The New Science of Building Baseball Superstars

“Sabermetrics” changed the national pastime. Now another technological revolution is transforming the game, for good or ill.

Golden Cosmos

Baseball is the most American of sports, or so its celebrants, from Walt Whitman to George Will, have long been fond of telling us. How appropriate, then, that our national pastime is so steeped in that most American of creeds: exceptionalism. Baseball is different from such rival professional sports as basketball and football not simply because it’s older and slower, but because it’s baseball. Don’t take my word for it. Here is John Chancellor, narrating the early minutes of Ken Burns’s 18-hour documentary Baseball, which turns 25 this year:

It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed; the only game in which the defense has the ball … At its heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game born in crowded cities, an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating, and has excluded as many as it has included. A profoundly conservative game that often manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.

This is a lovely passage, although its breathlessness was dated even a quarter century ago. (In 1994, an acrimonious labor strike led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years.) To that list of contradictions, I’d add another: No other sport has changed so much yet remained so committed to its self-conception as unchanging.

The history of baseball is a never-ending crisis of purity, occasioned by everything from “curved balls” to game-fixing to night games to integration to designated hitters to free agency to instant replay. The composition of the ball itself has changed repeatedly. At every juncture, the fundamental nature of the game has been deemed under dire threat, but somehow baseball has endured. Perhaps the most essential part of the sport is its belief that it has an essence. Baseball might be exceptional, but a more colloquial way of putting it is that baseball is weird.

In the 21st century, baseball has experienced two watersheds. First came the performance-enhancing-drug scandals. In 2002, Sports Illustrated published an explosive cover story in which the 1996 National League MVP, Ken Caminiti, confessed to rampant steroid use. In 2005, Congress got involved, and in 2019, two of the very best players in the history of the sport—Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—remain unofficially barred from its Hall of Fame.

The second upheaval was fueled not by pharmaceutical science but by mathematics. The statistics-based movement commonly referred to as “sabermetrics” (or, more broadly, “analytics”) burst onto the scene just a year after Caminiti’s confession, with the publication of Michael Lewis’s best-selling Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, a wildly entertaining journey into the renegade tactics of the improbably successful Oakland A’s under the management of Billy Beane. Moneyball introduced readers to the theories of Bill James, the founder of sabermetrics (and coiner of the term), who catalyzed a reconception of the game as a contest determined by matching minutely calibrated player skills to particular game situations. Lewis’s book was immensely controversial upon its release, but Jamesian acolytes such as Rob Neyer, Keith Law, and Christina Kahrl rank among today’s most influential baseball writers. Acronyms like WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), FIP (fielding independent pitching), and WAR (wins above replacement) are now commonplace, if still fuzzily understood by casual fans.

The steroid and stat revolutions have unfolded very differently so far, but they arose from a common source: a desire to deploy scientific methods to improve the way baseball is played. Steroid use focused on player enhancement, whereas analytics focused on player value. To put it polemically, one was a revolution driven by labor, and the other by management, which is probably one of many reasons the latter has been more readily accepted.

In The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik set out to introduce the world to what they herald as yet another revolution, which represents a synthesis of sorts. Writers at The Ringer and FiveThirtyEight, respectively, they are at once steeped in advanced analytics and fixated on player improvement. As their subtitle indicates, they explore a growing movement within baseball to use statistical metrics, biomechanical data, and cutting-edge forms of player observation to help players hone their skills.

Their book is explicitly cast in the mold of Moneyball, to which the authors devote a substantial portion of their opening chapter. As Lindbergh and Sawchik rightly point out, Lewis had surprisingly little to say about player development. The philosophy that Beane brought to the A’s organization was guided not so much by what players could be as by what they were—it was about how to construct a roster out of players whose specific usefulness had been undervalued in the market. The Beane model didn’t have much to offer players who were interested in actually improving, aside from maybe “try walking more” and “don’t bunt so much.” By contrast, “this new phase is dedicated to making players better,” Lindbergh and Sawchik write. “It’s Betterball. And it’s taking over.”

The authors report from the front lines of a technological transformation in how we look at baseball itself. A sport that has lately been understood primarily through numbers on a spreadsheet is paying newly fine-grained attention to the game as a human activity. Among the innovations discussed are a high-speed camera called the Edgertronic, which can capture minuscule variations in pitch release; a Doppler-radar system called TrackMan, used to provide input on batters’ swings and pitchers’ spin rates; and even more bizarre machines with even more Marvel Comics–sounding names, such as Proteus and Rapsodo, whose stories I won’t spoil here. The diamond has become a panopticon, and if this strikes you as a bit creepy, you’re probably right, but you also probably don’t play baseball for a living.

Lindbergh and Sawchik argue that these machines and the voluminous bodies of data they yield have helped players refine their skills and extend their careers with unprecedented effectiveness. They cite reclamation projects galore, like the relief pitcher Craig Breslow, who found himself nearly out of baseball before reinventing his release point with the help of the aforementioned Rapsodo and a device called a motusTHROW. And then there are star players who have ascended to superstar status through Betterball techniques. The MVPs of the book’s title are the Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts and José Altuve of the Houston Astros, the franchise that the authors hail as Major League Baseball’s premier Betterball practitioner. Betts won the American League MVP Award in 2018 after coming under the tutelage of the Betterball swing guru Doug Latta, and Altuve won the award the previous season while leading his team to a World Series victory.

Lindbergh and Sawchik occasionally slip into the sort of end-of-history hyperbole that’s a hallmark of both sports writing and tech writing—references to Elon Musk and Malcolm Gladwell abound, as do phrases like “a manifestation of a new philosophy of human potential.” Still, their account of yet another historical sea change in a sport allegedly immune to such things is highly engaging and thorough. It is unusual (exceptional?) that the MLB’s amateur draft remains a largely unwatched affair, while the NFL’s and the NBA’s spawn endless mock drafts and television specials, as well as a subspecies of pundits who speculate on the potentials of raw talent. Baseball also doesn’t really have anything equivalent to football’s 40-yard-dash time, or basketball’s standing-vertical-leap height—metrics that many hard-core fans can recall with the same precision as sack totals or points-per-game averages. These are measures of athleticism, of course, but also of work: If you train hard and well, you can improve foot speed and jumping ability.

Basic Books

The MVP Machine makes a compelling case that baseball has arrived at an epistemological turning point in the way teams approach player development, rooted in new forms of technology. Lindbergh and Sawchik seem less interested in the question of whether this pivot is actually good for baseball—either for spectators or, especially, for players. One of Michael Lewis’s many gifts is his wry skepticism about the worlds he chronicles: Moneyball is so enjoyable because Lewis is enthralled not by Beane’s genius, but by his ability to pull one over on the establishment. Lewis also populated Moneyball with memorable and oddly appealing characters—not just Beane but also his geeky consigliere, Paul DePodesta, and players like Scott Hatteberg and Kevin Youkilis, the “Greek god of walks.”

As their recurring protagonists, Lindbergh and Sawchik have chosen the Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer and Kyle Boddy, the founder of an expansive training empire called Driveline. Boddy, a man prone to blustery aphorisms, is a former online-poker and Magic: The Gathering enthusiast who has made himself into one of the game’s leading trainers. The authors report that he has a sign hanging above his toilet that reads Being rigorous is like being pregnant: You can’t be a little bit pregnant, a ridiculous statement, even by the standards of motivational posters. At one point he proclaims, “I want to be talked about as the next Branch Rickey”—referring to the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers executive who, together with Jackie Robinson, integrated Major League Baseball—while complaining in the same breath that he won’t be sufficiently recognized for using weighted balls in training regimens. (“No one is going to remember that it was me that really popularized them.”)

But if anyone could do anything to make Kyle Boddy look like Branch Rickey, it’s his star client, Trevor Bauer. Bauer is a STEM-obsessed Betterball zealot who has used avant-garde training methods and reams and reams of data to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is also one of the most unappealing off-the-field characters in professional sports. He has trafficked in birtherism and climate-change denial. In May 2018, Bauer implied on Twitter that the Astros—including Gerrit Cole, Bauer’s former college teammate—were doctoring the ball. In November, after his Cleveland teammate Corey Kluber was named a finalist for the Cy Young Award, Bauer tweeted, “Plot twist, I was better than Kluber this year.” In January of this year, Bauer spent a good part of two days publicly harassing a female college student who’d criticized him on Twitter.

Lindbergh and Sawchik seem unsure how to reconcile Bauer’s visionary approach to professional improvement with his relentlessly appalling personal behavior. Yet Bauer’s centrality to the narrative speaks to The MVP Machine’s most glaring blind spot—namely, what Betterball portends for labor. Certainly not every Betterball adherent is a jerk on Bauer’s scale. Still, he is a reminder of what the self-improvement zeal may fail to take into account: His obsession with his own stats and his penchant for embarrassing his organization and antagonizing his co-workers are real workplace issues, ones that could hamper his team’s current performance as well as its prospects for future improvement. If Bauer’s teammates can’t stand him, if free agents don’t want to play with him, those factors, too, belong in the ledger of his “value.”

What’s more, the authors acknowledge that the Houston Astros have suffered franchise-wide morale problems due to a paranoid culture of micromanagement created by the general manager, Jeff Luhnow. Coldly stats-driven decisions like trading for the reliever Roberto Osuna while he was serving a suspension for a domestic-violence charge don’t help. (One source on the Astros confesses to feeling “disgusted” by the trade, and another adds that those in management “don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think about them.”) But these anecdotes are buried in a mostly celebratory chapter titled “We’re All Astronauts,” which opens with an epigraph from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.

Most provocatively, in the book’s last chapter Lindbergh and Sawchik write that a potential downside to Betterball is that if teams can reliably turn formerly middling players into stars, it might wreak havoc on player salaries. Why would an organization pay for a great player when it can just make one? This fascinating observation appears more than 300 pages into the book, which suggests that the authors themselves don’t quite know what to do with it. If Betterball ends up simply being another way of increasing profit margins for team owners, the stakes of the narrative change considerably. This also prompts another, almost existential question: Would democratizing baseball greatness actually be good for baseball? Part of what makes baseball’s greatest players so memorable is how much better they are at playing the game than anyone else on the field. In important ways, the sport’s drama relies on inequality.

The MVP Machine is an eye-opening dispatch from the leading edge of the sport. In the early 2000s, the battle over baseball knowledge was being fought between jocks and quants, grizzled old scouts and pencil-pushing eggheads, or so the story went. Now you might almost conclude that the data-fication of jocks is giving way to the jock-ification of data, to judge by figures like Bauer, Boddy, and Luhnow, who come across as standard-issue bullies convinced of their own infallibility. Theirs is a world of trolls and pseudo-intellectuals, where self-improvement and self-obsession are indistinguishable, where surveillance is cloaked in the virtues of empiricism, and where “progress” looks suspiciously like the degradation of human worth. In 2019, baseball has never felt less exceptional, or more American.

This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “Building the Next Babe Ruth.”