Cleat wars

On Friday afternoon a friend of mine told me I should check out the official Twitter page of the Vanderbilt University baseball program. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself studying pictures of the black and old gold Nike cleats that players will be wearing this upcoming season. After I retweeted a couple of pictures I received feedback from another friend of mine who said that he liked the cleats, along with a comment that said that he hoped and trusted that they fit well.

Hope and trust, let’s think about what those words mean. I hope and trust that my husband is not cheating on me while he’s out of town, but if we’ve had a rocky relationship in the past, how can I know with any degree of certainty that he’s being faithful down in Dallas? This may seem unrelated to footwear, but I’d like to suggest that my comparison isn’t so farfetched since many are habitually cheating their feet out of comfort, and then hoping and trusting that body parts they have abused and neglected are going to function well, and will continue to improve as they head to Spring Training.

As I research the cleat selection process I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people at every level of baseball, from tee ball, and little league, up to the big leagues. During my quest I’ve spoken with high school and junior college coaches. They told me I needed to speak with D1 coaches so I did. An MLB strength and conditioning coach reached out to me on Twitter because he thought I had insight into the role footwear can play in injury prevention, and I was honestly shocked when he explained that agents purchase footwear for players and arch length is not a factor, a consideration, or a known variable.

Several people suggested I speak with footwear companies directly. I used to work for a manufacturer so I have a pretty good idea of what those organizations want. They want to sell shoes, they want to sell a lot of shoes, and they don’t always care how those shoes are sold as long as they keep selling more shoes than they have previously. When I spoke with someone who is in the know at Under Armour he said that while it would be nice if players were measured for footwear, it was too time consuming, and not their responsibility to measure, however he also copied me in an email he sent to a distributor I spoke with who told him that if I was ever in town, he should make meeting me a priority.

Throughout my talks with people, I can’t find any team that is routinely measured for footwear. I can find the odd player who has been measured and/or accommodated, but I can’t find a coach, equipment manager, GM, front office employee, or MLB Director of Baseball Operations who can tell me that players are being measured for cleats. I have learned a lot about what role the team podiatrist and orthotics people play, and as someone who used to speak to these people daily, it is my professional belief that they are undervalued, underutilized, and riding a fine line because putting the world’s best orthotic in a shoe that does not fit can compromise feet, and even ruin promising careers.

The gentleman who trained me has worked with athletes in other sports. I could name an NBA player who has been sidelined due to a debilitating tendon injury, but I will respect what he shared in confidence.  When I talked to my friend about the fit issue he said it was everything he could do to get the player into a shoe that was a size larger than he had been wearing, but still wasn’t what this player needed in terms of total length. Orthotics are a piece of the puzzle, but they’re a product with limitations that need to be understood by the end wearer, or the entire system can jeopardize foot health.

When I sold shoes to the O&P market my boss explained that those people were great at measuring due to their precision, but many practitioners didn’t want to get involved in shoes because a two hundred dollar pair of shoes is less profitable than a prosthetic leg that can be billed out at seventeen thousand dollars, or more. Suppose we have a world class prosthetic limb, and there are lovely ones out there, what have you done to your new leg if you put a K-Mart shoe beneath it? First time amputees are immediately at risk for a second amputation. Does it make sense to spend that kind of money on a leg, and undermine that work of bio-mechanical art  by giving the only foot someone has a shoe that may fit, but falls far short of ideal footwear?

As a player, do you want good enough, or do you want the best? Do you want to hope and trust that your cleats fit, or do you want to know that you’ve taken a couple minutes out of your busy day to pay attention to your feet and examine them for red spots that could be an indicator of a more serious problem. Did you know that things like ingrown toenails, calluses, and blisters are usually a footwear issue that can be resolved once the underlying issues that are causing them are removed?

Do you want your pitcher walking out to the mound with cleats that are too short? What if you could look at a hitter’s feet, and pitch to his footwear weaknesses because a player who has trouble moving laterally will be easier to pull off balance than someone whose feet are more stable. Would it be fun to stand sixty feet and six inches away from someone who practically falls over trying to swing at a pitch because their cleats are too narrow?

Now flip that scenario around, and think about how you would feel if you saw a member of your team being humiliated after falling to the ground because they missed a pitch. What if you could give that player more lateral stability and help him run more efficiently so he didn’t fall over as often, or possibly not at all? What if cleats that fit gave a player that split second to cross the plate safely instead of being called out at home?

I’ve spoken with players who are recovering from injuries, and I’d like to thank everyone who has been willing to help me out with this project, because this is a chance to be part of a grassroots movement that addresses the need to measure feet as an integral and non-negotiable portion of any athletic program because I can’t think of any athlete who will be leaving their sport and not depending on their feet to transport them unless they are already missing one or both feet, or they currently rely on wheelchairs to propel them. If you don’t like the feet you have, talk to me, because I can sell you new ones, and unfortunately, a lot of people have met me because a surgeon removed some or all of a foot they had at birth.

Many have told me that I need science to back my argument. They want to see which injuries can be prevented, or know how a different set of cleats will affect performance. I believe that I can give people that kind of information, however in order to do that, we need data. We don’t know who is in a position to benefit from a footwear change until we have identified the population that is already wearing cleats that fit.

Once we know whose cleats fit, we can work with what I refer to as the at risk population. Anyone who is wearing improperly fitted footwear is automatically at risk in the same way a car that has been outfitted with tires that are too large, too small, or too narrow will be less safe than the same car that has tires that fit. A car with three tires that fit will still drive, and the owner may not realize that anything is out of the ordinary. I know because a car of mine was in an accident and I later found out that the body shop put the wrong sized tire on my vehicle which ended up costing me quite a bit of money because the body shop replaced my tire, but I was stuck paying for my car to be realigned.

It takes less than two minutes to measure someone for footwear. A Brannock device is inexpensive, and it will last a lot longer than a Brent Lillibridge roster stint on any given team. If I was in charge of a team, I would make measuring a team event, but not mandatory. I want to know who cares enough to show up at what some may think is a frivolous or unnecessary experience. I believe that baseball will be a better, safer sport if the only thing people did was start measuring players for footwear.

What would happen if we charted how many players are wearing cleats that fit, determined the variance, and compared that with a list of people on the disabled list? What if Bryce Harper wouldn’t have missed playing time because he had an ingrown toenail? How many players are great because their footwear is giving them an advantage lesser players could use? We don’t know, and unless we start measuring, we’ll never know what baseball could have been had we had this data to analyze.

How do I know this? I guess the only way to satisfy both of us is to start doing what hasn’t been done before. Can you think of a good reason to not measure players now that I’ve explained that the cost and time investments are minimal, and we could mine performance plus injury data? A good shoe store will loan a coach a Brannock device. Measuring will save time and money. It will make ordering cleats much more efficient, and the return rate should go down as teams become more proficient. Suppose that you need to order several pairs of shoes for each player on your roster. Do you want to hope and trust that people know their shoe sizes, or would you rather take a few minutes and measure so you are safe instead of sorry?

Until players are measured, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can get players to run faster just by changing the shape of their cleats if they’re currently wearing the right size. That’s getting ahead of the measurement discussion, but I spoke with a player who said his base running times decreased when he stopped wearing his football cleats for baseball. I also spoke with a teenaged player who is recovering from a severe ankle injury. He was wearing a size fourteen cleat, he’s since dropped down to a size twelve. Do you think that him wearing the wrong size contributed to his ankle injury or him developing turf toe in both of his feet?

The bottom line: measuring players is a way to address what I see as a baseball inefficiency. At two minutes per player, and a no cost Brannock device if you can borrow one, the time and money arguments fail. A school like Vanderbilt University that can afford to provide its players with the gear that I saw being distributed ought to be able to fit a Brannock device into their budget, and if Nike was smart, they’d include a one for each team that purchased footwear from them since their product reputation is riding on the line, and it doesn’t matter how pretty cleats are if they’re responsible for a player being sent to the disabled list.

As a coach, I want my bases covered. Measuring will take a bit more time, and it’s going to add a new layer of stress to the coaching position, because as people get into measuring, they’re going to start learning things that they didn’t know before, but if we can figure out how to hurl a ball more than a hundred miles an hour, and calculate numerous advanced statistics, I’m confident that we can learn how to measure feet especially since a link to the Brannock website is only a Google search away.

Good coaches are going to be proactive about player health and safety. They want their players to have every advantage, and minimize the risks that they encounter. Baseball can be a dangerous game. Feet can get a player out of the way of a line drive, they can be used to steal second, and they will still work if they don’t have gear that fits, but what more could they be doing if they were given an opportunity to step into the batter’s box, or on the mound when they function as a flawless extension of an elite body?

I started this monologue with the words hope and trust. I hope you’ll think about what I’ve said here, and I trust that this is going to resonate with someone. Measuring people is the right thing to do whether it costs time, money, or both. I’m comfortable stating that the injury rate will fall as the percentage of a roster wearing cleats that fit rises, and you can disagree with me, but I’m going to need proof before I accept that argument as valid. The only way to prove that cleats are enhancing or hindering performance is to measure, and if you ask me, that is precisely what we should be doing anyways.

Saberfeet: Measured solutions for the feet of baseball’s future.