mental skills coach, Bob Tewksbury, has returned to work in this new department. From Speier's article:

"We’re trying to take care of the body as well as we possibly can in the name of health," Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said recently. "Health extends past the body, but it’s all related.

"A player’s overall behavior in his daily practices, his environment — where he’s coming from in the morning, what he’s putting into his body — all these things go into a player’s overall health.

"We’re really just trying to help players be as healthy as they possibly can be, physically and mentally."

This sounds a lot like the holistic view of health, fitness, and nutrition that Kapler shares. The Red Sox will focus quite a bit on the mental health of their players in both the minors and the majors. This is a slightly different method from the Dodgers, but the goal is the same: improve the mental and physical health of the players.

Don't take this as a defense of the way teams pay their minor leaguers. I mentioned earlier that more money is pointless if players don't know what to do with it; well, more knowledge isn't pointless, but the players can't act on that knowledge unless they can afford it. Eating healthy is expensive.

Baseball wants to pay its players more without actually paying its players more. Teams have figured that providing ancillary benefits amounts to "more pay". These ancillary benefits really should help produce men from the minor league system while also increasing the chances these men reach their baseball talent ceilings. This is a good thing. Other teams, if they haven't already, should look at ways to accomplish the same goals within their own organizations. While this is a step in the right direction, improvement won't be complete without a living wage.

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Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.