At long last, baseball nerds everywhere are able to get their hands on The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh and FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik. I say at long last even though it has barely been over a year between when this book was announced and when it was released. It just feels like a long time because I was excited to read it.
The book is being lauded as the new Moneyball, and honestly, it is a pretty fair assessment. Michael Lewis’s tome changed the way we think about baseball by showing what small market teams can accomplish by exploiting market inefficiencies. Billy Beane accomplished this with the A’s by using advanced stats to find undervalued players. Unfortunately for small market teams, those advantages have disappeared. Every team now has some kind of analytics department that is ready to pour over Statcast data. Moreover, everyone knows how to evaluate players now. A team is not going to find any hidden gems by valuing OBP over RBI, or FIP over pitcher record.
Lindbergh and Sawchik take the reader on a journey through the latest advancements in player development (PD) by taking us through the personal experiences of players themselves. Teams are understandably very secretive as to maintain any advantages, but players are generally more than happy to open up about how they got better.
Before The MVP Machine, there was not much known about PD, even though it is key to a prospect’s success. When a high draft pick fails, many people cast blame on the scouting department for drafting him without knowing anything about the effect PD had. Surely many prospects have gone bust no thanks to bad advice from coaches. This book helps shed some light on just how bad this might have been.
In a way, this book is like the sabermetric revolution applied to PD. Sabermetrics is nothing more than the pursuit of that which can be objectively proven about the game of baseball. In other words, it is the application of the scientific method to baseball knowledge. Now people are doing the same thing with PD.
For example, Brian Bannister, Red Sox assistant pitching coach and Vice President of Pitching Development, challenged preconceived notions on what makes a good pitcher. He questioned why fastballs were so important and emphasized at the expense of breaking balls, even when a pitcher’s breaking ball was far better than his fastball. He used this information to turn Rich Hill into Rich Hill, who ditched his sinker and threw his curveball, which is easily his best pitch, more than ever.
It is no secret that baseball players tend to be very conservative when it comes to how they believe baseball should be taught and understood, and coaches, of course, all used to be former players. I have always been suspicious as to how much of what they teach players is evidence based, and how often they ever questioned anything that was taught to them. After all, until relatively recently, players were afraid to question coaching advice for fear of coming off as disrespectful or difficult.
I was stunned by how much of what coaches taught was based on nothing more than anecdotes and tradition without a shred of real evidence. Granted that we did not have Trackman and Edgertronic cameras for the past 150 years, but I can’t help but wonder how much progress PD sacrificed because baseball culture never permitted players to question their coaches. It seems silly that coaches used to treat PD as one size fits all. Now, thanks to technology, development can be more individualized.
One of the most interesting chapters to me was the one on the conduit, one of the newer roles that the technological revolution has produced. You have probably heard at some point about how difficult it has been for analytically inclined front offices to get coaches and players to buy into what analytics and technology has to offer. Jerry Dipoto famously departed his position as GM of the Angels over his difficulties concerning Mike Scioscia’s reluctance to get his players to use any of the info provided by him.
The book helps cast further doubt as to why coaches need to have been former players, but the conduit is perfectly suited for a former player. Current players are more likely to be receptive towards analytics and technology if it is discussed with someone who understands what it is like to be in their shoes.
A few years ago I used to believe that this was not a necessary role, because at the end of the day, you have to do what your boss tells you to do. While I was not necessarily wrong, it was a pretty cold belief, and I am glad I came around before reading about how important a conduit is. Having coaches and players accept new information makes it more likely that they will work harder to implement it and therefore become more likely to succeed. Even if that was not the case, forcing the info down everyone’s throats could lead towards a pretty toxic work environment.
An entire chapter was dedicated to the Astros, an organization that has seen incredible success thanks to being at the forefront of the PD revolution. GM Jeff Luhnow deserves a ton of credit for his success instilling a culture that values new ideas and progressive thought.
The downside is that the Astros have turned into a cutthroat organization with a bad reputation for dehumanizing the game and being unpleasant to work for. They received a lot of criticism for gutting their pro scouting department in favor of technology. The scouts vs. stats debate has always been a silly, fictitious narrative, but actions like these don’t help. For the record, I am highly skeptical that this is the right thing to do. If this does not work out, it is going to blow up in their faces.
Luhnow comes off as a baseball robot in this book. He heartlessly fired a minor league coach on the spot for refusing to implement long toss training. Luhnow was quite open minded at first, asking the coach to back up his objection with evidence, but since he had none, he went the route of your common internet troll: he just said it was “dumb.” I understand that there should be consequences for being insubordinate and disrespectful, but firing someone on the spot seems pretty harsh.
Nowhere is Luhnow’s soullessness more apparent than when he traded for Roberto Osuna, an alleged domestic abuser who was suspended by Major League Baseball for his actions. It was reassuring to read about how there were many in the Astros’ organization that objected to the acquisition. Luhnow just didn’t care because he had to win baseball games.
While there are many successes to discuss, Lindbergh and Sawchik are upfront about the fact that the new age of PD will not work for everyone. Craig Breslow, for example, did everything right in trying to use technology to resuscitate his career, but it just didn’t work.
The authors are also upfront about the fact that, while the new age of PD is exciting and revolutionary, it does have its drawbacks. Scouts losing their jobs has already been covered. It also has negatively affected the aesthetics of the game as we see fewer and fewer balls in play. Last year was the first time ever where strikeouts outnumbered hits.
In addition to that, it might also be a reason for the recent decline in free agency. Sure, greedy owners and lacking the need to win to make money are major factors. That being said, teams might be thinking that there is no reason to pay a premium for a free agent that is going to decline in as little as two to three years when they can just make the premium player themselves and get six good years from him for pennies on the dollar. There is less risk involved, too. If a free agent does not work out, a team is still locked in for a set amount of years and a high amount of dollars. If a player on his rookie contract does not work out, he can be cut any time for no cost.
The book is not all serious. There is a chapter where Ben Lindbergh describes his experiences going through the high tech processes usually reserved for players, and it is very entertaining. He knows he does not compare to even an amateur player, so he smartly writes about his experiences using self-deprecating humor. It works great, and I genuinely laughed at some parts. For the record, I would have done much, much worse than Ben.
My one knock on the book is the abundance of Trevor Bauer. To be fair, I don’t think this book could have happened without him, as he was was so far ahead of the curve with what he was doing and found tremendous success by doing it. The problem is that while Bauer’s work ethic is phenomenal, he is far from it as a person. He is an outspoken climate change denier, once told someone to “quit life” on Twitter, and most recently used Twitter to harass someone who dared to criticize him. Thankfully, unlike some other writers out there, the authors were not fooled. While they fully acknowledged Bauer’s accomplishments, they did not gloss over stuff like what was mentioned above. They were upfront about the problems with Bauer as a person.
I also would like to have seen something on how this revolution is expected to affect the game as a whole. Is this going to kill free agency? What percentage of players are actually utilizing this stuff? What is the success rate? There is concern that pitcher development is far ahead of hitter development. If this is true and continues to be the case, what does MLB do if run scoring plummets to levels that make the dead-ball era look like the so-called steroid era?
I can’t recommend this book enough to any serious baseball fan. It is well-written and fascinating, and even at almost 350 pages, you might breeze through it before you know it. I’ll leave you with one quote from Ben from when he was having his swing tracked using sensors he was wearing, and I do so choosing to leave out any context whatsoever:
“I preen, unreasonably proud of my pelvis.”
Get this book.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.