The MVP Machine Book Review

This recent entry to the world of baseball literature, written by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, explores a simple premise: player development is the new market inefficiency to be exploited by enterprising players, coaches, and front office personnel. If the old Moneyball approach was to identify and acquire players with skills undervalued by the market, this new Moneyball approach is to take players already in an organization and make them better.

It sounds almost too simple to take seriously, but as Lindbergh and Sawchik show, it is an approach that has never been fully maximized. Yes, there have been important trailblazers in player development: for instance, Branch Rickey and his pioneering efforts to develop a baseball farm system or Ewing M. Kauffman and his unorthodox (and ill-fated) experiment in player development through his Royals Academy (which, by the way, I knew nothing about and found particularly fascinating). Still, the authors suggest that only now—with the assistance of modern technology—do methods of player development have the potential to reach their zenith.

I found the premise of the book intriguing and the content engaging. The authors offer well informed baseball analysis and deftly weave together several related stories and topics to create a unified and engaging tale. Some are already calling this book a seminal work: a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking Moneyball. While more will surely be written on the topic of player development, I tend to agree with this positive assessment.

Player Development Gurus

The book drew me in primarily through the narratives of key individuals in the world of player development. First, there were the so-called player development gurus. One example is hitting instructor Doug Latta, whose uppercut-swing philosophy and use of video analysis challenged established thinking (i.e., the “chopping wood” approach, which taught hitters to swing down on the ball) and helped spark baseball’s current fly-ball revolution. Another example is Kyle Boddy, whose commitment to advanced technology and unorthodox training regimens, like using weighted balls to develop increased pitching velocity, has created a new blueprint for pitcher development.

As the author’s argue, the ideas and methods of both Latta and Boddy, once considered questionable, are increasingly gaining acceptance in baseball front offices (it is telling that Boddy, formerly a baseball outsider, received several job offers from major league clubs in the fall of 2019 before accepting a position with the Cincinnati Reds as their new director of pitching initiatives and pitching coordinator). Count me among those convinced by Boddy’s methods. In fact, I only made it halfway through the origin story of Boddy’s Driveline Baseball before casting my book aside to run some google news search queries. I was desperate to find out how many St. Louis Cardinals players had visited the Driveline facility after the 2019 season, convinced this was the key to them winning the NL Central in future years (I was pleased to see the list included potential breakout pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon and third base prospect Nolan Gorman).

Developmental Success Stories

Along with the player development gurus are the players themselves: Trevor Bauer, the iconoclastic pitcher and Boddy adherent; Justin Turner, the former utility infielder and current top-tier third baseman; J.D. Martinez, the overlooked prospect who became one of the league’s best hitters.

Bauer was the most fascinating player because of his scientific approach to pitch creation and his non-conformist way of thinking (though I am less fascinated by his abrasive and sometimes combative personality and by his social media feeds). The fact that Bauer has been able to develop himself into a top pitcher with, by his own admission, far less athletic ability and inherent talent than many others is a testament to his own determination and focus, but also to the power of a data-driven approach to player development. Bauer’s success leaves one wondering what pitchers with more raw ability might accomplish with the same obsessive approach to developing their craft.

In addition, one wonders how many current replacement-level players, like Justin Turner circa 2013, might suddenly find the right instructors/coaches/training methods to unlock their potential and become All-Star contributors. For Turner, it was learning balance and developing an uppercut swing under Latta’s tutelage. The results were astonishing. Turner was barely a league average hitter prior to 2014; he then proceeded to destroy National League pitching in each subsequent year, garnering MVP votes in three different seasons (2016–2018).

J.D. Martinez is another example of such a radical transformation, from prospect who never put it together to All-Star caliber player. Both of these rags-to-riches, “out of nowhere” stories are cautionary tales for baseball analysts everywhere: your job, especially generating specific pre-season player projections, has just gotten much more difficult in the era of player development. Let’s put it this way: if the model organization for player development (the Houston Astros, although I use “model” rather loosely) can develop a player (Martinez) for several years and watch him became one of the top hitters in baseball only after they release him, what does this say about the ability of anyone to accurately predict which players will be the next developmental success stories?

The Benefits of Non-Specialist Thinking

But hope is not completely lost. I was reminded of an important truth after reading the stories of many of the profiled individuals: the key to innovative thinking in a particular area (here, player development) often lies in approaching that area with a broad range of knowledge and experience gleaned from other areas. This idea encapsulates David Epstein’s argument in his book Range, where he suggests it is often the generalists, not the specialists, who find creative solutions to seemingly intractable conundrums (Epstein’s book is an excellent read and has many applications to sports).

It is unsurprising that Brian Bannister, the cerebral ex-pitcher and current director of pitching for the San Francisco Giants, became a cutting-edge thinker in player development not through a narrow intellectual focus, but through a range of interests including engineering, mathematics, and photography. My favorite quote in the book is Bannister telling the authors: “Everything I learned about pitching development, I learned from Ansel Adams” (and this wasn’t intended as a joke).

Then there is the aforementioned Kyle Boddy. The preparation for his eventual development of Driveline Baseball included studies in economics and computer science, experiments in customer service as a server at Olive Garden, stints in the worlds of online poker and Xbox Live gaming, and broad reading about athletic training and biomechanics. Even Trevor Bauer’s father, Warren, who was instrumental in his son’s development as a pitcher, has a wonderfully diverse resume: owner and operator of a Dunkin’ Donuts, chemical engineering degree holder, oil industry worker, and furniture salesman. What he didn’t have was any firsthand, specialist knowledge of baseball, which, as the authors’ note, may have been the most important ingredient in helping him develop a training regimen for his son.

The Need for Increased Diversity

Of course, there is an ironic twist to all of this. While it may be true that broad knowledge and experience fuels innovation, it is also true that most major league general managers are increasingly ivy-league educated, white males. The authors contend that this “lack of demographic diversity is likely leading to a lack of diversity of thought.” So, while it seems that baseball is already on the cutting edge of sabermetric thinking, integration of technology, and advanced methods of player development, there is surely much more yet to learn—and it will likely be unlocked as more diverse thinking enters the equation.

The Technology of Player Development

One final note on technology. Over the last few years there has been a rapid proliferation of advanced player development systems that rely heavily on technology. As Lindbergh and Sawchik demonstrate, Rapsodo, TrackMan, K-Vest, Kinatrax, and Edgertronic are now becoming must-know terms for the twenty-first century baseball fan. I admit that before reading this book, I had heard all of these terms, but didn’t understand the technology too well. Thanks to the authors, I have a better grasp of what these things are and even found myself thinking up excuses to add an Edgertronic camera or a Rapsodo unit to my Christmas wish list. After all, if I had high speed video footage detailing the rotation (such as it is) on my four-seam fastball and velocity and spin information on my breaking stuff, who knows how many more games my adult wooden-bat summer league team could have eked out last season (answer: probably not too many).

I recommend this book especially to serious baseball fans (in fact, it is probably in the “must-read” category), but also to more casual fans, who will likely be engaged by the personalities and narratives that comprise the story. We are in Lindbergh and Sawchik’s debt for giving us a fascinating insight into the data-driven world of player development.

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