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Lindbergh and Sawchik’s behind-the-scenes reporting reveals:
- How undersized afterthoughts José Altuve and Mookie Betts became big sluggers and MVPs
- How polarizing pitcher Trevor Bauer made himself a Cy Young contender
- How new analytical tools have overturned traditional pitching and hitting techniques
- How a wave of young talent is making MLB both better than ever and arguably worse to watch
Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.
Welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s all right, we know where you’ve been
You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time
Provided with toys and Scouting for Boys
—PINK FLOYD, “Welcome to the Machine”
In the early and late hours of October 27, 2018, the baseball world (or at least the part that was awake) focused its attention on a group of high-performing players that no one had thought much of a few years before.
Shortly after midnight in Los Angeles—seven hours and twenty minutes after the first pitch of World Series Game 3 and four innings after the fourteenth-inning stretch—the Dodgers’ Max Muncy drove a fly ball over the fence in left-center in the bottom of the eighteenth to beat the Boston Red Sox in the longest postseason game ever played. In one way, Muncy was an obvious candidate to end the ordeal with one swing: during the regular season, he hit a home run every 11.3 at-bats, the best rate of any hitter who played at least fifty games. Considering his history before that, though, Muncy’s hero status was astonishing.
In limited playing time with the Oakland Athletics in 2016, Muncy was one of the worst hitters in baseball. The A’s released him the following spring, and he sat on the sidelines for almost a month until the Dodgers handed him a minor-league contract. While he was waiting (and pondering a future outside sports), he returned to his high-school batting cage and revamped his approach at the plate, lowering his stance, shifting his hands on the bat handle, and learning to take more aggressive swings. He hit well in 2017 at Triple-A, but the back of his uniform still said “Muncy,” so he stayed in the minors in 2018 until the injury-depleted Dodgers, desperate for a healthy hitter, called him up in mid-April. He homered in his first start and raked for the rest of the year, slashing .263/.391/.582 to finish the season as the second-best batter in the National League. Muncy, a marginal player in no demand, entered 2018 with a career record in the red and, at age twenty-eight, became the most valuable full-season player on a pennant-winning team.
The pitcher who gave up the walk-off winner after unexpectedly being pressed into service for six-plus innings in that extra-long game was Red Sox swingman Nathan Eovaldi, another twenty-eight-year-old who was released after the 2016 season, setting up his own dramatic turnaround. Eovaldi sat out 2017 after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, but even before the injury, the righty had been a below-average run preventer for three consecutive seasons, despite possessing one of the game’s fastest fastballs. When he resurfaced after Tommy John surgery, Eovaldi boasted not only a new ligament but also a new look, featuring fewer (and higher) four-seam fastballs, more cutters, and less indication of which one was coming. The modifications made all the difference: in 2018, he posted the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career, which prompted Boston to acquire him at the trade deadline. After the series, he qualified for free agency, and the Red Sox re-signed him to a four-year $68 million deal, banking on the altered Eovaldi being better than the original.
With the Dodgers’ bullpen depleted after a parade of nine pitchers got them through Game 3, the team turned to an unlikely left-handed savior in Game 4, which began less than seventeen hours later. A few months away from his thirty-ninth birthday, with pouches under his eyes and a goatee graying at the edges, Rich Hill was the oldest player on either roster and a product of perhaps the most improbable path to the series. From 2008 to 2015, Hill was released three times and changed teams ten times, pitching a total of 182 below-average big-league innings, mostly in relief, amid injuries and minor-league exiles. At the end of that span, the Red Sox signed him out of independent ball, and one conversation with Boston’s Brian Bannister—a former fringy major leaguer turned analytical coach—convinced him to trust his underutilized curveball, a special, high-spin pitch that immediately made him one of baseball’s best inning-per-inning arms. Of the 190 pitchers who amassed at least seventy-five innings in 2018, only 11 threw slower fastballs, on average, than Hill, but Bannister’s former protégé allowed only one hit over 6 1/3 innings against his old team, baffling Boston to such a degree that his removal from the game, and the Dodgers’ subsequent defeat, prompted the President to send a second-guessing tweet.
Playing behind Hill were third baseman Justin Turner and left fielder Chris Taylor, co-MVPs of the 2017 National League Championship Series. Turner was an itinerant twenty-eight-year-old utility type with a below-average bat in the winter of 2013–2014, when he changed his stroke and his future with the help of a nearly unknown swing whisperer named Doug Latta, who transformed a nondescript industrial-park unit in suburban Los Angeles into a factory for line drives. Latta helped Turner tap into power no one knew he had, and over his following five seasons for the Dodgers, this reject of the Mets and Orioles organizations was one of the fifteen best hitters in baseball at an age when players typically decline. Before his own breakout, Taylor’s slap-hitting, low-leverage stroke had produced only one homer in almost three hundred at-bats in the big leagues. Then a second suburban Los Angeles swing instructor took a sad swing and made it better. In 2017, Taylor hit twenty-one homers.
Boston’s cleanup hitter in Game 4, J.D. Martinez, was another face of the fly-ball revolution who rejected a swing designed for singles the same winter Turner did. Martinez’s team at the time, the Houston Astros, released the twenty-six-year-old the next spring, not knowing what they had. He went on to top Turner, rating as one of the five best hitters in baseball over the following five years. After signing a five-year free-agent contract with the Red Sox in 2018, Martinez became the first player to win two Silver Slugger Awards (outfield and designated hitter) in the same season, doubling up on an honor bestowed annually on the best offensive player at each position.
Some standout players took less circuitous paths to the series. Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts, for one, made the majors at twenty-one and excelled immediately. But even elite players have room for improvement. In 2018, Betts secretly tweaked his swing and learned from his teammate Martinez. He then vaulted toward the top of virtually every offensive leaderboard, outpacing all other players in both batting average and slugging percentage and winning a well-deserved MVP award. In Game 5, both Betts and Martinez hit home runs off Clayton Kershaw as Boston beat LA to take the Series 4–1.
If there was one theme to October—other than really long games—it was the presence of players like these, who embodied a movement that’s transforming (and transcending) the sport. It wasn’t just the last two teams standing whose rosters were studded with stories of deliberate, dramatic development. The full playoff field featured many more. Inside a rented retail space in Harlem that he turned into a high-tech pitching lab, Colorado Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino built a new pitch from scratch and gained command of an old one. Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers studied data to make himself baseball’s best pitch-framer, capable of stealing extra strikes by receiving borderline pitches smoothly. The team Boston toppled in the American League Championship Series, the defending-champion Astros, bounced back from their big whiff with Martinez by becoming the kings of acquiring underperforming pitchers—including Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Ryan Pressly—and implementing a few fixes to help them reach greater heights.
No individual player has pushed the movement forward more than the innovative and controversy-prone Trevor Bauer, who has proclaimed himself “the foremost expert on pitch design” and “one of the most scientific players in MLB.” Those aren’t empty boasts. Bauer has attacked tradition, unafraid of the friction it created, and embraced every idea and piece of technology he thought might make him better. In the winter of 2017–2018, he designed a new and nasty pitch in a nondescript Seattle facility that’s become a hub for bleeding-edge ballplayers, Driveline Baseball. The addition to his arsenal made him an AL Cy Young Award contender.
In each of these cases, and many more, a player made the choice to use new methods and technologies to systematically address his deficiencies. Sometimes it was a mechanical adjustment that unlocked the latent power in a swing. Sometimes it was a more strongly instilled sense of the strike zone. Sometimes it was training to add velocity a pitcher didn’t know his body was capable of producing. Sometimes it was a pitch designed from scratch or promoted from secondary status to a more prominent role. And sometimes it was a modified mindset or meal plan or gym regimen. These overhauls are happening in hundreds of places across the sport, from professional clubhouses, bullpens, and batting cages, to colleges, high schools, and international leagues, to the independent petri dishes where this drive to reconceptualize talent began: boundary-breaking facilities outside of the professional game. Curious, scuffling players linked up with little-known coaching iconoclasts to spark a revolution. Now some savvy MLB teams are taking their insights to scale and lapping the rest of the league.
Veterans who’ve looked lost are reclaiming careers, while an emerging generation of information-friendly players is seeking out stats from the get-go, fueling a youth movement in the majors and contributing to a constantly increasing level of play. “During the ’80s and ’90s it was steroids,” says Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay. “And now it can be new information.”
Mainstream baseball commentators haven’t quite figured out how to talk about this new era in baseball development. On almost every broadcast during the 2018 playoffs, national commentators fretted about jargon like “launch angle” and “spin rate,” lamenting the game’s new scientific focus. But though the language is new, these terms don’t describe new phenomena: Babe Ruth’s batted balls had a launch angle, and Bob Feller’s fastball had a spin rate. In earlier eras, there was just no way to track them. Today’s technology tracks everything, allowing progressive players to dissect their performance with unprecedented depth. The better they understand their current technique, the easier to analyze how it could be better.
Not every player wanders from team to team until he’s bitten by a radioactive hitting coach and triples his home-run total or meets a sabermetrician on the road to retirement and suddenly sees the light. Enough of them have, though, that it’s swaying player performance on a league-wide level—changing the composition of coaching staffs, scouting departments, and front offices; altering the way general managers construct rosters; popularizing formerly frowned-upon training techniques; and determining who wins the World Series and individual awards. Even in its early stages, though, this movement is also raising privacy concerns, exacerbating baseball’s anti-spectator trends, and possibly leading to labor strife.
On a more fundamental, broadly applicable level, it’s overturning old beliefs about the immutability of talent. In baseball’s old-school scouting parlance, “guy” is a versatile label, employed, one scout says, “like how Smurfs use the word ‘smurf.’” A non-prospect is not a guy, or (said dismissively) just a guy; a prospect is a guy; and a top prospect is a “GUY,” or a guy-guy. Players aspire to “guy” status. As former Red Sox prospect Michael Kopech said after Boston traded him to Chicago for ace starter Chris Sale (who recorded the first and last outs of the 2018 World Series): “All I wanted to do is show them I could be a guy for them.” Players also hope to hit their “ceilings,” a scouting term for an athlete’s alleged best-case outcome.
Mike Fast, a special assistant to the GM of the Braves and a former Astros research and development director, says that whereas traditionally teams subscribed to labels like these, the franchises at the forefront of the latest, greatest revolution are realizing that “everything” is subject to change. We’ve entered an era in which the right type of practice produces more perfect players, and the earliest adopters of data-driven development are leaving the laggards behind. “I think the idea that analytics is leveling the field is completely backwards,” Fast says. “Analytics is tilting the field far beyond how it has ever been tilted before.” Fast’s colleague Ronit Shah, an Astros scout turned Braves R&D analyst, echoes that sentiment, saying, “The possibilities and the upside are pretty much limitless.”
Talking in terms of “guys” and “ceilings” suggests that there are identifiable limits. Yet more and more players are figuring out how to go from non-guys to guys or from regular guys to guy-guys, which raises a radical possibility: Maybe there’s no such thing as an absolute ceiling, or the ceiling is high enough that no one knows where it is. And maybe more guy-guys are out there than we ever believed before.
These new peaks in performance aren’t just the product of better technology. They’re a manifestation of a new philosophy of human potential. Increasingly, teams and players are adopting a growth mindset that rejects long-held beliefs about innate physical talent. One of the only innate qualities may be how hard players are willing to work. Scouts have historically graded players based on five physical tools, but in an era of optimization, a player’s approach to practice is a once-unsung sixth tool that affects the other five.
“This decade of baseball,” Bannister says, “is all about an inefficiency on the player-development side.” To elaborate, Bannister borrows an analogy from Forrest Gump. “For a long time, baseball players were almost viewed as a box of chocolates,” he says. “They came in endless varieties, and you were just trying to find the best ones. As we started to be able to collect information on players and learn at a rapidly growing pace, we started to realize that the reason the best players are the best players is that they got closer to perfection with the way their bodies moved, as far as executing a certain pitch or taking a certain swing.” For information-friendly teams, Bannister continues, the pursuit of perfection has shifted from “finding bodies that are already doing things well or close to perfect” to asking, “How can we leverage the data and what we’ve learned from the data to get closer to that perfect pitch or perfect swing?” That, Bannister says, is “where the rabbit hole begins.”
It’s also where the outlying lives of big leaguers begin to apply to our own. Only a small subset of people needs to get great at baseball. But if experienced players in a centuries-old sport can be better than they thought, it suggests something exciting. Maybe we all have hidden talent. And maybe everyone can be better at whatever work they do.
The index of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, the 2003 book about the Oakland Athletics that became a bestseller and the source of such severe front-office FOMO that copycat teams across the sport soon molded themselves in Oakland’s analytical image, contains nine subheadings for the listing “players, professional.” There’s “tools of” (the first page of the book), “scouting and recruitment of” (all of chapter two), “sight-based evaluation of” (three entries), and “trading of” (all of chapter nine). There’s “use of statistics in evaluating” (somewhat misleadingly, only one reference). There’s even an entry for what happens when “players, professional” fail to produce: “designating for assignment.”1
But Moneyball’s index omitted an important potential tenth entry: “development of.” The oversight stemmed from a blind spot of the book—and until recently, of baseball at large. Perhaps in part because of his own history, then A’s general manager Billy Beane—a former first-round pick with raw talent to spare who never learned to translate his tools into on-field success—didn’t devote much time or attention to developing players, at least as Lewis told the tale.
Much of the drama in Moneyball’s narrative arises from transactions: picking players in the amateur draft, trading for undervalued relievers, and signing the unsung Scott Hatteberg, whose patience at the plate went underappreciated at a time when runs batted in and batting average still reigned as the game’s most prized offensive indicators. As Moneyball portrayed it, Oakland’s ability to compete despite noncompetitive payrolls was about being better at acquiring players. “You can identify value or you can create value,” says former San Diego Padres senior quantitative analyst Chris Long, one of a wave of stathead hires who flocked to front offices in Moneyball’s immediate aftermath. Ideally, you’d do both, but Oakland’s cutting-edge efforts, initiated by Beane’s nonplayer predecessor Sandy Alderson, were focused on the former. Moneyball’s subtitle promised to reveal “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Apparently, developing players wasn’t part of that art.
That’s not to say the A’s weren’t promoting players from within; though one would hardly know it from Moneyball, they did have homegrown heroes. Some of them, though, had been top draft picks, always slated for stardom. In Lewis’s book, Beane adopted a deterministic view of player performance, downplaying the idea that players could be capable of changing their ways. Oakland’s draft strategy was akin to clever actuarial work: the A’s determined that picking certain types of players had panned out in the past, so they made more of those picks (college pitchers) and fewer of the riskier kind (high-school pitchers). They also noticed that walks were worth more than the market realized, so they targeted hitters who took them. As a consequence, the homegrown half of Oakland’s early-aughts lineup was less patient than the half acquired through trades, leading Lewis to note that “the guys who aren’t behaving properly at the plate are precisely those who have had the [proper] approach drilled into them by A’s hitting coaches from the moment they became pro players.”
Because his own prospects had proved unable or unwilling to master traits that the players he imported already possessed, Beane concluded that if plate discipline could be taught, “we’d have to take guys in diapers to do it.” In 1984, another A’s firebrand, Oakland manager Billy Martin, had expressed the same sentiment in even more absolute terms: “You got your mules and you got your racehorses, and you can kick a mule in the ass all you want, and he’s still not gonna be a racehorse.”2
In fairness to Beane, no one else in the early 2000s was thinking too much about making mules into racehorses. The year Moneyball debuted, Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt, coauthors of Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, wrote: “Other than some analysis of the influence of pitch counts on young pitchers, there has been little research outside of the professional baseball community on such things as methods for developing a young hitter’s power or how to teach a young pitcher to gain better command of his breaking ball.”3 Matters weren’t much more advanced inside that community. Current A’s general manager David Forst, Beane’s longtime top lieutenant, remembers the team dictating that its minor-league pitchers throw a certain percentage of changeups per game and talking about bumping every minor-league hitter up to a 10 percent walk rate, partly by forcing them to take pitches until the opposing pitcher threw a strike. Those methods, Forst says, “seem pretty rudimentary now compared to what we’re capable of doing,” but more advanced development was difficult because “we didn’t have the tools to implement it or measure it.”
Granted, there wasn’t much need for a forward thinker like Beane to focus on remaking mules when there were so many discount horses around. The A’s could construct a winning team on the cheap by pairing the players their draft approach produced with other clubs’ low-hanging Hattebergs. Hatteberg himself signed with the A’s in 2002 and went on to be their third-best hitter for a single-season salary of $900,000, only three times more than the MLB minimum. “Evaluating was way ahead of developing,” Forst says.
But Beane’s edge at adding players gradually dwindled, partly because Moneyball’s success inspired imitators and partly because sabermetrics—a movement formative figure Bill James described as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball”—was starting to sweep the sport even before the book became a flashpoint. As Beane said just two months after Moneyball made it to stores: “The old days of getting something for nothing are over. There are too many good [GMs] out there now.”4
Suddenly, other teams were holding on to their Hattebergs, and in Oakland, economic realities reasserted themselves. The A’s missed the playoffs in 2004 and ’05, failed to finish with a winning record from 2007 to 2011 and, after a brief renaissance, finished in last place from 2015 to 2017. Ironically, the young prospect whom Beane had traded in 2002 to clear room for Hatteberg, Carlos Peña, later blossomed into a far better hitter—and a more prolific walker—than Hatteberg had been. It took time, but the first baseman broke out, even though there was little in his recent performance profile to suggest he would.
By 2015, when Peña retired and the A’s finished in the cellar for the first time since Beane’s rookie year as a GM, almost every front office was heavily invested in identifying value via stats and analysis, and the most sophisticated clubs were way ahead of where the A’s had been at the turn of the century. That spring, MLB introduced Statcast, a network of cameras and radar that records the speed of every pitch, the velocity and trajectory of every batted ball, and the paths of every player in the field and on the bases in every big-league ballpark. That system supplanted the PITCHf/x and HITf/x systems, which had recorded the speed, movement, and inferred spin of every pitch and the speed and angle of every batted ball for several seasons prior. Below the big leagues, TrackMan (a component of Statcast) soon monitored all thirty teams’ minor leaguers from the highest level to the lowest.
Although teams differed in how deeply they delved into tracking data, the info was widely available and far more revealing than the best low-tech alternatives from a decade before. Not until 1988—the same year that the influential James published the twelfth and last of his annual Baseball Abstracts—had baseball’s data collectors even noted the outcome of every MLB pitch. Less than thirty years later, a system that once would have seemed like a sci-fi figment was capturing the process that produced every outcome on the field at forty thousand frames per second.
Bigger data required bigger databases and bigger departments devoted to analyzing their contents. In April 2016, a study Ben coauthored for FiveThirtyEight, a website that specializes in statistical analysis, charted the rapid increase in analysts employed by teams over time. By then, more than five full-time front-office members per franchise, on average, were working in research and technological development (a figure that’s still swelling, topping 7.5 per team by spring 2018). Every team in the majors employed at least one analyst, and every team but the parsimonious Miami Marlins employed more than one. Although the study found that the early adopting data-centric teams had reaped rewards worth as many as several wins (and tens of millions of dollars) per season from mining baseball’s big data before their competitors could, those benefits have shrunk as the front-office brain race has intensified. As baseball analyst Phil Birnbaum once observed, “You gain more by not being stupid than you do by being smart.”5 Teams have long since stopped being stupid about recognizing the good players right in front of their faces.
Although the term “Moneyball” has come to be associated with specific strategies the A’s deemed most advantageous, it was never actually tied to any one method of team building or in-game management. It was more of a philosophy, one aimed at finding inefficiencies wherever they lay. “When people think of sabermetrics and Moneyball, a lot of it is what they see on the field, the way the game is played,” says Long, who has consulted for multiple teams since departing the Padres. “And most of [the value] is really off the field.” On-the-field changes are easy to see: in recent years, counterproductive tactics that statheads have decried for decades (and that the Moneyball A’s eschewed), like sacrifice bunting and inefficient base stealing, have fallen out of favor. But eradicating bad bunt and steal attempts offers only modest edges. Championships and playoff appearances depend on procuring—or creating—quality players. In the 1920s, teams called the experts who combed the country searching for fresh talent “ivory hunters.” In the 2010s, they call them “quants,” short for quantitative analysts. The goal is the same, but the methods are always evolving.
In the summer of 2014, hundreds of stat-obsessed seamheads, including quants from fourteen teams, gathered in Boston for an annual analytics conference known as Saber Seminar. Most of the speakers at Saber Seminar present research about running regressions or writing complex queries to expose some unsuspected sliver of value. But that year’s keynote speaker, then Red Sox GM Ben Cherington—whose team was fresh off a 2013 title—announced that the days of detecting hidden value that players were already providing were quickly coming to an end. “It sure felt like in ’02, ’03, ’04, we could more easily create a talent gap between the best teams and the worst teams, and you could more easily count on a bunch of wins before the season ever started,” he said. “That feels harder to do now.… Finding ways to optimize player performance and get guys into the higher range of possibilities is more and more important.”
The higher range of possibilities: it may not sound sexy, but that’s where the wins are in a world where teams aren’t being bullheaded about on-base percentage and other once-overlooked contributions. Cherington was speaking a language in which his audience was well versed. A few months before Moneyball
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- "The MVP Machine is an eye-opening dispatch from the leading edge of the sport."—TheAtlantic
- "The MVP Machine (Basic Books), out now, tells how a series of new tools, advanced statistics and technology are changing the game of baseball, led by innovators"—NewYork Post
- "For too long, stat geeks like me ignored the 'development' side of 'scouting and development.' The MVP Machine is the book that's going to change that. Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh persuasively and entertainingly demonstrate that a baseball player's success is less about God-given talent and more about innovation, hard work, and the willingness to take a more scientific approach to the game. Read it, and you won't think about baseball in quite the same way again."—Nate Silver, founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight
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- "In today's game, players and teams are doing more than ever behind the scenes to change and improve. The work they do is absolutely critical to success but nearly invisible to the public -- until now. Any fan seeking a fresh look at how teams win in modern baseball should read this book."—Chaim Bloom, Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations, Tampa Bay Rays
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- "Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh brilliantly capture the next frontier of major-league teams' 'evolve or die' mindset: the league-wide movement of using data, technology, and science to revolutionize the way players are developed. Baseball has seen a rapid influx of high-curiosity, growth-mindset players and coaches, creating the perfect environment for innovation and rethinking convention. The MVP Machine provides tremendous insight into baseball's latest transformation."—Billy Eppler, General Manager, Los Angeles Angels
- "As the game of baseball, and more specifically the teaching methods within, continue to evolve, The MVP Machine paints a real-time portrait of player development. Players and coaches are in a constant search for advantages that will push their personal limits on the field in order to maximize their abilities. Ben and Travis provide fascinating details of how individual players pushed the boundaries of innovative coaching, self-reflection, and a willingness to make even the smallest of adjustments in order to reach new heights as players. This book is a very accurate portrayal of modern-day player development and the ongoing pursuit of individual greatness."—Mike Hazen, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Arizona Diamondbacks
- "A lot of books have claimed to be Moneyball 2.0, but this book actually delivers. It chronicles the changes that are transforming the game of baseball at a fundamental level and shifting power back into the hands of players and coaches."—Mike Fast, Special Assistant to the General Manager, Atlanta Braves and former Director of Research and Development, Houston Astros
- "Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh are always at the forefront of the analytics revolution. The MVP Machine brings us the newly emerging competitive advantage whereby players are joining the intellectual advancement of the game and utilizing the new tools available to build a better Major League Player. Make no mistake, this is how games, divisions, and World Series titles are now being won."—Brian Kenny, MLB Network
- On Sale
- Jun 4, 2019
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books