One of the most fascinating elements in pro sports is seeing how teams continually make changes to try to gain an edge in an ever-competitive environment. In Major League baseball there are only 2,430 wins available between 30 MLB teams, although realistically teams are competing for 570 wins, so teams have been devising ways to take a bigger share of those wins and make their way into the postseason and ultimately a World Series title. Without a salary cap or floor in place, that means all 30 MLB organizations will have 30 different levels of payroll which in itself creates a competitive advantage for the bigger market clubs.
One of the more notable examples of small market teams trying to stay ahead of big market clubs is inventing new ways to evaluate players at all levels. The most notable examples were the Moneyball A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays over the last 13 years. One thing that’s stood out from both teams was the high level of homegrown talent, which is how smaller market clubs have been able to compete with some of the big payroll teams in the league. However the big market teams have eventually caught up to the practices and erased that advantage. As the 30 MLB organizations continue to compete for those 570 wins, they’ve turned to a previous unexplored venture: player development at both the Minor League and Major League level. Teams are finding that investing in player development has a better return on investment than the players themselves, which has led to prospects coming up and making a major impact almost immediately at the Major League level and teams being more selective on how much to pay players in free agency.
This is where The MVP Machine picks up on. Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik both chronicle some of the recent breakthroughs in player development in a series of anecdotes. Both players and front offices alike have looked for methods to improve their overall game, seeking help from people inside and outside of the game. Some of the topics in the book include Trevor Bauer’s quest to become an elite MLB pitcher from childhood, Justin Turner transforming from slap-hitting utility infielder to the Red Menace, the Astros transforming their organization into a cut-throat organization that produced results, and the improvement in technology around the game used for player development at all levels. Organizations have turned to Rapsodo and Edgartronic cameras for their pitchers and K-Vests for their hitters to try to quantify biometric data and improve their pitches and swings. As organizations gets more data on their own players, they can make decisions about which players they want to keep around long term and who to use as trade chips.
Today there is more information now than ever. We, as fans, are able to look up different category data about a multitude of players in the Major Leagues. Statcast cameras track a player’s velocity, spin rate, movement, and how a position player performs in the field. Teams have access to more data across all levels than we do, but with that extra information also gives writers and fans alike a better understanding of player performance that teams have had for years. However just having that extra data does not mean much without the ability to be able to digest that information and turn it into something that can help the players improve. That’s where some of the former players in the league that have embraced analytics come into play. Former players now serves as the conduits between the front office, coaches, and players to be able to turn the information collected by front offices and use it to improve player performance and managerial decisions.
The first major front office hire of this type came in 2015, when the Red Sox hired former Royals pitcher Brian Bannister. Bannister helped to revive Rich Hill’s career and was a big part in the Red Sox’s 2018 postseason run. Mike Hazen was a part of that Red Sox front office back then and when the Diamondbacks hired him after the 2016 season, one of his first hires was Dan Haren. Haren was a former All-Star pitcher with the D-backs and known for his cerebral approach to pitching. That has translated well to the pitching strategist role in the team’s front office, with the team posting a 90 ERA- over the last 3 seasons (7th best in baseball). Haren was able to help unlock more from Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin’s potential, both making at least one All-Star team.
When the Diamondbacks got the best two month stretch ever in J.D. Martinez’s career, they thought to make another home run hire in their coaching ranks. Similar to Haren, the team looked to get ahead of the curve in the hitting ranks by hiring one of Martinez’s hitting instructors Robert Van Scoyoc. Hoping to strike lightning in a bottle for a second time, the team hoped that the new concepts that Van Scoyoc brought to the table would have a positive effect. It wound up backfiring as Van Scoyoc and incumbent hitting coach Dave Magadan had opposing philosophies and resulted in a negative effect on the team as they historically struggled during May and September 2018, which cost them a shot at winning the NL West in a vulnerable year for the Dodgers. Both hitting instructors did not return to the organization following the season.
As teams continue to try to gain an edge on the 570 wins, we’ll see teams invest in methods that continue to produce solid return on investments and build the best players possible. With more information about how the human body operates, baseball and all other professional sports will continue to find advancements in nutrition, video scouting, bio-metric data, and tendencies will create more skilled hitters and pitchers in the game. Most of these player development advances have occurred over the past five years, so I’ll be curious to see how teams adapt over the next five years.
The MVP Machine is available on Amazon or most bookstores for about $30. It’s worth a read if you’re into learning about modern player development.