- Pitch a ball past a major league batter.
- Hit a ball hurled by a major league pitcher.
Baseball is conflict. Pitcher versus hitter at least 54 times per game.
If you want to dig deep into the current state of Major League Baseball—and how players today are working to get better at those two very difficult skills—check out The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists are Using Data to Build Better Players by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.
It’s long. (Hey, there’s no rush here; this is baseball.) It’s detailed. It savors data. It splashes around in the muddy, mucky detail with glee. It pokes its investigation-minded nose behind the scenes of the latest training techniques. The book takes us up close and personal with players who are consumed with improvement. Trevor Bauer (clubhouse pariah and all) is Exhibit A on the individual player level, with many other players in supporting roles. The Houston Astros are submitted as powerful evidence on the team level, with other teams in supporting roles.
The MVP Machine gives us all hope—that so-so careers can be transformed through hard work, willingness to learn, and ability to adapt to new coaching and fresh ideas.
Oh, and some fancy new analytical gear doesn’t hurt, such as the Edgertronic cameras, TrackMan, Statcast, Blast sensors, Rapsodo, KinaTrak, and the K-Vest along with (and this is key) smart baseball coaches to analyze the data and suggest tiny adjustments in a pitcher’s arm slot or a batter’s swing motion that can transform average players into potential Hall of Fame players.
That’s the best thing about The MVP Machine—every dollop of data is coupled with a three-dimensional portrait of the human experience. It’s a mashup of Sports Illustrated and Scientific American; the data doesn’t weigh things down, though it wouldn’t hurt to be down with your OBP and know that WAR is not just an endless thing in Afghanistan.
More than anything, The MVP Machine is about getting better. “Veterans who’ve looked lost are reclaiming careers, while an emerging generation of information-friendly players is seeking out from the get-go, fueling a youth movement in the majors and contributing to a constantly increasing level of play,” write Lindbergh and Sawchik. The age of steroids, says Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay, has been replaced with a craving for “new information.”
That’s the essence of this book—the players and coaches who find new ways to develop data, take it seriously, make adjustments, and get better through improved swing mechanics, pitch grips, and other adjustments that (usually) require additional insights from a sideline guru like Brian Bannister or Dick Latta. The adjustments might also involve the intricacies of Laminar Flow (you just wait) and designing a new pitch.
The underlying theme is intensity. Focus. Belief. Grit. Determination–all that good old apple pie stuff. Why take the winter off when you can pitch even more (hello, Trevor Bauer) than you do during the regular season? Bauer, whose innate athleticism is measured as subpar, has reached the ranks of elite pitchers through hard work, intensely practicing the right skills, recording and analyzing every practice, and thinking hard about the results.
In other words, as Lindbergh and Sawchik point out, it’s not just the 10,000-hour rule—the idea that the sheer volume of practice will lead to improvement. “No strategy matters at all in skill development unless it’s your passion,” says Kyle Boddy, the guy who built his own biomechanics lab (called Driveline) from scratch. “He’s not that athletically gifted, but he’s nearly unbreakable when it comes to volume. That’s a blessing and a curse … He doesn’t belong in the big leagues but he’s there because he’s delusional.” (Bauer reveres Elon Musk so there you go; the detailed list of Bauer-related topics in the index takes up nearly a page on its own.)
Believe me when I say I’m only skimming the surface of The MVP Machine. But the bottom line is player improvement. What will baseball look like next year? Or next decade? The strikeout rate has climbed for 13 straight seasons. Where does that lead? Will the game remain entertaining? As the writers point out, “it won’t matter how good players get if fewer people want to watch them.”
The game’s rules, after all, are artificial. They evolve. (Once upon a time, batters could request pitchers throw the ball to a certain spot.) Lindbergh and Sawchik offer up some interesting suggestions for how to restore the essential hitter-pitcher conflict at the heart of the entire game.