While their new year diet resolutions might be very different from our own, even pro players use this time of year reset what they’re eating and say goodbye to bad habits.
The Los Angeles Angels are among those focusing on improving their nutrition during the offseason in order to in turn improve their performance on the field when the season opener against the White Sox on April 1 rolls around.
To achieve that end, the Angels organization hired sports dietitian and nutritionist Becci Twombley in 2013 to keep the players’ eating habits in shape.
While the role was not the norm when Twombley first joined the Angels payroll, it has been required by the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement since 2017 that all clubs have a player/management advisory council that works with a full-time chef and registered dietician to improve clubhouse nutrition.
“That was groundbreaking — baseball was the first pro sport to do that,” Twombley said. “Up until that point, it was the clubhouse managers’ who were handling it. And, you know, they did a fine job but their primary focus wasn’t health — it was getting the guys what they wanted. The players decided they wanted a dietitian to have a hand in it so they put it in the CBA.”
Halos Heaven: What was the initial response from the players at being told what to eat?
Becci Twombley: It was definitely mixed reviews at the beginning. CJ Wilson was incredibly into his nutrition and he wanted to know everything. Then his interest kind of brought some other pitchers along as well. They were very interested to hear how they could be more consistent and how good nutrition was going to allow them to throw more strikes. The position players were the same – they wanted to optimize their reaction time at the plate.
Initially, I’m sure that they were like ‘what does this girl have to do with us and what does she know what she know about baseball?’ But I had worked in college baseball since 2007, including with the UCLA team who went to the College World Series several times, so I had Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer when they were freshmen in college.
Are you fully accepted by all the players now?
Yes, now I don’t have any problem and am just accepted as part of the process and how the organization is run. As soon as we sign a player — whether they’re a 17-year-old Dominican player or a free agent signing — then I contact them and I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m Becci, I’m your dietitian, what can I do to help you?’ More often than not, they’re asking me for more information than me trying to get involved.
How hands-on are you with them after that throughout the season?
It depends on the player. I try to do some sort of evaluation to see their level of knowledge and how I can help them. Once they know what they’re meant to do, there’s very little hand-holding. So with those minor league guys, it’s really about working on a foundational process, like how many calories do they need? How do we get the right energy in them in order to optimize their performance during the game? As they move on, the focus is making them stronger and more resilient to get through the daily grind of the season.
With the big league guys, it’s really mostly about just optimizing recovery. By the time they get there, they should have a fueling process that’s pretty dialed in to where they know what they’re supposed to do. You can’t design one diet for everyone so it’s about what’s going to work for them … my job is to help them discover that for themselves, then they can use the information to be become really consistent.
Do you collaborate with the clubhouse to make sure they supply the right food to the players?
We have a third-party vendor at the stadium called Legends Hospitality who are incredible. They have a chef that really meets all of our needs and they do everything that we ask them to do really well. My job is more like the Xs and Os: we need this much carbohydrate, we need this many protein options, we have to have this type of antioxidant … all of the science part, then our chef takes that and turns it into something delicious.
How do the nutritional needs of baseball players differ to other pro athletes?
Baseball is really unique as everyone has an offensive role and a defensive role. So last year we had Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, but there’s also Troy Tulowitzki who is a shortstop Those are two very different body types but play the same position. Or like having Albert Pujols and Jared Walsh both at first base but with very different styles of play.
You have to take into account different body type and different powers when you map out their fueling, and have to look at what their energy expenditure is going to be. When we play at home, our right fielder runs about a mile more than the left fielder, so we have to take that into account when we make their nutrition plan. Or if we know that our bullpen has somebody who’s going to be coming out for the fourth day in a row, that means that we need to account for that in their fueling to make sure that they’re not going to show signs of fatigue on the mound.
Obviously, these diet plans go way beyond calorie counts, but what is the smallest amount of calories that one guy would have compared to the highest that another player has?
The lowest amount that somebody would need is probably going to be somewhere around 2,800 calories a day. And the highest is going to be — for the really young, high muscle guys who are running a lot — closer to 4,500 or 5,000.
How is it broken down?
They have three main meals a day then small meals in between, and fueling right before games. We look at the schedule for each day then plug their food in around it. So, on a day where they’re going to have a red eye overnight, they’re going to eat more often the next day than they would on a day that they didn’t. Baseball differs from every other sport because we play every day so you don’t have a day off to just like refuel and then get back to it.
What are typical superfoods you recommend to players?
Honey is very water soluble so it’s really fast to absorb. We’ll make different things in the kitchen with honey, and also use Stinger products that have added honey. Some of the guys put honey in their tea when they’re in the bullpen, especially if it’s a cold night. The fats that we use are typically some type of nut, pistachios are especially beneficial. They have antioxidants that open up the blood flow, and also provide a great energy source for the guys. In baseball, you need either to be quickly reactive or you need some good steady energy — you’re never just like jogging. Pistachios are easy to snack on in the bullpen, too.
If we’re trying to have a player continue gaining muscle during the season, it is tough, so they need efficient proteins. Whey protein is the best option — in milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yoghurt or blended in smoothies.
Recovery is the third component after fuel and muscle building, which is really about antioxidants and decreasing inflammation. We use Cheribundi made from tart cherries with the guys having about eight ounces twice a day – so we get through a lot cherry juice during the season! If you’re a starting pitcher like Andrew Heaney or Griffin Canning, then they will have a Cheribundi immediately, go lift, and then have another at game time so they’re two hours apart. They either drink it straight or in a smoothie with pineapple, strawberry and protein powder.
Why is it so beneficial?
Tart cherry juice contains anthocyanin (which gives it the red color/purple color) that is a really powerful antioxidant that targets inflammation in the cells. It makes you have better blood flow, less pain, sleep better … There are other foods that have anthocyanin like eggplant or pomegranate, but not as high as tart cherry juice.
How do you handle the different language barriers and cultural tastes of an international roster?
My goal is to be fluent in Spanish by spring training! Félix Peña has been one of my Spanish professors. Then you have players like Shohei Ohtani from Japan … talking about their cultures is something that really brings everyone together, finding out how they do things in Puerto Rico, the Dominican or Venezuela. Albert Pujols gives me advice on Latin food as he has an amazing palate — if he likes something then everyone else will like it.
What’s been the hardest part of adapting their nutrition to COVID guidelines?
The biggest challenge is that we used to have this amazing buffet with a ton of different options and now that’s all single servings, such as chicken or steak with a choice of sides. The guys were really understanding though, I was blown away by how accommodating they were.
Do you work with the team in the offseason too, or do you just leave them alone to eat what they want?
A lot of my job takes place in the offseason as that’s when they can really heal. Some guys will be having surgeries that they put off all year, or others are making big changes like putting on mass. The minor league guys often want to get bigger, so I check in on them to make sure they’re hitting their goals. There’s a lot of different stuff going on right now!