The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players
By Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik
Basic Books. 385 pages.
When a book opens with Trevor Bauer on a pitching mound at Driveline Baseball, as The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players does, it is immediately complicated. Bauer is a self-made, elite pitcher and an MLB bad boy (more on that later). Driveline is a symbol of baseball innovation, the kind of change that made Adam Ottavino an eighth-inning Rockies hero after a dismal 2017.
Historically, baseball has cleaved to the notion that nothing matters more than natural talent. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball documented the Oakland A’s undercutting that conventional wisdom by exploiting market inefficiencies. Since then, the erosion has continued, accelerated by data and technology. In The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh (The Ringer, Effectively Wild) and Travis Sawchik (FiveThirtyEight) explore the rapidly shifting landscape of player development, where data and technology, not natural ability, drive performance. The implications are significant. Teams such as the Houston Astros are at the forefront of this movement, seeing it as a cost-effective strategy for maximizing talent, while some players also embrace this shift, choosing to empower themselves and take control of their careers.
If you are more than a casual fan, The MVP Machine is required reading — I haven’t stopped thinking about it. The book’s analysis of player development is impressive. But, for Rockies fans, its implications are a little sobering.
The MVP Machine and baseball disruption
Lindbergh and Sawchik describe their project as a study of “the fruits of an incipient revolution in player development — one with the potential to upend the sport’s competitive landscape.” Through the use of increasingly sophisticated data, teams have gotten better at turning marginal players into good ones and good players into great ones, a trend that affects not only how baseball is played but also team revenues and player salaries. Some players, too, have used data to make themselves better players, at times defying the structures of conventional player development.
The book is comprehensive. Early on, the authors discuss the history of player development, beginning with the original disruptor and father of the farm system, Branch Rickey. From there, Lindbergh and Sawchik turn to Kyle Boddy, founder of Driveline, “swing whisperer” Doug Latta, and “conduits” (those who have the experience and credibility of a former player but also understand and communicate the value of data generated by statheads), like Brian Bannister. The authors visit some of the facilities described in the book in an attempt to understand the players’ experiences.
As an example, Lindbergh and Sawchik describe the ways in which the Astros are redefining baseball analytics as well as the trickledown effect in the lower levels of baseball. They explore the potential of mindfulness as a professional development tool, and types of technology (weighted balls, Edgertronic cameras, Rapsodo, Proteus, the K-Vest, wearables, DNA testing, biomechanics), as well as implications of that technology, both in terms of immediate gains for players and long-term privacy.
To personalize all this data and technology, Lindbergh and Sawchik show players experimenting: For example, Justin Turner rebuilds his swing; Mookie Betts tweaks his hitting approach; Rich Hill and Adam Ottavino reinvent themselves by creating new pitches.
But the primary character tying together The MVP Machine is Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, an above-average, but not elite, athlete determined to use technology to build himself into a Cy Young winner. Bauer has been the enthusiastic subject of a life-long baseball experiment with his father, Warren, an engineer, who designed a series of unorthodox development tools and strategies, such as water-soaked baseballs (homemade weighted balls) and a tunneling instrument. When Bauer and Boddy find each other, Bauer’s experimentation takes a new focus, Boddy has the ultimate test subject, and Lindbergh and Sawchik have the characters to tell their story and a narrative home in Driveline. Bauer and Boddy emerge as poster children for disruption, two like minds frustrated by coaches, teammates, trainers, executives, and teachers — all parts of a fossilized system.
The accomplishments of The MVP Machine are significant. In a sense, Lindbergh and Sawchik have made themselves “conduits” as the book threads the needle to reach multiple audiences: It contains enough explanatory material for the sabermetric newbie while also providing details and behind-the-scenes information to engage experts.
My primary complaint is a lack of graphics to illustrate concepts. Lindbergh and Sawchik spend a great deal of the book describing, for example, the ways in which pitchers grip a baseball, the stance of hitters, types of new technology, and plays in which these strategies were employed. In doing this, they rely almost entirely on verbal description. Illustrations or photographs would improve the impact of their words. Even more, I wish the iBook I read had links to videos showing the players in action. (It would have disrupted traditional baseball books.)
That said, for me, reading The MVP Machine was complicated, largely because of Trevor Bauer.
That Lindbergh and Sawchik chose him as the central character makes sense: Bauer exemplifies a disruptive, do-it-yourself baseball ethos. But he’s also a problematic figure. Largely through his social media presence, Bauer has shown himself to be a troll. (Indeed, Lindbergh and Sawchik write that “he just enjoys trolling.”) He’s gotten into Twitter fights with the Astros, accusing them of doctoring baseballs, and his takes on race and politics are insensitive. (You can read about that here and here.) In January, he and his followers harassed a college student for remarks she made about him.
Lindbergh and Sawchik attempt to address this. They euphemistically refer to Bauer as “complicated” and “controversial” and the tweets as “politically fueled.” That is, they avoid passing judgment and relay the information. But Lindbergh and Sawchik are in a difficult position. Bauer’s willingness to allow them access to his life provides the narrative guts of The MVP Machine. Plus, in interviews, they’ve revealed they like him. When Sawchik was asked in a June 7 Reddit AMA if he found Bauer to be “abrasive” or “respectful,” he answered,
I probably met with Trevor 12-15 times to interview for him the book, often 45 minutes to an hour, and he was always respectful to me. We know about his social media missteps, but if you watch any of new Momentum videos there is side to him that isn’t as well known. He was candid and illuminating on baseball and development which was what really mattered. I thought it was important he be a part of this project.
I would argue there’s more to it. The MVP Machine is a story of power and access. It’s about the ability of powerful teams to construct organizations that both enhance and exploit players for profit. It’s about the ability of powerful men, like Bauer and Boddy, to access resources that enable them to defy the system. And it’s about men like Lindbergh and Sawchik, who are allowed into Driveline to see the magic happening.
Unsettling implications for the Rockies
You may be wondering how the Rockies fare in The MVP Machine. The answer is they’re largely absent. And that’s not good.
Rockies Coach Jerry Weinstein is recognized as a forward-thinking advocate for player development — Kyle Boddy calls him “the godfather of baseball.” Late in the book, Adam Ottavino makes an appearance as the authors describe his reinvention. Although Ottavino went to Driveline of his own initiative, he was the first test case to determine if Bauer’s improvement strategies were replicable. (As Rockies fans know, they were.)
In 2018, Ottavino 2.0 entered to Salt River Fields with an Edgertronic camera and some weighted balls. He was the only Rockie with either. The passage describing Ottavino’s return is worth quoting:
“I did get called into the office to basically tell them what I’ve learned and why I think it’s gonna make me better,” Ottavino says. “As long as you have a good reason, they can’t really argue with it.”
Even so, the Rockies were skeptical about the camera. “Is this gonna put more things in your head?” asked Rockies manager Bud Black and his staff.
The self-effacing Ottavino had a reputation as an intelligent player but also as a “thinker,” which can be a dangerous label in a major-league clubhouse.
“When a person who’s perceived as intelligent or a thinker struggles, they think you’re overthinking,” said Ottavino, describing an issue also plaguing Bauer. “That was part of what I was hearing [in 2017] is, ‘Oh, you’re just overthinking things.’”
Ottavino countered that the Edgertronic would make him think less, narrowing his focus. “I’m gonna think either way,” Ottavino told the coaches, “but this makes me know what to think about.”
The fact that Ottavino went to Driveline of his own initiative, the fact that he brought to spring training equipment no one had seen before, the fact that Bud Black worried that he was “overthinking” suggests that, at least as of just over a year ago, the Rockies were behind. In the world of player development described in The MVP Machine, these practices are standard. And after reading about the ways in which teams like the Astros and the Dodgers are being innovative, it’s pretty discouraging.
During that Reddit AMA. I asked about the Rockies’ status in terms of innovation. Here’s Sawchik’s answer: “The Rockies are definitely behind on the tech component. I understand they are trying to catch up. They have a new video room at Coors. But when Ottavino showed Chad Bettie [sic] his Edgertronic last summer, Bettis looked at it like it was a space rock.”
In this December 2018 piece, Eno Sarris lists the size of each team’s research and development department. The Rockies have 4 analysts, more than only the Athletics, White Sox, and Mets. (The Yankees and the Dodgers have with most with 20 analysts.) Teams were quick to point out that the number of analysts did not correspond to a team’s player development strategies — that “new video room at Coors” would be an example.
There are other hints that the Rockies are trying to catch up. In the off-season, Jon Gray, Chad Bettis, Jeff Hoffman, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw visited Driveline, which suggests a shift in how the Rockies view pitcher development. Three of these pitchers are significantly improved this season. Here’s what Gray told the Denver Post of focusing on his slider, which had always been a “feel pitch” for him. At Driveline, he began watching a lot of video showing his delivery:
“When I saw my delivery in slow motion, I was able to figure it out and make some adjustments,” he said, noting that he examined his release point and his direction toward the plate. “I’m at a point now where I understand it more completely. I know what I have to do now, what I have to adjust, and that’s making it a lot easier to find answers.”
In other words, Driveline’s technology helped Gray improve. I’m curious about what the other pitchers learned as well. Hopefully, this approach has extended through the organization.
After reading The MVP Machine, I’m convinced that this kind of player development is key to the Rockies’ success, especially since they play in the NL West where the Dodgers are setting the pace. There’s a player development revolution happening, and the Rockies need to be all in.