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Let’s Go Read: The MVP Machine

Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s latest work delves into the numbers poured into the modern baseball player.

Fair or not, every baseball book published in the last decade and a half is compared against Moneyball. Quickly anointed as a seminal piece of baseball literature, Moneyball showed the wider world how the A’s were doing things differently and how that was making a difference.

More than 15 years on, the amount of information about the game of baseball has increased on a logarithmic scale, and with it so has the amount of analysis available. The skills the Moneyball A’s sought out are still valuable of course, because things like on-base percentage will always be valuable, but saying a team has a Moneyball approach in 2019 is essentially a slur to that team’s front office. What (good) teams are doing now is so much broader and more technical and obscure, to the point that average fans are likely as aware of those methods as they were of the A’s methods before Moneyball.

Enter The MVP Machine.

The massive influx of data to baseball, from tracking systems to wearable technology to improved cameras, has created a revolution among baseball insiders, specifically in the realm of player development. Like all good revolutions, it needed to be chronicled, and that is what Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik do in The MVP Machine. And the duo do an exceedingly good job at it, too.

At just under 400 pages, the book does not qualify as short, but for the sheer amount of information included within those pages it is concise. Beginning with the history of player development techniques, dating back to Branch Rickey (who else), the authors display a firm grasp of the history of the game and prove Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley was not wrong when he suggested baseball is slow to new ideas. But as the books turns its focus to new ideas that have taken root, it is obvious how much change actually has occurred.

One aspect of the book that will certainly appeal to Tribe fans is the time the book spends with Trevor Bauer. A central character in the story because of his well-earned reputation as a cerebral player with a nearly monomaniacal drive for improvement, Bauer’s work provides the perfect backdrop for deeper investigations into agents of change in the game. Moving from Bauer, the authors provide thorough insights from the minds at Driveline, the data-driven training facility in Seattle; other private instructors like Doug Latta, the private hitting instructor who helped fuel Justin Turner’s career renaissance, among others; modern agencies seeking to help their clients improve, such as the Bledsoe agency; and even from within teams, like those of Red Sox assistant hitting coach Brian Bannister.

Each night we see players perform on the field and we note who is succeeding or what has changed and we see the publically available data and can support our own assumptions or refute those of others. But we never see the work, the untold hours upon hours, put in by countless individuals at every step in the player’s development, that made the change and success possible. The MVP Machine succeeds in shining a light on the process, offering information on the technology, psychology, methodology, and beyond of development.

To address the opening clause in this review, I don’t believe it is fair to compare every new baseball book to Moneyball. That said, my evaluation of The MVP Machine is that it could stand up to Moneyball over the long run. The ideas laid out in the book aren’t just what forward-thinking teams are doing to get ahead now, they are things forward-thinking teams — perhaps all teams soon enough — will be doing for the foreseeable future to get ahead. The book admits there is still much we don’t know, but it embraces that fact because technology was never going to stop for the authors or for anyone; likewise, the act of chronicling how teams have used technology and helps illuminate the path ahead.

Baseball teams are giving up on the idea of luck and have decided to create their own luck. In The MVP Machine, Lindbergh and Sawchik provide a spectacular account of how that is happening and why it matters. This is the kind of book that any baseball fan could enjoy, even your luddite uncle who thinks wOBA is Star Wars character. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The MVP Machine is out June 4, 2019, via Basic Books, who graciously provided me an advance copy for review. Please forgive me for breaking our Let’s Go Read protocol of voting for books to review, and also go and buy your own copy of the book from your local independent bookseller.