The MVP Machine: A Thought-Provoking Exploration of Player Development’s New Era

Justin Turner, like many players, has taken to using data to transform his game. (via TonyTheTiger)

In their new book The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik explore how new data, technology, and training methods are revolutionizing player development throughout baseball.

As the book’s ambitious subtitle suggests, the authors present most of their analysis through the lenses of the game’s intellectual misfits. There are several benefits to this approach, most obviously that baseball’s nonconformists are a talkative and engaging bunch. Trevor Bauer, Justin Turner, Brian Bannister, and several other current and former players gave the authors excellent insight and plenty of memorable quotes: “Everything I learned about pitching development, I learned from Ansel Adams,” Bannister says by way of introduction.

Such colorful contributions from recognizable names provide helpful context in a book chock-full of granular baseball insights. It’s one thing to read about how Bauer now has the technology and coaching paradigm to add several inches of horizontal movement to his slider. But it’s far more illuminating to learn how hitting coaches characterize the potential for a broad application of this kind of pitching development: “Hitters could be fucked for the next ten years.”

A crucial part of The MVP Machine’s thesis is that the technological and developmental breakthroughs we’re seeing in baseball today were never inevitable. Most of the players who pioneered new swing paths or throwing programs did so not because of their employers but in spite of them. The Diamondbacks were famously dismissive of Bauer and his training regimen. Even less-divisive players like Bannister and Adam Ottavino were criticized for “overthinking it” simply for trying to incorporate data into their game plans. It is at times stunning to read about just how calcified the industry’s player development staffs were and, in some cases, still are.

The MVP Machine is at its best when discussing how the disruptions in player development impact the humans playing the game. One chapter reviews how teams try to funnel increasingly sophisticated information to their players. Another demonstrates the importance of communication for the Astros in translating their technical and intellectual advantages into wins. And Bauer offers a particularly detailed look into the amount of work required for a major leaguer to maintain and enhance his performance. As he logs the number of throws he makes, the weight he lifts, the video he studies, the hours and hours and hours spent honing his craft over the winter, you can’t help but come away humbled by the dedication required to succeed in modern baseball.

Lindbergh and Sawchik also do well in covering some of the darker aspects of baseball’s current era. New technology and information offer players unparalleled opportunities to improve themselves — but at significant privacy costs. The Astros come under scrutiny too, as the authors link the club’s historic success with a cutthroat and perhaps toxic culture. There is widespread concern that the growing emphasis on technology at the amateur level will increasingly make baseball a game for the wealthy and privileged. And no good baseball book in 2019 would be complete without linking big data to modern salary suppression on the free agent market: Lindbergh and Sawchik write that “[w]hile the recent revolution in player development has helped individual players perform better and make more… it may be costing players collectively.”

The rich source material partially obscures how tricky it is to write about player development for a large audience. It’s historically been an undercovered corner of the game, and even big baseball fans may know very little about how teams and players work to optimize themselves. While Hardball Times readers may now be familiar with Bauer’s story or Driveline’s prowess in helping pitchers enhance velocity, player development is a challenging subject to present to the masses.

Lindbergh and Sawchik nonetheless endeavor to make The MVP Machine accessible to all, and to their credit, they pull it off pretty well. Casual fans will enjoy following Bauer’s and Turner’s paths from journeymen to stars, and everyone can laugh along with Lindbergh for a chapter while he works with top trainers and coaches to develop himself as a better player. You can almost see the quizzical expression on Driveline hitting guru Jason Ochart’s face as he analyzes Lindbergh’s inefficient hand mechanics and comments: “I’ve actually never seen that before.”

But even if you already know what Trackman does and why Edgertronic cameras are suddenly in vogue throughout the major leagues, The MVP Machine will give you plenty to chew on. I found myself regularly jotting observations and questions: What percentage of players are actually practicing or playing suboptimally? Why aren’t we hearing more about the difficulties or failures in modern player development?

In scope, ambition, and even the choice to rely on interesting and surprisingly talkative characters, The MVP Machine will inevitably draw comparisons to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Like Lewis, Lindbergh and Sawchik are analyzing how misfits are reshaping the game, and how the current landscape is vulnerable to further tectonic rearrangement. Indeed, today’s nonconformists are depicted in such a way that they seem as ahead of the curve as Billy Beane’s A’s were 16 years ago.

The problem for both The MVP Machine and baseball as a sport is that the current era’s disruptions are simultaneously less interesting and possibly even more transformative than those of the Moneyball era. The A’s were a plucky upstart, and the things they prioritized — getting on base, finding value in spare parts — were observable with the naked eye. Today’s innovative teams are already baseball’s kingmakers. Their work is built on radar technology and high-speed cameras, developed in baseball laboratories and manifested in tiny mechanical changes and different pitch use patterns. Seamheads like me may lap it all up anyway, but to borrow a line from Joe Sheehan, it’s really hard to notice someone’s spin rate from section 534, much less enjoy it. The book itself is well-written and engaging, but readers can be forgiven if they have trouble linking Big Development with what they see on the field.

There’s also a bit less treatment of what all of this means for the sport’s future than I expected. If, as it seems, we’re living in an age where teams can coax extra gas from junk heap signings and 30 homers from utility infielders, then what happens when we see these developments at scale? What are the ramifications of building a sport where hitters exclusively try to launch balls over the fence and pitchers do their best to make sure they hit nothing at all? And what does the near-universal (at least in this book) assessment that pitchers are miles ahead of hitters mean for the short- and long-term future of the game?

Maybe there’s nothing to worry about. A ribbon of optimism runs throughout The MVP Machine’s narrative, and of course, it’s exciting to see individual players and the sport itself discover another gear. Lindbergh and Sawchik ultimately make a persuasive case that baseball is changing — that the game as we know it could look significantly different in the coming years. They deserve kudos for penning an entertaining and thought-provoking book, a work that elucidates an important trend line in the sport and invites readers to interpret for themselves whether the future looks exciting — or perhaps a tad unsettling.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

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channelclemente
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Great piece, thanks.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

“There’s also a bit less treatment of what all of this means for the sport’s future than I expected. If, as it seems, we’re living in an age where teams can coax extra gas from junk heap signings and 30 homers from utility infielders, then what happens when we see these developments at scale? What are the ramifications of building a sport where hitters exclusively try to launch balls over the fence and pitchers do their best to make sure they hit nothing at all? And what does the near-universal (at least in this book) assessment that pitchers are miles… Read more »