Why you should care

Because every once in a while there is a great talent in the game of baseball that makes everyone else look a bit foolish.

It’s the last night of spring training. The newly minted members of the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays baseball team are out celebrating the upcoming season at a bar in Port Charlotte, Florida, where the Rays train. Well, almost the entire team. One of the organization’s highest-flying prospects, Tyler Brockmann, who hit a team high .388 this spring, is staring down Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander in his hotel room. 

Brockmann is watching simulated footage of Verlander — whom the Rays would face on opening day two days later — on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset that Brockmann says he rewired himself to achieve a “more realistic” virtual reality experience. The first baseman knows that the extra hours spent preparing for Verlander could make the difference between a groundout and a single in today’s data-intensive game. Brockmann also knows something else: that a few beers out with your teammates don’t make you a better ballplayer, even if they might make you a better teammate.

Brockmann’s devotion to “the science” has ruffled some feathers.

The following morning, when the rest of the Rays board the team bus for the hour-and-a-half drive to Tampa, Brockmann takes an Uber by himself. He spends the trip in the backseat of a 2005 Toyota Celica, poring over more game film on an iPad and making frenetic notations in a spiral notebook. Oh, and incidentally, the following day, the left-handed slugger goes 2-for-3 with two doubles off Verlander in his major league debut. No other Ray musters more than a single.

 

As a new major league baseball season launches, more players than ever are using cutting-edge technology and data collection tools to improve their performance. Today’s rookies, like Brockmann, raised since childhood in the Moneyball era, are taking this to the next level. But Brockmann’s devotion to “the science” has ruffled some feathers in the Rays’ organization even as it has dramatically changed his own performance — and fortunes — on the playing field.

Brockmann doesn’t want me to write this story. He says it’s pointless, and it risks revealing his “trade secrets,” which he reminds me more than once is both a civil and criminal violation under Florida law. Brockmann even talks like a dismissive lawyer — one from a Coen brothers movie in which every other word is an expletive — as if to say, “You just watch the fucking game, you poor dumb son of a bitch. I’m not even going to try to explain how it really works.”

But for most of the past month, Brockmann, 21, has been the story at the Rays’ camp whether he likes it or not. Born and raised in rural Minnesota, Brockmann got used to finding alternative routes to success in the frigid wasteland of his youth. While his future competition was playing in sunny ballparks in Florida or California, Brockmann was running snow-covered bleachers like a 13-year-old Rocky Balboa and fine-tuning his hand-eye coordination by pounding a racquetball for hours in the dark against the inside of an abandoned grain silo.

The publication of Moneyball in 2003, however, turned Brockmann’s world upside down. Ever since he wrote a first-grade book report on Michael Lewis’s classic tome about the new analytical approach to baseball, the undersize Brockmann (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) has sought to squeeze every possible advantage he can from the science behind his favorite sport. At first glance, Brockmann’s devotion to the finer points of the game seems no different than some of baseball’s other devotees today like Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer. But if you look closer, Brockmann is truly in a league of his own.

It’s never been more challenging to be a batter. As major league pitchers continue to hone their arsenals with everything from slow-motion video to better spin rates, and fielders’ improved positioning makes it harder to find gaps, it’s getting harder for batters like Brockmann to keep up. Like most hitters, he watches hours of game video and looks to perfect the “launch angle” of his swing. But Brockmann has figured out that it’s not just what happens once you enter the batter’s box that makes you a better hitter, it’s everything leading up to that point. 

Just a glance inside his Tampa townhouse reveals just how far the self-made phenom takes his “science.” First, the place is nearly barren of creature comforts aside from a dusty futon and a goldfish named Sidd Finch (Brockmann’s sole nod to humankind’s need for companionship). There are no video game consoles, no sports magazines lying around, just dog-eared copies of academic journals like the Personality and Social Psychology Review

Like the Malcolm Gladwell of the American League, Brockmann and his approach to the game draw a lot from the social science literature. He models his approach to umpires on the famous “broken windows” theory of policing (in which law enforcement disports smaller crimes as a way of preventing more serious ones), except in Brockmann’s version, he disputes even the least questionable calls under the theory that the complaints will “anchor” the umpire’s tolerance and result in a favorable call when it really matters. “It works for fucking LeBron James, right?” he explains.

The “science” has taught Brockmann all manner of things in his ruthless attempt to be the best hitter in the game. He eats six high-protein meals per day, he’s never been drunk, he has zero social media accounts, he calls his parents for 15 minutes once per month and he visits a local prostitute weekly the way you or I might visit a massage parlor. He doesn’t fraternize with women or his teammates. In fact, he usually doesn’t even watch the game he is playing in until it is his turn to hit. He spends much of the games in a hyperbaric chamber in the clubhouse, listening to Gregorian chants until summoned by a bench coach’s text message when it is time to hit or retake the field. And he certainly doesn’t practice his fielding unless he is required to. “How much better can I get?” he observes. “I’m a fucking first baseman.”

Unsurprisingly, Brockmann’s teammates think he is kind of a dick. Brockmann shrugs that off the way he does most human interaction: “You don’t get to be an MVP by being valued by your teammates.” Seasoned observers of the game, while amused by Brockmann’s dedication, say he’s a fool who will be a short-lived big league experiment. How do they know? They point to the lack of anyone named Tyler Brockmann on the Rays’ roster and to the date hanging on the clubhouse calendar. It reads April 1.

Max Canard has previously written for OZY about his role in faking the Apollo moon landings.

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