On Betterball’s creation of talent, and its danger to MLB’s labor

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The July issue of The Atlantic features a review of Ben Lindbergh’s and Travis Sawchik’s recently released book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Noncomformists Are Using Data To Build Better Players. Jack Hamilton, the writer of this review, didn’t just look at whether the book was enjoyable to read, but also at the subject being covered itself, and the problems contained within it: in some cases, he even asked and tried to answer important questions the authors themselves did not.

We’re going to look at the review and those questions today, because they happen to be labor-oriented. Let’s open with this background quote from Hamilton, on recent revolutions in baseball:

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.

The one thing I’ll point out here is that management was on board with the steroid revolution at first — this was labor putting itself in harm’s way in a manner that made management money, so they weren’t exactly broken up about it — until the media and fans turned on steroid use upon finding out it existed. This caused then-commissioner Bud Selig to act like he didn’t even know what the word steroid meant, much less that he knew they were being used in the game he oversaw, and then leveraged Congress’ interest in putting a stop to steroid use (an interest they had in order to make Americans forget about the unpopular Iraq War. No, really.) to weaken the Players Association.

The analytics revolution had its beginnings in the steroid era, but took off more in the era of drug testing that slowed the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and, in turn, offense. That brings us to Lindbergh’s and Sawchik’s book on building the perfect player in a new revolution that they call “Betterball.” In short, it’s the perfect synthesis of the beer and tacos idea, scouting and analytics together, except both the scouting and the analytics are a lot beefier than they used to be when this phrase was first uttered in relation to baseball. It’s worth reading Hamilton’s entire review for the full context and for his pointing out that protagonists Trevor Bauer and Kyle Boddy are self-obsessed annoyances, but for our purposes:

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…

…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.

There are a few pieces of evidence, or at least leads, that this is already happening in the game. Look at the opener, which is going to end up dropping the value of starting pitching on the market because relievers are actually doing the starting of a game to keep lesser starting pitchers from going through the batting order three times. Look at how willing teams are to go to minor-league players already over proven, reliable free agents, even free agents who aren’t all that expensive, like Mike Moustakas has been the past two winters. Look at how willing organizations are to not bother trying or to give up completely before the season even starts, because it’s more cost-effective to fail.

And finally, look at all of the biometric data that teams have on their players, that players do not have access to yet: sure, teams can’t use that nor Statcast data — something else all of the teams have access to in full but the players do not — in arbitration hearings yet, but at some point, these data points will be the new normal, in the same way the initial stat revolution made what used to be weird, terrifying acronyms into everyday baseball statistics for front offices. Will players have the same access to these figures as teams by then? And even if they do, they’ll be five, 10, or however many years behind MLB’s teams and their analytics departments in figuring out how to best interpret and deploy them, which means they won’t have an advantage in negotiations for some time, if ever. The owners will pull in even more of the game’s revenue, while players become, even more than they’re treated now, interchangeable cogs in the profit machine.

That’s bad for the players, but another point Hamilton brings up is if MLB being able to create inexpensive armies of productive players is going to make for compelling baseball: “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.”

I’ve seen a related point made about Mike Trout fairly regularly: he’s the best player in the game, and might end up being the best baseball player of all-time, but there are ways in which he’s kind of boring, and that’s part of why it feels like he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. Trout is good at everything, but you need to watch him all the time to see that: fans are still, as Bill James wrote years ago, underrating the kinds of players who are good at everything instead of exceptional at one noticeable thing. What is your best evidence that Trout is as good as he is, other than watching him all the time? His wins above replacement totals, which, for all the advances in fan acceptance of stats, still isn’t something that is obvious to the vast majority of fans or casual observers, even if it’s obvious to more plugged-in fans and the teams themselves.

Trout’s most obvious special trait is his power, but thanks to the juiced ball, it also doesn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd in the way the best power hitters of the past would have. Trout is slugging a career-high .667, and is four dingers behind matching his career-high even with 50-plus games left to play, but his overall offensive numbers are actually worse than last summer’s figures, because you don’t need to be Mike Trout to hit the baseball 450 feet with regularity right now. You just need to make contact with this ridiculous baseball that’s in use.

When everyone is a power hitter, no one is a power hitter. When anyone can be made into an inexpensive, productive player through “Betterball,” then what makes the very best stand out? Pitchers aren’t worth paying huge sums to when any schlub with a bat can go yard at any time and relievers are being relied on for an even larger chunk of the innings of starters, and since you can pick up said schlubs basically anywhere, the hitters aren’t worth paying, either. You can imagine how all of this would impact any potential growth of salaries in the minors, too, where the players will, even more than before, basically become disposable lab rats for MLB’s experiments. This is Hamilton’s concern, it’s a concern of mine, and it should be one players are concerned with, even if it wasn’t a question meant to be asked or answered by The MVP Machine.

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