Sooner or later all sports fans are forced to cede their dreams of playing professionally and, for most of us, that day comes sooner rather than later. The lack of physical ability and psychopathic determination forces us to face the very true realization that we don’t have what it takes to be a big leaguer. Once I reached that stage, I found new daydream subtly creeping into my consciousness. What if I could run a professional team? You don’t need to be able to hit a ball 400 feet to do that.
That daydream came true for baseball analysts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller in the summer of 2014. Lindbergh and Miller make their livings writing and talking about baseball for Baseball Prospectus. While you and I might view them as baseball insiders, they are very much outsiders to the chosen few who make their livings playing the game. Lindbergh and Miller are disciples of advanced statistics, which has shaped their theories on the best ways to assemble and manage a baseball team based on compiled data. For example, a team’s most dangerous hitter should actually hit 2nd in the lineup rather than in the traditional 3 hole and some situations call for a 5 man infield.
Those of us who follow baseball know that it is a game that has been very slow to accept change. Innovative is not an adjective that accurately describes baseball game theory. Teams have started to come around in recent years thanks to a wider acceptance of sabermetrics but there are still a lot of doubters that choose to make baseball decisions because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Through happenstance, a minor independent league baseball team gave Lindbergh and Miller the keys to the car for a summer. The Sonoma Stompers became the vehicle to the ultimate advanced statistic experiment. They offered two stat geeks the chance to implement their spreadsheet ideas to an actual team with real life ball players. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is the story of that summer when two regular guys got the chance to run a pro baseball team.
Because the vast majority of baseball players and managers are slaves to traditional baseball strategy, the Stompers’ transition to submitting to the authority of the stat heads was not always a smooth one. Lindbergh and Miller are confronted with several bumps along the way as they try to implement their system backed by advanced stats. They must first overcome their own tentativeness to voice their ideas. After all, these are two guys with zero real life baseball experience trying to tell a bunch of baseball lifers that their way of doing things is the wrong way. Once they finally speak up, their ideas are met with hesitation from the Stompers’ hard-headed manager who doesn’t easily give into Lindbergh and Miller’s line of thinking. Then, they have to hope that their ideas on paper produce desirable results on the field.
This is a book that will be enjoyed by baseball traditionalists and stat geeks alike. While Lindbergh and Miller do present statistical data throughout, ultimately, this is a story about a rag tag bunch of strangers coming together under a very unique set of circumstances to form a team. The authors do a nice job of developing characters – of which there are no shortage in this low level independent league. Think Moneyball plus Bad News Bears. It didn’t take long for me to be invested in this team and the outcome of the Lindbergh-Miller experiment.
I would certainly recommend this book to baseball fans and especially those who enjoy the number crunching side of the game. As the Stompers’ broadcaster, Tim Livingston, says to Miller – “Score one for sabermetrics.”