Second in a three-part series on how the Nationals are focusing on improving nutrition in the minor leagues. Read the first part here.
Sports dietician Leslie Bonci, who is employed by the Nationals, has seen the change the last few years in baseball players.
They want to get better, and not just by playing the sport, but by improving their strength and conditioning. Bonci said that begins with nutrition. And that is where she helps the Nationals players, especially at the minor league level.
"It has really been a positive transition in baseball," Bonci said. "Nutrition is moving up on the priority list. Even at the minor league level, realizing you can't have one without the other. You are only going to grow a muscle to a certain extent if you lift. You have to have the hand-to-mouth lifting, as well, in order to really get the outcome that you want."
Bonci said the Nationals have made it a priority in their system to make sure their players eat right, and make healthy choices when deciding what to eat each day.
"I would have to say (Nationals director of minor league operations) Mark Scialabba and everybody in the organization has been incredibly supportive in realizing how much this has to happen," she added. "In each of the affiliates - and I go to them all during the season and meet with everybody in spring training, too - we really made the attempt to have some color on the plate which is not a Fruit Loop, which is a good thing."
Bonci said it starts with the culture and landscape in the clubhouse. When a player looks for something to eat, there are plenty of good choices right in front of him. Not potato chips or soda, but fruits, proteins and vegetables.
"Having more blenders available so they guys can make smoothies, it is not just a protein shake, because we have yogurt and we have milk and we have fruit for them to do. As well as the idea of stir fry, fajitas and just getting in things that are not peanut butter and jelly alone. Not just snacky stuff - the snacky stuff is going away and being replaced by food. I am hearing this from the players; it's not just me the 'nutrition witch.' This is the players move for them to do, as well. This is the players saying, 'Hey, we want to do this'."
And that is where Bonci said the significance lies with the players. Just like your doctor or dentist, she can tell you what you should do, but it is up to the players to go out and do it. She has seen there can be a significant discrepancy from how a player will eat during the season and when they go home.
"Some of them are really working on this in the offseason," Bonci said. "My contention is if you eat really well in the offseason and eat like crap during the season, it is really not what we want. I want continuity. We have been evolving towards that. A lot of this is show-and-tell and letting them realize they can get the benefit from their fridge and not necessarily from a supplement. All those kinds of things make an incredible difference.
Bonci said Nationals strength and conditioning coordinator Landon Brandes "is really echoing that to the players, so it's a one-two punch to them."
Last month, Bonci was a part of the Nationals' first strength and conditioning camp for select prospects. This is where she got to work on each player's offseason schedule for nutrition. It began with Bonci asking each player a crucial question.
"At the camp, I had four groups of five each," she explained. "They don't want to hear lectures, but what I do is ask, "What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish this offseason?' For some it was putting mass on and some were into decreasing body fat and then figuring it out individually."
Bonci found that each player's schedule during the offseason months varied greatly from their regimen on gamedays.
"To me, when I look at where the errors are, it isn't always that they don't think about the food, it is the distribution," Bonci said. "That is where things fall apart. It might be one day they are eating twice a day and one day they are eating eight times a day. So many of my baseball players say they need to eat six times a day and being a very practical person, they might have a job in the offseason (where) you don't have time to eat eight times a day and their bosses won't allow that.
"So let's go more reasonable: three and a half times a day. So thinking about continuity and thinking about distribution of protein as part of every single meal. I like to do visuals with them, a hand-size amount of protein, a (certain) amount of carbs, pasta or potato, and then two-fifths fruit and vegetable. If they are doing that with more consistency, then they will be able to achieve their goals."
But minor league players are not making major league money. It is easy to just grab a protein shake after a workout and keep going. But protein supplements are costly in the long run, so Bonci found a different solution for her players.
"I also do price points," Bonci noted. "I show them a protein supplement and say, 'It costs this much money. Now for that much money, you could have a can of tuna or you could eat three eggs or you could do this or you could do that.' Just because they don't have unlimited bucks, I would rather that they eat broadly in everything than just eat from a minimal amount of food and not getting their needs met."
Bonci said it is easier for players to eat right in the offseason because a lot of times they are home, mom is making their dinners and their refrigerators are stocked. Their schedules are not slammed with doubleheaders or 2 a.m. bus rides.
Bonci sometimes hear players say, "Well, it is the season now, I can think about (nutrition)."
"What do you mean you cant think about it?" she said. "This is when you need to think about it, when you have to be most productive."
She said getting players to eat breakfast during the season is her biggest goal. It is difficult to get players to eat breakfast after playing a late game the night before. Jokingly, Bonci said, "On my tombstone, it will be that I finally got my baseball players to eat breakfast in the morning. That is a positive thing."
Bonci also works for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Toronto Blue Jays. Nationals assistant general manager Bryan Minniti worked for the Pirates from 2004-2009. When Minniti was hired by the Nationals in November 2009, he was able to get Bonci involved with the Nationals and she has been working with them ever since.
Bonci does receive positive feedback during the season from the players.
"To me, a thank you is when they are texting me after I have had a chance to see them in person," Bonci said. "They are texting because they are interested. It is not a thank you face-to-face. I might be a thank you via the phone. That is OK. I will take it."
Bonci said she also gets feedback from Brandes that the Nationals see results in the players returning from the offseason, which means they have a little less work to do in spring training to get the guys ready.
"This organization, in particular, there aren't so much the problem children," she said. "Those who are just too skinny for their own good. There is a few, but they are making progress. We are reinforcing the goals of what it is I am recommending and then Brandes or whoever is at that particular affiliate staying on them. That is a positive change."
She has seen the results in pitchers like right-hander Pedro Encarnacion, who is 6-foot-4 and 175 lbs. The Nationals want to make sure these guys are building some muscle mass and strength from season to season. Encarnacion is slowly accomplishing that goal while still maintaining velocity.
Players and the organization are also hyper-aware of what not to put in their bodies. Bonci said she makes sure that each protein supplement the players take is NSF-certified. If it is not NSF-certified, they do not take it.
"It puts some parameters around it. If you are interested in taking something, here is one you can take and here are some food alternatives as well," she said.
"My players have been much better at reaching out. I want you to call me and let me know before you take it so that we can make sure it is all right for you to take. The guys are buying into that. I think they appreciate they have a resource who is willing to go and find out if it is something that they can take."
Bonci is another prime example of the investment the Nationals have made to make sure their players eat right during the season and, more importantly, as they get ready for spring training. Making it a year round commitment to nutrition is her goal.
Next: Players and coaches buy in to a year-round commitment to strength and conditioning on a budget.