“The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players” by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. Basic. 373 pp. $30.
“For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball” by Bud Selig. William Morrow. 318 pp. $28.99. Review provided by The Washington Post.
Baseball inspires prose as high-flying as a beautifully hit home run ball. The game is “a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day,” novelist Michael Chabon wrote in his young-adult novel “Summerland.” “It is designed to break your heart,” future National League President and Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote in 1977. The New Yorker writer Roger Angell argued in 1971 that the game has the power to upend the fundamental laws of nature, because “since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”
Given this lofty, romantic literary legacy, one might expect that in a matchup between a book by a traditionalist who grew up listening to baseball on the radio and another volume by a pair of statheads, the traditionalist would produce the better outing. But it’s “The MVP Machine,” by Ringer writer Ben Lindbergh and FanGraphs staffer Travis Sawchik, that makes baseball feel new and inspiring again, while “For the Good of the Game,” by former Brewers owner and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, reduces the sport to a series of numbers.
If baseball is designed to lull viewers into a contemplative state, its hypnotic power seems to have failed to take effect on its former commissioner. Despite Selig’s half-century in baseball, “For the Good of the Game” barely gestures at an answer to what the game is good for.
Actually, Selig seems to be a mystery even to himself. As he acknowledges within the span of 10 pages, he doesn’t know why his parents chose to immigrate to America or why they settled in Milwaukee, why his favorite player as a child was outfielder Hershel Martin, whether the playground game “strikeout” was popular outside the Midwest or why he went from “very shy” in high school to “aggressively outgoing” in college. Later, Selig doesn’t know why former Major League Baseball Players Association Director Marvin Miller isn’t in the Hall of Fame. These curious admissions leave the sense that Selig has no idea why he’s writing this memoir, either, except that, as he says about his marriage at the age of 22: “I never thought anything about it. I just did it.”
Even when a rationale for the book heaves into view, as with Selig’s brag that no one else had “understood the history of the commissioner’s office, and had studied it, the way I had,” Selig leaves it curiously unfulfilled. He clearly admires the long-term planning practiced by strong commissioners of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. But he thinks of them mostly in terms of television deals and revenue sharing, rather than in how they shaped their games and their leagues’ place in American culture.
Ultimately, Selig writes with all the soul of an accountant seeking a particularly good tax incentive package, measuring the success of the league in the rising value of franchises and spinoff companies. To the extent that he can summon up rhapsodies, they’re often for city-built or city-funded stadium complexes. By contrast, the most detail he can muster about Robin Yount, the shortstop and center fielder who was an early face of the Brewers, is: “Man, he was great. He was huge here. Big favorite here.” All questions are simple: Stadium deals are always good for cities; the speed at which Major League Baseball banned steroids was the fault of union officials; baseball is held to an oft-referenced but never-defined “higher standard.”
But of course, one of the many joys of baseball is its complexity, both in its play and in the physical laws that make it function. “The MVP Machine” is simultaneously a history of player development, an exploration of the physics that underpin the sport and a story of dramatic transformations by players who stretched beyond their expected potential. In the telling, the authors illustrate how technical details can enhance delight, rather than obfuscating or deadening it.
The first major innovation in player development, the farm system, was dismissed by Giants manager John McGraw as “the stupidest idea in baseball” and championed by that visionary of another kind of baseball progress, St. Louis Cardinals executive Branch Rickey. For all McGraw’s skepticism, other teams, including the Yankees, quickly realized the value of the farm system, which allowed major league clubs to lock up promising prospects and to standardize and monitor their development. Between 1920 and 1939, the number of farm teams formally affiliated with major league franchises grew from three to 168. But less productive beliefs, like the idea that players who made the major leagues inherently possessed superior mechanical skills that could not be meaningfully improved upon, would hang on for decades. Convictions like this cost teams opportunities to maximize their stars’ potential or help them avoid injury, and to institute practice regimens that could make their teams function more effectively as a whole. One early stathead suggested that the Chicago Cubs were spending less than 48 minutes a day on routines that were “effective for the playing of baseball.”
And new misconceptions that emerged over time also proved tenaciously difficult to dispel. Ideas advanced in Baseball Prospectus and Sports Illustrated encouraged teams to limit the number of pitches that pitchers threw per outing and the number of innings they threw per season in an effort to limit injuries. The evidence, though, shows that March, when most players are still training for the upcoming season, is when pitchers most frequently incur the elbow damage that requires Tommy John surgery. Less consequentially, many players were taught to let the ball travel closer to the plate before making contact and to try to hit the ball toward the ground for line drives, despite the fact that the most productive way to hit is actually up: In 2018, players hit a rather stunning .565 on “pull-side air balls,” and almost a third of their hits were home runs.
“The MVP Machine” doesn’t just dismantle hoary old ideas: Lindbergh and Sawchik replace them with a new vision of what’s possible in baseball and perhaps beyond. It’s gutsy to take as your first epigraph Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws about the future, but the innovations in baseball they describe do exist at that uncanny and very exciting crossroads where magic and technology become indistinguishable.
The idea that players and their coaches can design pitches that travel along similar tunnels in the air so they can deceive batters for longer periods of time, or so they take advantage of different aspects of fluid dynamics, is simultaneously wonky and delightful. The mechanics involved in putting more spin on a ball or changing the launch angle at which a ball is hit are absolutely technical. But their effects feel wondrous, both for the players who experience huge leaps in performance after implementing these insights and for those of us who get to witness their breakout seasons.
For one player, getting traded to a team that embraced the scientific approach that enabled these kinds of changes “was akin to Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts,” the authors write. “For the first time, he was fully aware of and encouraged to use his powers, and he finally felt like himself.” The vast majority of us will never unlock the biomechanics that might allow us to compete for Cy Young Awards – the real-world equivalent of the precise flick of a wand that allows J.K. Rowling’s characters to cast impeccable spells. Still, it’s fascinating to be able to look in on sorcerers at work.
Breaking down how something works can render it prosaic, and arguing that all the conventional wisdom on a given subject is wrong risks tipping into sourness. But Lindbergh and Sawchik live up to the standard they set for themselves, writing that “just as there’s nothing joyless about understanding the sport in a different and deeper way, there’s nothing joyless about being better at it.” Selig may have negotiated the collective-bargaining agreement that implemented a steroid testing regimen. But in “The MVP Machine,” Lindbergh and Sawchik make a convincing, and faith-restoring, case that genuine, unadulterated miracles can happen in baseball.
– Reviewed by Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes about the intersection of culture and politics for The Washington Post’s Opinions section. Before coming to The Post in 2014, Rosenberg was the culture editor at ThinkProgress, the television columnist at Women and Hollywood, a columnist for the XX Factor at Slate and a correspondent for The Atlantic.com.