Phillies To Put MLB Star on Scale — But Will It Work?

By imposing a weight clause in Delmon Young's new contract, the Philadelphia Phillies have re-opened a debate on the benefits of forced dieting.

Even in the twisted perspective of professional sports contracts, Delmon Young’s unusual deal with the Philadelphia Phillies sounds pretty sweet: $600,000 in bonuses if he can lose 10 pounds and keep at least half the weight off his 6-foot-3-inch frame all season.

His target: 230 pounds, nearly obese by common benchmarks.

The Phillies presumably believe that the relatively modest weight loss will improve Young’s production in the outfield. But nutritionists, sports lawyers and health-care analysts don’t see it that way. Money alone isn’t that great an incentive for overweight people, and in an athlete’s case, forced dieting may actually hurt performance.

"My biggest concern is if he gets down to 230, does that make him a better player? If it does, then it makes sense," said Greg Salgueiro, a Rhode Island dietitian who consults athletes and trainers and helps companies develop wellness programs. "But what if he loses 10 pounds and he isn't as good? It's a big assumption to say he'll lose 10 pounds and he'll be just as good or better."

Weight clauses are relatively uncommon in sports contracts, so it is difficult to analyze their effectiveness. The last time one made news was 2010, when the Los Angeles Lakers signed 6-foot-9-inch rookie power forward Derrick Caracter to a contract that required him to weigh 275 pounds.  Caracter lasted just one season and is now reportedly playing in Israel.

A year earlier, the Boston Celtics signed 6-foot-9-inch Glen "Big Baby" Davis to a contract that promised $500,000 bonuses if it avoided exceeding a certain weight. Davis ended up getting traded to the Orlando Magic, where he apparently does not have a weight clause.

Young, who won last year's American League Championship Series MVP award while playing for the Detroit Tigers, has reportedly agreed to six weigh-ins throughout the 2013 season with the Phillies. The first three times, he must weight 230, and the last three 235. He is promised a $100,000 bonus for hitting each mark.

Why the Phillies sought the weight clause, and why Young agreed to it, no one's saying. But while pro baseball players are getting heavier -- of the 35 Major Leaguers who've been listed at 240 pounds or more, 23 played in the last decade -- many teams are loathe to put such pressure on an athlete.

New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said last year that he didn't want pitching ace C.C. Sabathia playing with a weight clause because, in his experience, they almost always backfire. He said he'd seen players doing anything necessary to drop weight.

"Guys would starve themselves two days before to make the weight and then cost us a game because he shouldn’t have even been out there competing,” Cashman told the New York Daily News.

Sports lawyer Michael McCann says he once analyzed the rosters of the 2004 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox and found that more than 90 percent of the players were technically overweight.

"Pounds may be a useful measure for the rest of the population, but sometimes athletes are just thick and wide with muscles," McCann said. "They may be in good condition but their poundage is in excess for what someone would normally be for their height and age."

He added, "Maybe an athlete feels that he has to carry around the additional weight to be a good player."

John Cawley, who runs Cornell University's Institute on Health Economics, Health Behaviors and Disparities, views weight clauses through the prism of a basic economic rule: You get what you pay for.

Young's contract, Cawley said, could discourage him from lifting weights and adding muscle mass, and since muscle is heavier than fat, losing it could be a faster way to hitting his marks. A more effective tool would be to measure Young's percentage of body fat.

"He chose to sign (the contract). Maybe he likes to structure things this way. But it begs the question: are the Phillies going to get an extra $100,000 in benefits from his hitting (each of) these target weights?" Cawley said. "What are they getting in terms of production on the field? That's going to be a really interesting thing to follow."

His point begged another question: Are weight-loss incentives effective in the real world?

Research shows that overweight workers are less productive and get sick more often. They also incur higher healthcare costs. So employers are exploring ways to bring those costs down. One way is to enroll them in programs that offer money if they hit certain weight loss goals.

Cawley studied one of those programs and found that half dropped out within the first quarter, and by year's end, three-quarters had quit. Of those who stuck with it, the average weight loss was six pounds, Cawley said. Among all the participants, the average weight loss was under two pounds.

None of them were offered $100,000 bonuses like Young, but the point, according to Cawley, is that free money alone isn't an effective motivator.

Joshua Price, who worked with Cawley on the weight-loss study, studies the economics of health and sports at the University of Texas at Arlington. He cautioned against judging Young's contract without knowing exactly what went into the negotiations.

A brief look at Young's career shows that his weight ballooned only in the last couple years, which happens to coincide (despite the MVP performance last October) with a drop-off in his overall performance, Price said. The Phillies may have taken that into consideration, and tailored a contract that balances his value as a heavier player and as a lighter one.

"I imagine that the people making contracts are intelligent and consulted with doctors, so the (weight clause) may be based on Young's body type and body fat showing that 230 pounds is some optimal number," Price said.

Daniel Werly, a sports lawyer in Chicago, said he was skeptical that the weight clause would have much of an impact on Young's output.

"I don't think it's necessarily a fair measure of performance," he said. But he added: "In baseball and other sports, athletes are getting bigger and stronger and weighing more, so it might be something that comes more into play."

Scott Ross contributed reporting.

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