Image credit: Basic Books

There is a lot of baseball content out there these days — to the point where it can be hard to keep up with the crush of information that arrives with it. We’re all doing our best to identify and diagnose breakouts or drop-offs in performance at every turn — to surmise what is really driving production rather than just observing it. The idea that there is more information to be had, that just isn’t covered — or isn’t covered in-depth — is a bit of an overwhelming prospect, but it’s also a reality.

Some of the largely hidden revelations have been laid bare this week, though, in the release of Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s new book The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players. What follows are my thoughts after reading the book over the last week, and what it means for us as consumers of the sport. Full disclosure: Lindbergh was the Editor-in-Chief when I started working at Baseball Prospectus and I once saw him carry a rotisserie chicken onto a train.

The MVP Machine is, first and foremost, a gold mine of information for those who are not on the cutting edge of the industry’s acquisition and implementation of technology. While many outlets have covered the technology used throughout baseball (and I mean the global game, in this respect), this book offers a one-stop shop for the types of machinery and techniques that are being employed in service of player development both within the major leagues and by outsiders. From plyometric balls to Trackman, Rapsodo to Edgertronic, and K-Vests to force plates, The MVP Machine details the technology in place, and how players, coaches, and player development departments are using it to change the nature of the game on a granular level.

There are multiple vehicles for the narrative — ranging from Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner and Doug Latta, the guy who unlocked his swing,, to Red Sox’ front office man Brian Bannister and Rich Hill, whom he helped in Triple-A — but the primary driver is Cleveland’s Dennis the Menace: Trevor Bauer. Bauer’s contributions to pushing the envelope of player development are difficult to overstate: the near omnipresence of Edgertronic cameras among the games’ more advanced developmental organizations stem from Bauer and his father’s initial investment, experimentation, and discovery. The throughline of the story is Bauer’s dominant 2018 season and how risk-takers and home-brew lab makers made it come together.

Bauer is both an ideal emissary and a flawed ambassador for the message he wants to disseminate; these dichotomies evince themselves throughout the book. It’s hard to find a better example than a player who has, at every turn, attempted to improve themselves on the field by any means necessary and has the ability to explain and espouse the philosophies and techniques used to achieve his status. It’s perhaps harder to stomach the same player’s lack of introspection on how his attitude and communication style hampered the prophetic status he so obviously seeks. The book grapples with this by demonstrating Bauer’s uncanny ability to find real solutions to problems others either didn’t see or wouldn’t acknowledge, while also providing space for those around him to discuss his lack of tact or his short fuse. It also does not shy away from discussing the more notable meltdowns Bauer has had in the public sphere.

My biggest gripe with The MVP Machine and its main subject is that there is often a juxtaposition between the idiosyncrasies that Bauer demonstrates (yelling at others for a slight inconvenience to his normal routine, for example) and the quality of the work produced by him. By standing these side-by-side, it can seem to imply that there could not be one without the other — and many of the quotes from his coterie seem to outright excuse the behavior because of where it has led him or because it was due to Bauer’s status as a pariah and an outcast (some of which is acknowledged as being brought on by Bauer himself).

There are far more nuggets of intensely valuable information within the pages of The MVP Machine than there are negatives or annoyances, no matter how one might feel about the use of the phrase “growth mindset.” The portion of the book on Brian Bannister (and many others) and his work as a conduit between the front office and the players simultaneously acted as one of the more complete descriptions of exactly what that work consists of with tangible examples and left me wanting so much more. The level of thought and care that the cast of characters brought to the table was remarkable and remarkably demonstrated, from Doug Latta’s forceful, resolute insistence on balance to Kyle Boddy and his staff at Driveline’s maniacal drive to measure everything and apply what they’ve learned, to Bannister’s poetic ability to transfer lessons learned from Ansel Adams to player development. Everyone, including Bauer’s, burning desire to crack the code that would unlock the potential that is stored within is apparent.

The ultimate takeaway from the book isn’t that these individuals are special or unique, but rather that whatever differentiators they do embody were ones that they worked emphatically to create within themselves. That the abilities they hold were not handed down from on high, but thought of, designed with intent, and then sweated over until they clicked. It sounds corny, but on some level the message here is that the MVP Machine, such that it exists, is inside us all along. This is the story of the people inside the game and out who are working to unlock it and it is the best thing in baseball this week.

Thank you for reading

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Mike Juntunen
Craig, I agree overall and have really enjoyed the book. I have not been a fan of Bauer personally and while the book has not changed that, it has given me a certain grudging respect for his worries ethic and willingness to defy conformance. I think a case that Ben and Travis imply but don't make that strongly is true: it took a person like Bauer, who is completely indifferent to criticism, to bust the wall of conventionality around pitching. Bauer's personality flaws are on display and are a mixed blessing for him in this context and probably a negative to him having a happy life. With that said, I think it makes more sense to criticize him for the ways his abrasiveness hurts his cause. Baseball is filled with traditionalist, conventional players who are equally obsessive with their routines and similarly rigid about them. Any story about Clayton Kershaw on game day is not that different from the stories you mention about Bauer, despite Kershaw being rather famously pleasant and nice the rest of the time. There are better bones to pick with his behavior that better illustrate how it's counterproductive to getting his message accepted by others.
Craig Goldstein
Thanks for the input, Mike. I agree that it would have taken someone who is indifferent to criticism to do what Bauer did, but I don't think "indifference to criticism" is the driver for the behavior Bauer often displays. It's possible that he doesn't care if people think he acts like a jerk, but you don't act like a jerk because you don't care, you act like a jerk because you're motivating to do jerky things, if that makes sense. And yes, some people are similarly intense on gamedays and I'd have similar things to say about them - the difference as illustrated throughout the book is that this isn't a once-in-a-while trait for Bauer, and it made those chapters more difficult for me to appreciate.
Mike Juntunen
Bauer enjoys trolling quite a bit, indeed. He's become a complex figure for me. He's puerile and intentionally Provocative and offensive. I have enough shared experience with him(with bullying in particular) to get how he ended up that way, even if I chose otherwise. His charitable giving is a great example. It's intentionally annoying and filled with 420 and 69 jokes, but he uses it to address bullying and has some very true insight about that, because he, like me, had some extreme experiences with it. I want him to grow up so I can like him, because Ive developed a certain respect for the areas where he is right, and wish he didn't make it impossible. He should be an inspiring figure to people who went through what we both did. But he makes sure he isn't.
Robert McWilliams
Looking forward to reading the book. I might say, though, that I can never think of Ben again without the image of taking a rotisserie chicken onto a train.