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The MVP Machine (Review for The Slow Reader)

Yesterday I finally released the review I wrote / recorded for The MVP Machine (by Ben Lindburgh and Travis Sawchik). The audio and un-revised transcripts are below! I also decided to paste the show notes because I made a few revisions on the fly while recording, and didn’t include podcast list or music notes in the written version.

My review of The MVP Machine, a book that covers the latest evolution of player development in Major League Baseball; the book is written by Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindburgh.

Podcasts mentioned in the episode: * Pr0ductive Outs

Music used in this episode: * “Baseball” by Guglielmo Brunelli – Jamendo

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik. 

About the book  

Publish date: June 4, 2019  

Back of the book summary:  

Move over, Moneyball — a cutting-edge look at major league baseball’s next revolution: the high-tech quest to build better players. 
 
As bestselling authors Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik reveal in The MVP Machine, the Moneyball era is over. Fifteen years after Michael Lewis brought the Oakland Athletics’ groundbreaking team-building strategies to light, every front office takes a data-driven approach to evaluating players, and the league’s smarter teams no longer have a huge advantage in valuing past performance. 
 
Lindbergh and Sawchik’s behind-the-scenes reporting reveals: 
 
How the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox used cutting-edge technology to win the World Series 
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 
Instead of out-drafting, out-signing, and out-trading their rivals, baseball’s best minds have turned to out-developing opponents, gaining greater edges than ever by perfecting prospects and eking extra runs out of older athletes who were once written off. Lindbergh and Sawchik take us inside the transformation of former fringe hitters into home-run kings, show how washed-up pitchers have emerged as aces, and document how coaching and scouting are being turned upside down. The MVP Machine charts the future of a sport and offers a lesson that goes beyond baseball: Success stems not from focusing on finished products, but from making the most of untapped potential. 

So I hope you’ve at least gathered from the book summary that this is a book about Baseball. The last books about Baseball that I’ve read – that I can remember off the top of my head – include The Only Rule is It Has To Work (also co-authored by Ben Lindbergh), Moneyball, and books by Jonah Keri: The Extra 2% (a book covering the Tampa Bay Rays) and Up, Up, and Away!, a book about the Montreal Expos. There may be more that I’m leaving off the list, but I feel these are the most relevant anyway. 

Moneyball is probably the one book that is mentioned the most throughout MVP Machine. With good reason, I think – because “moneyball” is also the term most quoted for what the Oakland A’s popularized in the early 2000’s when they couldn’t compete with the payrolls of teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox. But the advantage moneyball provided – which was, in essence, about finding undervalued players and getting the most out of them – is no longer there because most teams have latched onto the analytics revolution.  

The Extra 2%, on the other hand, was about how teams could squeeze extra value out of what they had to work with – and not just about finding undervalued talent – as well as properly managing your assets. The negative connotation around The Extra 2% is that the Rays are known for being notoriously cheap and stretching dollars in the guise of being “revolutionary”. If you combine the content of Moneyball and The Extra 2% though, that’s kind of what you get with The MVP Machine.  

Before I go any further, however… 

My Reading Timeline 
 

I began reading this October 28 2019, and finished reading it December 17, 2019. In total, this meant it took me just over 1 and a half months (50 days) to read the book. I should point out that I had a break between November 17th and December 14th when my library loan ended, and I also had to stop to read a new book (Warlight, which I covered back in December). 

Unfortunately, I can’t provide any detailed statistics because my reading took place between a physical book and an eBook, so with different formats it’s tough to figure out what my stats were.  

My Review 

Since this is a non-fiction book, and I’m writing this review almost a month removed from actually finishing it, I thought I would just go with a more straight-forward review. I didn’t really have any questions leading into reading the book; I knew more or less what it was about and I was very interested in the content. I’m not a huge baseball watcher – I mean, I like baseball, I just don’t devote a lot of time to it as some people do. I also don’t read a lot of articles about baseball, though I try to keep up to date with a handful of baseball podcasts (my list at the end of this episode).  

With that said, I was peripherally aware of some of the “real life” content of this book. What I mean by that is I did read some articles here and there talking about players changing their swings, trying different things. For example, I remember reading about J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox talking about how he started to swing up at the ball a few years back; in general, that’s what I’m hearing – a lot of players are trying to put the ball in the air these days more than anything else, which is partly what’s leading to an increase in Home Runs. 

What I’m getting at here is that I have not been unaware of the idea presented in this book: that professional baseball players are actively trying to improve upon their talent. What was new to me was the history of all of this, dating back to names like Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers; or the extent to which some teams and some individual players (like Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer) are going to go about these improvements. 

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book was that it wasn’t just a bunch of charts and numbers thrown in my face. There was some narrative involved, and authors Lindbergh and Sawchik did a fairly good job of preventing the material from coming across as boring. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the passages where the authors would describe a specific at-bat, one pitch at a time. In theory, that sounds like something that could be really boring: first pitch – swinging strike, fastball. Second pitch – Ball, outside. And so on. But they were able to put me in the time and place of the game they were describing. Maybe this is just something that I found interesting and others didn’t, but it definitely worked for me. 

What this also did for me was get me excited about baseball again. For a little bit, other than following the local indy ball team the Ottawa Champions, I haven’t really been following baseball all that closely. I still don’t know what players are on what team right now, as there’s been a lot of movement in this year’s off-season; but reading The MVP Machine has me excited to watch some regular season ball (although I suppose it helps that we just got a big 4K TV over the Christmas holidays). 

So, to sum up, I had a great time reading The MVP Machine. I learned a lot of different things that weren’t just related to baseball – I’ll expand on that in a little bit – and the information was not presented in a dry manner in any way. I felt that part in particular was very important, as presenting statistics can be potentially very boring.  

So What Did I Learn? 

Obviously, I learned about how many baseball teams – and specifically individual players such as Trevor Bauer – are embracing growth mindsets and trying to improve their talent rather than just “finding good players”. The main thing that I got out of it is that baseball teams all are using advanced analytics to find great players for less money; because of that, the advantage that teams like the Oakland Athletics enjoyed for a few years is gone. The new advantage is in player development when teams realized that their players were capable of so much more.  

But I also learned that a lot of what baseball teams and management are doing is incredibly similar to things that I learned last year participating in a new people leader course. I already mentioned “growth mindset” – that’s a huge term bandied about lately. I’m struggling a little to remember everything I read and wanted to mention, but suffice it to say that you could give this book to anyone aspiring to improve themselves in their career – any career – and they would get some good information out of it. You could really take out the specific statistical mentions related to baseball and you’d still get a great book. 

I should also mention that while I was reading this book, details of the Houston Astros cheating scandal were starting to trickle out (and as I type this review, the rulings from Major League Baseball have since been handed out). Interestingly, I read the chapters about Houston before a lot of the information came out. The picture I got of the Houston management was not pretty and I decided fairly quickly that this is not a front office I would want to work for if I had my pick of teams.  

I can’t say that there’s a team that was presented in the book that I would put at the top of my list, but it’s good to know that I can recognize the kind of work environment that I absolutely want to avoid. Just because it’s something semi-glamourous like working in sports doesn’t make it a fantastic place. 

Wrapping Up 

I think this is a great book that helps to cover off some of what is going on in the world of Baseball in terms of player development and a bit of insight into how players move throughout organizations. It also touches on some of the history of the game (which was really neat – it was especially fun to learn that Branch Rickey was famous for more than just employing Jackie Robinson). If you also get a chance to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, which includes a short commentary audio track where the authors talk about the book, I recommend doing that as well. 

Pop Culture 

I am slowly making my way through The Mandalorian. We were waiting until we got a new big-screen TV to get the most out of the show, which we did around Christmas. It’s a great show so far, and we’re only two episodes into it. Other than that, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from consuming content. I’m starting to get myself back into things so in future episodes I’m sure I’ll have something new to talk about. 

Thanks for listening to The Slow Reader – next episode I will review the Star Wars novel Master and Apprentice. Spoiler alert: I liked it. It’s probably going to be another short one though, because I finished reading it after Christmas but before New Year’s. I’ll share some thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker in that episode too. See you next time! 

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