July 1, 2019


The New Science of Building Baseball Superstars: "Sabermetrics" changed the national pastime. Now another technological revolution is transforming the game, for good or ill. (JACK HAMILTON, JULY 2019, The Atlantic)

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.

Posted by at July 1, 2019 12:00 AM