Baseball, unlike most other sports, has an endless literary tradition. The history is too deep, the players too numerous, and the seasons too long for there not to be an unreadable amount written on it. Once you start (with say the classics: Eight Men Out, The Boys of Summer, Moneyball; or the cult classics: Slouching Toward Fargo, Odd Man Out, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?) you could keep reading forever.
Fortunately, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller have contributed another excellent read to the genre. In 2015, the two writers, and co-hosts of the Effectively Wild podcast, took over the baseball operations department of the Sonoma Stompers, an independent minor league team in the Pacific Association, in an attempt to apply their stat-driven theories to a real ballclub. The result of that experiment is their new book The Only Rule Is It Has To Work. Check out our review of it here.
The following is my discussion with Ben and Sam about the book and life in baseball.
The Only Rule has so much to say about baseball (on shifts, 2nd leadoff hitters, firemen relievers, etc) but the thing I loved the most about it was how well you write about the psychology of the workplace. Ballplayers (and managers and GMs) are all employees that must coexist, the same as a Jiffy Lube in Silver Lake, or the offices of Henry Holt, publishers of your book. So, whether it’s Theo’s inspirational letters to the team, Sam’s “Burn the Ships” motivational speech, or the difficult conversations you had on cutting/firing your employees, I couldn’t help but think of the jobness of baseball while I read it. Did you expect that to play such a huge part in the experiment? Would you approach these issues differently in a 2nd season?
We always expected—and, frankly, hoped—that those relationships would play a real role, because we never wanted the book to be a purely stat-driven story. But the relationships probably played an even more prominent part than we’d planned, and in practice, our management skills were exposed as subpar. Getting a team to play the style you want is not just a matter of players and coaches doing what you want, ask, or order them to do. You want them to do it with incredible enthusiasm and drive. That, after all, is how they got to be great ballplayers: They had incredible enthusiasm and drive. So if we show up and ask them to do something that saps them of that, we’d undermine what made them successful. Coaches and players are people, and we couldn’t do what we wanted to do without finding a way to get buy-in. At that, we didn’t always do a great job.
I think we would be much more proactive and assertive if we could do it again, because we have a confidence that we couldn’t acquire without doing it once. We spent much of the season lamenting our team’s mistrust of rookies, but our own experience taught us that there’s something to be said for having been there before.
If there’s a villain in the book its clearly Fehlandt Lentini, the player-manager you two hired but who ends up running the team by the old-school and nepotistic tendencies that are the antithesis of your mission. GMs are often held to task for the hires they make, so does knowing how Feh performed for you change how you assess the decisions of MLB’s front offices?
If Feh had written his own book about the season, we would probably look like the villains. In fact, I suspect plenty of people who can sympathize with Feh’s place in the game will read our book and still identify us as the villains. Our project put him in a tough spot. Not only did he have to manage a team for the first time in front of his hometown crowd (while playing center field!), but he also had to deal with two carpetbagger statheads/reporters who demanded more access and oversight than any team has traditionally allowed. It was an unenviable job, and we failed to find someone who was truly open to doing it the way we’d envisioned. That’s on us; unfortunately, we never found a spreadsheet that could identify sabermetric managers.
After the season, we got an email from a statistically inclined Baseball Prospectus podcast listener who’s also a college coach. He’s already doing things with his team that we would have loved to do with the Stompers. If we’d gotten that email several months earlier, we might have written a much different book. Not necessarily better, but different.
It’s also worth noting that we learned a lot from Feh, who knows much more about some aspects of the game than we ever will. And while the more acrimonious scenes might be more memorable for readers—conflict creates drama—there were plenty of positive interactions, too.
Sean Conroy proved to be one of your best scouting pickups. In the book he says that when he played college ball the pro scouts didn’t come out to see them because they were “a small school playing against terrible teams.” When he finally did get an opportunity, two bad innings gave it away. Should teams looking for an edge invest in more scouts to cover these territories better? Or should that domain be left to the independent leagues and spreadsheets?
Most major league teams have made a bigger investment in scouts over the last several years, and they’re smart to do so. Collectively, I don’t think those teams miss much amateur talent. If anything, Sean’s part of the country (New York) is over-scouted relative to the number of players it produces, and while he was one of the best pitchers in the Pacific Association and, in our opinion, plenty good enough to get a shot at a higher-level league, he’s still a long way away from proving that big league teams were wrong to overlook him. That said, our three biggest spreadsheet-scouting successes—Sean, Santos Saldivar, and Dylan Stoops—definitely prove that capable players are being overlooked by certain pro teams. Those guys went from being virtually retired to being among the best in a professional league, at a young age, and they’re all continuing their careers this season.
You went to great lengths to set up Pitchf/x and BATS in the Pacific Association. What, if any, value do you see in that stat archive? Should, say, the Traverse City Beach Bums, or St. Paul Saints also invest in upgrading their statistical tracking systems?
We think that information would help any team. The problem is that most indy-league teams can’t afford to spend on such luxuries, even if it would mean a few extra wins (which don’t matter as much to those teams’ bottom lines). With a few exceptions, the budgets are way too tight. Our book project was the only thing that allowed the Stompers to take advantage of that technology and labor.
What would you have done differently if say you’d been tasked with running baseball operations for a AAA team like the Durham Bulls and the support of a Major League farm system at your disposal?
We probably wouldn’t have had the power to do anything. We never considered approaching an affiliated team, because affiliated teams sacrifice a lot of autonomy in exchange for their association with a parent club. There’s no way we would have been able to sign players or stake out spots in the dugout, and we would have been even more tentative had we been dealing with players one step away from the majors. Of course, if we’d had the full support of a front office, a big bankroll and staff, and years to implement our plans, we could have tried out much more ambitious ideas than we were able to with relatively few resources and one three-month season. But no one would have given us that chance, for good reason. And if they had, they would have made us sign an NDA. Bye-bye, book deal.
You guys are really hard on yourselves in the book, despite some obvious (if not quite statistical) successes. What would it take to get you back into a front office? By which I mean, please write a sequel.
A movie version might help. Give us a call, Costner.