The Nerds of Summer

(Photo by Rick Dikeman)

In 2015, a pair of stat-savvy writers, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, entered the world of independent minor league baseball. They assumed the responsibility of all baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, rivals of my San Rafael Pacifics, in a four-team league called the Pacific Association. In The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, Lindbergh and Miller chronicle their attempt to lead the Stompers to a league championship using sabermetric principles.

If the Stompers are Moneyball’s Oakland Athletics, the Pacifics are the New York Yankees, equipped with the highest payroll and the most “big-league” attitudes, which makes me one of the afterthought bullpen arms from those dominant 90s Yankee teams. Call me Mike Stanton.

To my teammates, Lindbergh and Miller are the number crunching outsiders who believe they can dominate our league with their radar guns and video cameras—their calculations and matching corduroy pants. In a game against the Pacifics early in the season, the Stompers start a right handed pitcher who appears to be throwing in the mid-70s. That’s slow even by indy-ball standards. Thinking the lineup calls must come straight from the Corduroy Crew, a teammate starts to cheer “Sabermetrics!” after each pitch. Every move the Stompers make this year will be either an indictment or endorsement of stats-based decision making.

Harmless taunting aside, I’m a little nervous for Ben and Sam. I listen to podcasts on my drive to the field, read Fangraphs daily, and put far too much effort into my fantasy baseball team. As you might imagine then, I often have a hard time fitting into the dip-spitting, hyper-masculine, politically incorrect culture of independent minor league baseball, and I suspect our writers will face a similar struggle. They’ll also find out that one or two renegade personalities can throw off a team’s chemistry—that essential, unquantifiable commodity.

Reluctantly, I’ve learned to conform.

Once a season I use chewing tobacco. It’s extra-innings, and the guys are losing their drive. Someone needs to shake things up. Someone needs to light a fire. I throw two mint flavored pouches of tobacco into my bottom lip and wait as the green saliva builds and bubbles out of the corner of my mouth. It makes me nauseous and surprisingly energetic, forcing me out of my seat in the bullpen. I start jumping, yelling, and throwing things against the fence. Anything I can do to rally the troops.

Soon all the aggressive activity gives way, once again to nausea, but my teammates love it. That one dip gives me a pass for the nerdy nonsense I spout in the bullpen all summer long. I’ve had three years to master this act. Our sabermetric writers will have to figure it out on the fly.

Lindbergh and Miller will be walking blindly into the clubhouse, but on the field, they’re ready to implement all the far-fetched sabermetric strategies previously reserved to the duo’s daily podcast, Effectively Wild. Meanwhile, the Stompers’ players make it clear: whatever they do, it’ll have to work. They’ll have to win.

From the other side of the diamond, I notice the obvious differences between the Stompers and the rest of the league: more shifts, fewer bunts, and scouts at every game to chart opponent’s tendencies. The Stompers also appear younger than other teams. Traditionally, Pacific Association clubs covet former affiliated ball players: guys who flamed out of Single-A or Double-A. Despite garnering larger pay checks, these players are a known quantity. Since rookies make the league minimum, $400/month, perhaps the Stompers are finding their first market inefficiency. If they can build their team on cheap, inexperienced talent, Sonoma might have a chance to give the relatively deep-pocketed Pacifics a run for our money.

As an opposing pitcher, my biggest concern is not their youth, but their patience. With all the video footage and PITCHf/x data they compile, it won’t take long for the Stompers’ hitters to learn that I’m very predicable on the mound. Almost entirely fastballs. Fringe control. That’s my modus operandi. Every Pacific Association player has his flaws. Pay attention, and mine are easy to spot.

While the Stompers draw more walks than any other team in the league, I begin to believe that certain statistically-sound best practices may not be reaching the field. When I lose control on the mound, walks come in bunches. A shrewd hitter would consider being in full take mode in 3-1 or 2-0 counts, a strategy briefly discussed and dismissed by Ben and Sam, in part because hitters would hate to be told, “Stop swinging.” But ahead in the count, Stomper’s hitters continue to chase fastballs up in the zone, and I can’t help but think that if the numbers guys could have it their way, the take sign would be on. By the end of the season, I throw six innings against the Stompers, striking out six, walking four, and giving up no runs.

Having their players stick to scouting reports proves the least of Lindbergh and Miller’s concerns, as arguments with the player-manager over lineup construction, bullpen usage, and player acquisition make it unclear who runs the show in Sonoma. Despite their best efforts, the stat heads are still seen as outsiders. They’re kicked out of the clubhouse during kangaroo court, warned not to speak with players, and told their opinions are invalid because they never played the game. It’s the same backlash from baseball traditionalists that we’ve seen since the dawn of sabermetrics, and it challenges my naive understanding of what divides the ballplayers and the nerds.

As I see it, numbers can be used in essentially two different ways: they can dictate who plays, and they can dictate how to play. Stats like WAR, FIP, and wRC+ are threatening to players because they act as esoteric gate keepers to playing time rather than constructive information that can help guys perform better. Conversely, if you show a pitcher how much horizontal movement his slider has, or how fast his four-seamer spins, suddenly data isn’t so scary. These numbers, if presented properly, can help a pitcher know which offerings are working, which to abandon, and which play best off each other. In short, these numbers help get outs.

As far as indy ball goes, the Stompers have an unprecedented amount of access to this type of instructive data. But while some Stompers take advantage of these resources, many don’t. Hitters refuse opportunities to watch footage of opposing pitchers, and the manager is inflexible with bullpen usage habits—even when hits and wins are up for grabs.

For a short period of time, Ben and Sam let this divide them. They can’t seem to agree on how much to push back. How much to fight for their numbers. From San Rafael, we wait patiently for the Stompers to fall apart.

August rolls around and we watch as Sonoma battles regression, bad luck, and roster turnover. In a fight to salvage their summer, Lindbergh and Miller try their most far-fetched idea yet: Typed letters given to each player, reminding them of how much they’ve meant to the team, how much they’ve grown, and how much they still have left to accomplish. The clubhouse comes back to life. Perhaps that’s a better strategy for building team chemistry than my once-a-year tango with chewing tobacco.

In passages like these letters, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work becomes more than a book about using data and objectivity to build a better baseball team. It’s an intimately human story. Differences aside, I’ve grown to care deeply about my fellow players in the Pacific Association. We’re a group of men at the crossroads of a childhood dream and the conflicting present day reality. Most of us don’t know which corner we’re on or which street we’re heading down. We can be guarded, juvenile, and flawed. But as our writers find out, my peers are also capable of keen self-awareness and profound courage. The strongest praise I can offer this book, is that Lindbergh and Miller get this part right, and while readers will come for the stats, they’ll stay for the story.

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Michael Kershner plays independent minor league baseball near his home in Oakland, CA. His writing has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, California Magazine, and at 7x7.