The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Teamby Ben Lindbergh
What would happen if two statistics-minded outsiders were allowed to run a professional baseball team?
It’s the ultimate in fantasy baseball: You get to pick the roster, set the lineup, and decide on strategies -- with real players, in a real ballpark, in a real playoff race. That’s what baseball analysts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller got to/b>
What would happen if two statistics-minded outsiders were allowed to run a professional baseball team?
It’s the ultimate in fantasy baseball: You get to pick the roster, set the lineup, and decide on strategies -- with real players, in a real ballpark, in a real playoff race. That’s what baseball analysts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller got to do when an independent minor-league team in California, the Sonoma Stompers, offered them the chance to run its baseball operations according to the most advanced statistics. Their story in The Only Rule is it Has to Work is unlike any other baseball tale you've ever read.
We tag along as Lindbergh and Miller apply their number-crunching insights to all aspects of assembling and running a team, following one cardinal rule for judging each innovation they try: it has to work. We meet colorful figures like general manager Theo Fightmaster and boundary-breakers like the first openly gay player in professional baseball. Even José Canseco makes a cameo appearance.
Will their knowledge of numbers help Lindbergh and Miller bring the Stompers a championship, or will they fall on their faces? Will the team have a competitive advantage or is the sport’s folk wisdom true after all? Will the players attract the attention of big-league scouts, or are they on a fast track to oblivion?
It’s a wild ride, by turns provocative and absurd, as Lindbergh and Miller tell a story that will speak to numbers geeks and traditionalists alike. And they prove that you don’t need a bat or a glove to make a genuine contribution to the game.
What happens when two numbers crunchers take command of an independent minor league team? Through some fancy wheeling and dealing, Lindbergh, a staff writer for FiveThirtyEight, and Miller, the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, are put in charge of the operations for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent professional squad in California. Their task is to scout and sign prospects for a winning season. Using data-driven sabermetics and spreadsheets, the two set a goal of “making the right decision every time, giving players every resource and advantage available.” Lindbergh and Miller are real storytellers, explaining their strengths and defects as they attempt to field a capable team, using the best stats money can buy. They pay tribute to the collection of older, dedicated players who are pleased to play in the minors and have no illusions of making the majors. Armed with data, they gleefully describe their team’s roaring start in the first half of the season, gaining first place, then slipping to a respectable second-place finish. For fantasy baseball junkies and baseball purists alike, this is a vivid, joyful exploration of recruiting and running a team by numbers—and instinct. (May)
Best Sports Book of the Year by Sports Illustrated, The Boston Globe, and The Buffalo News, and a Great Read of the Year by NPR
“Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller have given us a brutally honest but blissfully funny look at where we really stand a decade into the ‘analytics revolution.’ If you want the insights that statheads and baseball traditionalists still need to learn from one another, start by reading this book.”
--Nate Silver, bestselling author of The Signal and the Noise and the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight
“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is a terrific read, as Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller – two of baseball’s leading sabermetric writers – put their beliefs on the line by taking over an actual team of actual players and trying to implement their unorthodox theories. The story of their season with the Sonoma Stompers is a fascinating human drama about the give-and-take between the new thinking and the old school.”
--Ken Rosenthal, MLB on FOX reporter, FOXSports.com senior baseball writer, and MLB Network insider
“In a phenomenal book that is a fun, breezy, and moving read, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller invite us into their mad experiment. They show us the trials, travails, and challenges of running an independent league baseball team, and along the way they do something remarkable: they make us care deeply for the players who put their hearts into every point of on-base percentage.”
--Jonah Keri, bestselling author of Up, Up, and Away and The Extra 2%
“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is the happy, improbable spawn of Moneyball and Bull Durhama relentlessly smart and consistently funny journey into the dregs of the minors that proves one thing above all: No matter how many statistics you apply to baseball, you can never kill its heart.”
--Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak, A Few Seconds of Panic, and Wild and Outside
“The Only Rule might be the most important baseball book published this year though to use the word ‘important’ detracts from the sheer fun of the situation. . . . You’ll never look at a baseball game, from professional down to fantasy, the same way again.”
--Allen Barra, Chicago Tribune
“A fun lark . . . a terrific book.”
--Will Leitch, Sports on Earth
“A worthy modern heir to [George] Plimpton’s 1950s stunt.”
--Jack Dickey, Sports Illustrated
“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work [is] more than a book about using data and objectivity to build a better baseball team. It’s an intimately human story. . . . While readers will come for the stats, they’ll stay for the story.”
--Michael Kershner, Eephus
“Lindbergh and Miller are real storytellers, explaining their strengths and defects as they attempt to field a capable team, using the best stats money can buy. . . . For fantasy baseball junkies and baseball purists alike, this is a vivid, joyful exploration of recruiting and running a team by numbersand instinct.”
“The Only Rule tops most works of its genre because it explains the real-world successes and pitfalls that come with trying to take theories and apply them to a team of real humans who might not always be as receptive to change as a simulation league team. If you ever wondered what it would be like to jump from running a fantasy team to being a GM, The Only Rule is your guidebook.”
--J. J. Cooper, Baseball America
“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work sounded like it would be a book that would document all the crazy things you could do on a baseball diamond. And while at times it did, it was more a story about loving baseball. As the authors note in the book’s acknowledgments, there is no wrong way to love the game, and this book drives that point home thoroughly and unflinchingly.”
--Paul Swydan, The Hardball Times
“Lindbergh and Miller revel in [esoterica], but they’re admirable communicators, too, and unafraid to explain exactly why and how a particular idea failed or succeeded. If the game has recently started to seem a little impenetrable to you, this might be the book that brings you back into the fold, a welcome reminder of all that’s eccentric, idiosyncratic and optimistic in baseball.”
--Dwyer Murphy, LitHub
Baseball encompasses a multitude of statistics; every aspect of the game is analyzed and put under a microscope by experts and dedicated fans every year. In this debut, former Baseball Prospectus editor in chief Lindbergh teams with Miller, current Baseball Prospectus editor in chief and coauthor of Baseball Prospectus 2016, to share their experience establishing a winning minor league team. Utilizing their vast knowledge of the game, the authors convinced the owners of the independent Sonoma Stompers to allow them to handle daily operations. Their experiment—whether the statistical analysis system sabermetrics could create a championship team—turned out to be like none other. While critics thought the hypothesis crazy, the results are truly riveting. This absorbing read takes readers through some very unorthodox methods of management. With honest and captivating prose, the authors compel readers to care about players that don't make a lot of money yet still have big league dreams and aspirations. VERDICT Die-hard fantasy baseball players, statistic geeks, and anyone interested in the sport's legacy will appreciate this work.—Gus Palas, Ela Area P.L., Lake Zurich, IL
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Read an Excerpt
The Only Rule Is It Has to Work
Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team
By Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
All rights reserved.
NOT JOKING AT ALL
Sam is sitting in the passenger seat of his 2011 Honda Fit, which is parked inside his garage in Long Beach, California. I'm sitting in my 2005 fading, faux-leather desk chair, which is parked inside the small office in my Manhattan apartment. Sitting between our sound-dampening sanctuaries (where we're trying not to wake Sam's wife or my girlfriend) is former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Dan Evans, who's in an Arizona hotel on a spring training scouting trip, talking to us on Skype.
It's March 2013, just after midnight my time, and Sam and I are interviewing Evans for the latest episode of Effectively Wild, the daily podcast we record for Baseball Prospectus. Midway through the call, we ask him about his new job, a side gig as the commissioner of the Northern League, an independent circuit that he's trying to bring back from the dead. Indy leagues are like the minors, except that they're even more minor: They employ professional players, but they aren't affiliated with major league organizations. This means they don't take orders from above, but it also means that most of them are in perpetually critical financial condition, one down year away from drowning in debt and leaving only ripples behind. The Northern League, which fielded teams in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Ontario, was founded in 1993 and winked out of existence in 2010. Now Evans is trying to wink it back in again. And to do that, he tells us, he needs investors to take on teams.
"If you're asking," I say, "Sam and I will take one team."
Everyone laughs, but cohost telepathy tells Sam I'm serious. I sense the same about him.
"I wonder how many people in this conversation are joking, because at least two of us are not joking at all," Sam says.
Evans responds by extolling the virtues of indy-league life. "Unlike a minor league franchise, where you have no say in the players ... everything in the independents is under your jurisdiction," he says. "For some people, that's really intimidating. For other people ... they see that and they go, 'Oh my gosh, this is my real fantasy team.'"
We don't need any additional selling. We spend the rest of the podcast distracted, sending silent text messages to each other and trying to contain our excitement. Once we're off the air, we ask Evans if he was just humoring us or if it's safe for our hopes to be high.
"Down the line, if you guys are really serious, I would actually entertain something like that," he says. We feel as if a real GM has just walked us to the war room where teams talk strategy, flashed his credentials, and assured security that we're with him. After Evans is off the line, Sam and I instant message into the night. We're already playing out all the implications, wondering which ideas we'd test out if we owned a team and could be the bosses of our own baseball sandbox. "I might not sleep again until we have a baseball team," I say to Sam.
Once the sun is up and I can send emails without looking like a vampire, I contact our boss, Joe Hamrahi, the president and CEO of Baseball Prospectus and a friend of Dan Evans. Joe, can we buy a baseball team? Can we? Can we?
"They want a lot of money," Joe writes back. He keeps me in suspense until the answer to my "How much money?" follow-up appears: "$250,000."
I have three minutes to mull over that massive-sounding amount before another email arrives. "By the way, that's just the admission fee," Joe adds. "Then you have to come up with the capital to operate the team, pay the players, the front office, lease the ballpark, run concessions, etc. And you're not talking about real players here. These are has-beens and guys looking for some shot at getting into real baseball."
Well, hell, so are we. Sam and I aren't old enough to be "has-beens" in every respect, but we qualify when it comes to our childhood hopes. Sam was that skinny ten-year-old who pictured himself hitting the World Series–winning home run. Like every amateur hero before him, he sprinted around the imaginary bases as though the earth were crumbling behind him, leaping and skipping, pumping a fist, throwing a helmet, voicing the cheers of each of the thousands of fans who sounded so loud in his head. Over the course of a quarter century, that pretend applause went silent. In the saddest perversion of a sports-movie montage, it became increasingly clear to Sam that he would never hit that home run. He was too shy, then too small, then too distracted, then too old. Finally, he was simply too realistic.
I grew up five years later, after the steroids era had given athletes comic-book bodies. I had no illusions about displacing Alex Rodriguez, but I could see myself as the successor to the New York Yankees' general manager, Brian Cashman. GMs and other team executives look the way we would if we wore more expensive suits. They're the sports heroes of the computer age, and they've instilled in us the oh-so-tantalizing notion that we could do that. Thinking along with the GM is the new national pastime. In its most mocked form, this fetish for front offices is known as "rosterbation," a word that captures a fan's sometimes-delusional attempts to engineer the perfect transaction. In its most mainstream form, it's fantasy sports, a multibillion-dollar industry now served by an array of statistical resources so granular and accessible that anyone can retrieve far more data from a home computer than Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane did in his famous Moneyball season.
My mental montage was more sedate than Sam's, but still satisfying: Making the perfect pick on draft day. Swindling a rival team in a trade. Landing the high-priced free agent who lays waste to the league. I came closer to my dream than Sam did to his: I became a baseball operations intern for the Yankees straight out of college, sitting with other interns in an office inside Yankee Stadium where every so often Cashman himself would walk by, saying hello (or activating his beloved handheld fart machine) on his way to continue trade talks or address the press. He knew, and we knew, that everyone in the room had designs on his job.
I had good timing: It was 2009, the year the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies to win their first World Series since their (most recent) dynasty team. After Game 6, in which New York's Andy Pettitte outdueled a past-his-prime Pedro Martinez in Pedro's last-ever outing, I sipped champagne in the clubhouse while CC Sabathia smoked a cigar, Kate Hudson lounged on A-Rod's lap, and Kurt Russell talked intently to Mark Teixeira. After the fans had reluctantly cleared out, the players had hit the town, and the empty stadium was ours again, I did tipsy cartwheels on the field with the rest of the front office. Later that week, I rode on a duck boat with the rest of the interns in the ticker-tape parade as a horde of pinstriped strangers on lower Broadway chanted, "WHO-ARE-YOU? WHO-ARE-YOU?" and bombarded us with whole rolls of toilet paper. For the rest of the off-season, I slipped on my lanyard and badge as self-importantly as if I were putting on an actual uniform. My MLB.TV account had no blackout restrictions. I felt as if I belonged in baseball.
But the following spring, my time as an insider ended, almost without warning. On a day like any other, Cashman came in and told us he'd been ordered to bring in new blood, that the legal department was worried about interns staying more than a year, and that his hands had been tied by a hiring freeze. I tried not to be bitter about the news that the World Series–winning Yankees, who regularly dropped hundreds of millions on free agents who weren't worth the money, couldn't afford to convert a few underpaid interns into underpaid full-timers. It stung even more when the "hiring freeze" turned out to be a comforting fiction: Two of the senior interns got to stay as full-fledged staffers. My skill set, it seemed, just wasn't special enough for the team to make an exception.
So what do you do when the guy whose job you grew up wanting to do kicks you (very gently) to the curb? I could have tried to parlay my year with the Yankees into another team internship, eventually ascending to a GM role with another organization and, in my moment of triumph, exacting revenge for my freeze-out by taking Cashman to the cleaners in a lopsided deal. Instead, I steered into the skid and went back to the baseball writing I'd begun in college. In time, I came to believe that the Yankees had done me a favor by pushing me into a role for which I was a far better fit. But now, having spoken to Dan Evans, I see a way to bypass the intern stage and skip directly to running a team. I'm eager to test myself, even in an upstart indy league. Neither Sam nor I had ever completely let go of that one special fantasy, the last lingering what-if: Could we "crack" baseball if we could borrow a GM's job and live it for a single season? How would we be altered? And how would we alter a team?
Unfortunately, we don't know anyone with six figures to throw away on someone else's wish fulfillment. Evidently Dan doesn't either: The new Northern League never gets off the ground. Sam and I don't dismiss our vision of running an indy team, but without an obvious outlet we put it on the back burner. And the longer it sits there, the sillier and less realistic it seems.
It took a podcast conversation to inspire this far-fetched idea; it takes another to make it more real. Sixteen months and hundreds of Effectively Wild episodes later, a listener's email prompts us to admit on the air that we've never attended an independent-league game. Some hours after that show ends, a message appears in Sam's inbox. "I hear you're looking for an invite out to an independent league game," writes Tim Livingston, the director of broadcasting and media relations for the Sonoma Stompers, a franchise in the fledgling, four-team Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, which rose out of the ashes of the North American League (itself a chimera created from the remnants of three earlier leagues). "I think it would be great if you could come by to watch." So does Sam.CHAPTER 2
I fell in love with baseball because it brought me into a world of grown-ups: advertisements for plumbers unions and Budweiser and equipment-rental stores interspersed with fights on the field, $5,000 giveaways for a grand slam in the fifth, the occasional on-field cuss picked up by the broadcasts, and the constant cycling in of ballplayers who had been swapped like trading cards. In this world, I felt as smart and informed as the adults I still had trouble talking to about anything else.
That's what led to my first baseball writing. It was a day game in the summer of 1988. Day games were salvation, three hours in the afternoon when my chores pulling weeds or watering plants could have a dramatic soundtrack. It didn't seem fair that my dad had to miss these games when he went to work, so one afternoon I sat at my desk with a notebook and a pencil and a radio, and I wrote down everything that happened, relying on the broadcasters' selective attention to fill in the details. I took those notes and wrote up a game story so my dad could read about it when he came home. I decided then that after my Hall of Fame playing career was over I would become a baseball writer.
I sort of kept that dream going — "writer" stuck, but "baseball" wandered away, and the Hall of Fame playing career is still waiting. I became a newspaper reporter in Orange County, California, covering everything from a lady's lost cat to the federal education budget. I read Baseball Prospectus on my lunch break, printing out each day's articles and hiding under a stairwell so I wouldn't be disturbed, but baseball was just a hobby.
Eventually, the sports section pulled me in to write about "stat stuff," and from there Ben found me and brought me to Baseball Prospectus, where I now get an eighteen-hour head start on all the reading that I used to do at lunch.
One perk of the job is that I can do it from anywhere, so, stupidly, I ended up in the most expensive housing market in the country: the San Francisco Bay Area, where my wife had taken a job teaching Mandarin to elementary school students. It's a solid baseball region — two MLB clubs, a high-A team in San Jose, top draft prospects cycling through Stanford's and Cal's spring schedules, but, so far as I knew, no independent-league baseball. When Tim Livingston emailed to invite me to Sonoma, where under the cover of vineyards a self-sustaining league was operating, I made plans to go up and shadow Sonoma's general manager, the too-good-to-be-truly-named Theo Fightmaster. I figured I'd write a piece for BP about how a GM builds a pennant contender at this level, especially in the team's expansion season. A little slice of life for September.
Organized baseball has been played in Sonoma for more than a century, and the locals still brag about the days when Joe DiMaggio played summer ball in Sonoma County. Arnold Field, the Stompers' home park, stands just up the street from Sonoma Plaza, the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, a one-month uprising of American settlers against the Mexican government in 1846, in the opening days of the Mexican-American War. More important (to present-day residents), the plaza allows open containers and houses Town Square and Steiners Tavern, the two bars on opposite sides of the square. Start at the north end of the plaza and stroll past the one-story homes and wine-tasting rooms on First Street West, and you'll soon arrive at Arnold Field, which is shrouded in greenery until you're almost on top of it and can spot the light towers stabbing out of the treetops. The field, which is also home to Babe Ruth baseball in the summer and high school football in the fall, has unusually elongated dimensions: It's Lilliputian down the lines (304 to left, 311 to right), shallow in the alleys (331 and 345), and Brobdingnagian to center (435), where the tallest of the hills surrounding Sonoma serves as a scenic batter's eye.
Arnold is a beautiful ballpark at first glance, although a closer inspection reveals its amateurish quirks. I pace the bases and discover that third base is a foot closer to home than the rest of the bases are to each other — and then I measure again, and again, and again, and once more, because this seems somehow central to the soul of this league. There's a goalpost in right-center, completely in play. The grass lacks that greener-than-green, well-manicured big league look. The PA system is warbly, the lights are dim, and the ads are sometimes misspelled. The anthem singer forgets her words midway through, but instead of powering on she starts over from the beginning, earning twice the applause a perfect rendition would merit. The players' clubhouse is tiny and sweats body heat like dryer exhaust; there's no clubhouse bathroom, just an outdoor Porta Potti protected from public use by a handwritten "Players only!" sign taped to the door. Pregame meals are a tub of peanut butter and Costco-brand white bread, served on a card table. Most players, I learn that night, earn significantly less than $1,000 a month and live off the largesse of local host families, regular folks who let players sleep in a spare room (or two, or three, plus sometimes a couch, a trailer, the garage, or a corner of the kitchen) in exchange for season tickets and nothing else. A player's incentives clause could be a case of beer, and a struggling team might have to slash salary to make its meager payroll in the second half of the season.
The park's official capacity is 1,450, though the Stompers rarely test its limits. On the day I visit, they come pretty close, more because baseball dignitary Dusty Baker is visiting and signing autographs than because of the playoff implications of the game against the Vallejo Admirals. The Pacific Association plays a seventy-eight-game split schedule, with the champion of the first half playing the champion of the second half in a winner-take-all title game. The Stompers and Admirals are trying to prevent the San Rafael Pacifics, the league's flagship franchise and first-half victors, from taking the second half too. It's not looking good, since the Stompers and Admirals have to beat up on each other while the Pacifics face the Pittsburg Mettle, the doormats of the league. Earlier in the month, the Stompers started sixty-seven-year-old former major leaguer Bill "Spaceman" Lee against Pittsburg as a publicity stunt. Lee went 5 1/3 innings in a 6-3 Stompers win, becoming the oldest pitcher ever to win a professional game.
Excerpted from The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller. Copyright © 2016 Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer for FiveThirtyEight and, with Sam Miller, the cohost of Effectively Wild, the daily Baseball Prospectus podcast. He is a former staff writer for Grantland and a former editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus. He lives in New York City.
Sam Miller is the editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus, the coeditor of Baseball Prospectus’s annual guidebook, and a contributing writer at ESPN The Magazine. He lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife and daughter.
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Great book, by great writers and great podcasters. The book and the experiment, shows that looking at things from a different prospective is worth the effort and the scrutiny.
Building his or her own real baseball team is a dream for many fantasy baseball players. For two editors of Baseball Prospectus (the current and former editors), that dream becomes a reality when they were allowed to run the baseball operations of the Sonoma Stompers of an independent league in California. The adventures of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller running this team during the 2015 season are captured in this excellent book. Given their occupations and obsession with statistical analysis, the duo tries to assemble the roster completely through their spreadsheets (even calling some of their prospects “spreadsheet guys”) but soon come to realize that some old-fashioned scouting and legwork will work as well. The comparisons to Moneyball are inevitable and they actually provide some of the more entertaining passages from the book. For example, one of the funniest lines of the book states that “if the A’s were a ‘collection of misfit toys,’ as Micheal Lewis wrote, then we’ll be building a team out of toys that got recalled because they were choke hazards.” I was in tears after reading that line. Some of the passages are also more serious or even poignant such as some of the exchanges between Sam and/or Ben and the players or the manager. When trying hard to sell a strategy such as a defensive shift or using a closer for more than just the ninth inning, the guys realize that there has to be some trust in the instincts and knowledge of baseball men like the manager and scouts. There is a lot of compromise on these types of conflicts throughout the Stompers’ season. This format is a winner for the book as it is one that anyone who is a baseball fan, whether a stat geek or an old-school believer; casual fan or addicted seamhead, young or old, should add to his or her baseball library. It will entertain, inform and delight all readers of baseball books. I wish to thank Henry Holt and Company Publishing for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.