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, playing in real time. That's what Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller got to do when the Sonoma Stompers, an independent minor-league team in California, offered them the chance to run the team's baseball operations according to the most advanced statistics. 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. We meet colorful figures like general manager Theo Fightmaster and boundary-breakers like the first openly gay professional player and the first Japanese manager in American professional baseball. Even José Canseco makes a cameo appearance.
Will sabermetrics bring the Stompers a championship, or will they fall on their face? Will the team have a competitive advantage or is the old folk wisdom really true after all? Will the players be able to maximize their talents and attract the attention of big-league scouts, or will this be a fast track to oblivion?
It's a wild ride, as the authors' infectious enthusiasm and feel for the absurd make the Stompers' story one that will speak to numbers geeks and traditionalists alike. And it proves that you don't need a bat or a glove to make a genuine contribution to the game.
Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer for The Ringer. He also hosts the Effectively Wild podcast for FanGraphs and regularly appears on MLB Network. He is a former staff writer for FiveThirtyEight and Grantland, a former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, and the New York Times bestselling co-author of The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team. His next book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball's New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, comes out in June 2019. He lives in New York City.
I'd been looking forward to Sam and Ben's book since last summer, when I first heard about it. For one thing, the subject matter was utterly compelling: What happens when a couple of nerds (and I use that word endearingly) are handed the keys - notwithstanding a recalcitrant manager or two - to a professional baseball team? For another, Ben and Sam both among the dozen or so most talented baseball writers working today. And I do not say that lightly.
Well, I don't want to give anything away so I'll just say this one was worth the wait. Ben and Sam wrote alternating chapters, which can be somewhat distracting, but when you've got co-authors you have to do something and this was probably the best thing for this particular book. Fortunately, both Ben and Sam write wonderfully.
I think my only real questions are a) Why didn't the spreadsheet work as well as they hoped, and b) How did some of the less-attractive characters in the book (we're looking at you, Feh) feel about their portrayals in the book? Questions for a podcast someday, I hope!
What happens when two stat geeks who have grown up in the post Moneyball era get the chance to run a professional baseball team? The answer: the 2015 Sonoma Stompers of the low level independent ball Pacific Association. Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus took on the challenge of creating a team from spreadsheets and data and nearly outfoxed the baseball establishment. Taking place just as sabermetrics overtook baseball as we know it, I was enlightened by these geeks’ approach to the game we all love. As long as they leave the shift out of it, I am happy with their results.
As the book jacket says, "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."
However, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work only partially delivers on this promise. There's plenty of information on applying advanced statistics to choose the roster, and there's an in-depth look at what statistics are important and how you use those statistics to uncover Moneyball-type value in players passed over by other teams. The preseason effort to identify players and then woo them to the Stompers is both insightful and interesting.
The second part of the equation, applying advanced statistics during the season in real game situations, is not as well done. Due to the authors' inexperience and hesitancy, the application of their ideas to game situations doesn't take flight until well into the second half of the book, and even then, the application is sometimes sporadic.
It would make a better book (though not necessarily a better baseball team) if the authors had applied the techniques sooner and more aggressively. So bring on the five-person infield, the closer in the seventh inning, the extreme over shifts (outfield included), the never swing when you are up at least two balls in the count, and the atypical batting orders (e.g., forget the "second leadoff hitter" in the ninth spot). These ideas and others are included in the story, but sometimes they seem like an afterthought rather than the main focus of the book.
Actually, the book is about the authors' inexperience as change agents. At the book's end, Lindbergh recognizes their timidity in applying their ideas, saying the next time, "We'd know not to rely only on our powers of persuasion to the total exclusion of our power to put our foot down." And Sam says a few pages later, "So 'do crazy stuff to see if it worked' changed to 'do crazy stuff once we were confident it would work'." There are some good reasons why Lindbergh and Miller go slowly, particularly because they respect the players and the players' baseball dreams. As the authors say, they want to "Do right by these players" and not treat them like experimental pawns.
There's a change management bromide: If you want to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. More broken eggs throughout the season would have made a more interesting book. Unfortunately, we'll never know if more broken eggs also would have made a better baseball team.
Full disclosure: Sam Miller is my cousin. I don't think I've seen or talked to him in maybe a decade-ish (?), but we are related. Well, not technically, like, "blood related," since we are cousins through my stepdad's side. But, yes, growing up, we saw each other at family get togethers twice a year. So there you go.
Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh cohost Effectively Wild, a podcast that makes predictions and offers insights about baseball based on crazy in-depth statistics (called sabermetrics). Both have also been editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, which, in their words, is "the leading media outlet devoted to data-driven baseball analysis." So, yeah. These nerds like baseball--a lot--and examining all the teeny tiny variables of the game in the hopes that they might accurately predict which players and teams will succeed and which won't is their idea of a pretty good time.
Amazingly, after so many years of sharing their predictions, criticisms, and insights on air and online, they are offered the opportunity of a lifetime when they are asked to help run baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent minor league in Sonoma California. Guided only (well, mostly) by statistics, they'll have the freedom to eliminate players, reposition players, switch up outfield positions, you name it...so long as they have the statistical evidence to support their decisions.
Of course, Miller and Lindbergh jump at the opportunity, and The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is the story of their experience. They start the season with good intentions, ambitious goals, and perhaps slightly naive expectations. The learning curve is steep, however, and they are forced to absorb and adapt quickly, all while making fast, creative, and (hopefully) correct decisions, despite limited access to data. Sometimes they get it right. Many times they don't. In the end, they learn that running a team--and especially building a team--is complicated. Sabermetrics may be cold, hard, objective FACTS, but people are messy.
I surprised myself by loving this book. I mean, I love baseball. I love watching baseball. I love playing baseball. But baseball stats? Ick. No thanks. And I thought that was what this book was going to be: just a bunch of numbers and spreadsheets. But it's not. Yes, there is a lot of number talk in here, but numbers aren't the main focus. The people are. The players, the coaches, and, of course, Miller and Lindbergh.
What makes this book so powerful is the honesty with which the story is told. Miller and Lindbergh hold nothing of their experience back--even when it makes them look bad, even when they are so unsure, even when they struggle to make their team feel like, well, a team. It's so obvious that they care about the game, about the players, about getting it right--but they don't hesitate to admit when they screw up. There is vulnerability here, and heart. And you don't need to know baseball or statistics to recognize it. In the end, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is more than a book about baseball, and certainly more than a book about sabermetrics. It's simply a good story.
I really enjoyed this book. I would recommend it for intense baseball fans, more than casual ones ... regardless of which category you fall into, it would probably help to listen to Ben and Sam's "Effectively Wild" podcasts to get a feel for their sensibilities and communicative style (plus, it's an excellent podcast).
As for the book itself, it's a fun ride through a season in a league, far, far from the major leagues, but still professional baseball. You get a great feel for the personalities on the team and the behind the scenes aspects of what it's like to work in baseball operations. They deal with a lot of "stuff" that provides a good amount of drama and suspense. As one of the reviewers below notes, the book is about the people as much as its about the numbers and that's just the kind of book that I like.
One thing that I liked that is subtle ... for lack of a better term, let's call it "post-comma enjoyment" -- there are a lot of long sentences, but long with a purpose ... they'll either work in a "fun fact" tidbit or provide some additional context to what they're explaining (once you read a few chapters, you'll know what I mean).
I've listened to the Effectively Wild podcast exactly once, so this is my first serious exposure to authors Sam and Ben.
These statheads have some interesting ideas and the numbers to back them up, and this book chronicles their use in a professional league, albeit a small one. To write this book, they alternated chapters, covering the season, the strategies, and the social dynamics of the Sonoma Stompers. There is some humor here, along with some hubris.
At times, the authors range away from their topic, and at other times, they dive too deep. Bill James covers some of the same topics, but in a much more readable fashion. At times, the chapters felt like articles or podcasts that were stitched together. A narrative (of sorts) exists, but it doesn't flow smoothly. Better editing may have helped - not sure.
In summary, I like the idea and liked reading about it. The 18 reviews on goodreads (so far) are all either 4 or 5 stars, but for me this is basically a high 3.
Very good book. Follows two sabermetricians who take over an independent minor league team. They wanted to see if they can used advance metrics to win a championship and dominate the competition. This book talks about stats, but not to a point where it becomes hard to follow. It really more than just stats. They retell the Sonoma Stompers 2016 in all aspects. The good, the bad, and the ugly. They talk about how they struggle to implement their plan, and how they adapt to things that happen during the season from players leaving to other leagues to a Jose Canseco publicity stunt. This is really a book about two rookie gm/advisors trying to figure it out in the lower levels of independent ball. Don't let the stats scare you off, it is a very interesting book. The authors take turns writing chapters, so you really get to see the season unfold from two separate sets of eyes. The authors also do a good job analyzing their strategy. The are not afraid to admit what they did well and what they didn't do well. This duo also has a daily podcast called effectively wild, which is very entertaining. I would recommend this book to baseball fans especially ones interested in the minor leagues. You also need to be open to advance stats. You don't need to know much about them, but you probably see this book as two guys ruining baseball if you think advance stats are evil.
If you are a Baseball Prospectus reader and/or baseball junkie like myself, this is for sure worth a read. It's amazing how relatively quickly the movement of analytics have gotten us to the point where an independent league team gave control of their baseball ops to two writers from a baseball commentary website, albeit very data based website. I love reading about how it went down. "Moneyball" might have been a first step in terms of how baseball changed, but this book highlights what it's really like to try and take any and all advantages analytics can give you and try putting it into the constructs of running a professional team, even if it's just in the independent league.
December 23, 2019 The fifth star is for love, and three and a half years after reading it the first time, I have to say that I love this book. It is no coincidence that I've also come to love the podcast hosted by the book's authors, something I started doing because I initially read the book in 2016.
What I can appreciate on a second read is how well structured the book is, the discernible differences in tone in the alternating Ben and Sam chapters. I love how they can take the banalities of a baseball season and use them to create impressive characters, as well as defying their own impressions. I love that they were able to accidentally subvert their own premise and help grow the conversation on analytics and coaching in the process.
Mostly though, it's a simple story told well. The pages clip by briskly and I felt myself slowing down to enjoy each chapter individually. The "season with a team" genre is a vast one, but this is one of the few that deserves re-reading.
________________ July 6, 2016 A delightful twist on two of the most typical baseball sub-genres: the "here's how one baseball team is redefining the game" genre (Moneyball) and the "here's a story of my wild season in minor league baseball" genre (Class A).
The idea for the project was two baseball statisticians would run an independent baseball club with free reign to innovate. The fun twist of the book is that it's not as simple as anyone thought, and their conclusions don't so much prove that New Baseball is Manifestly True. Rather, the point seems to be that it's really hard to be good at baseball, and it's still not clear which factors are the most important. It's an important corrective for the more sabermetrically-inclined among us to see spreadsheets as salvific, ignorance of The Numbers being the only thing holding teams back. None of it is that simple when you are dealing with human beings. If anything, this brings back some of the joyful mystery of the game that seems so easily to get lost as you dig into statistical analysis of it.
In addition, it's well-written and engaging. Some portions are a little play-by-play heavy, but over all it keeps on theme. They said later that the book is just as much about management as it is about baseball, so I think a wide audience would find it engaging.
There are a lot of really solid baseball books out there, but this-THIS!-is some next-level stuff.
Baseball books tend to fall into one of two major categories: the sentimental and the mathematical. This book combines both of those genre attributes admirably, but it's bigger than that.
Ben and Sam, two of the most likable narrators you'll ever meet, brilliantly recount their adventure with the Sonoma Stompers. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll learn something!
The authors are sabermatricians, but the book doesn't have the same dry, headache-inducing quality that many stat-driven baseball tomes carry. The numbers are there, absolutely, but the writing (and the story around the numbers) is so compelling that you don't have to be a stat geek to find this book fascinating.
I consider myself a statistical moderate, rooted in traditional baseball thinking but open to the benefits of sabermetrics. This book pushed me farther into the realm of the converted. I was so riveted by Ben and Sam's theories that I felt like my brain was melting, yet the book still had that heartwarming, throwback feel that is one of the best things about traditional baseball thinking (and the literature it spawns).
Fair warning: while the book isn't for stat geeks only and the math won't give you brain cramps, it does assume a certain amount of baseball knowledge and require at least an open mind for sabermetrics. I can't see this holding the attention of the casual fan, but for baseball junkies like myself, this is a truly exceptional read.
It's an extremely enjoyable and readable book about two stat-heads given a chance to run an actual baseball team. OK, it's a team in a bottom tier indy league - but it's a team nonetheless.
The two authors switch off chapters from one to the other, but I didn't notice an abrupt shifts in voice. Weather that says more about the book or my inability to notice things is another matter...
It's really honest in how the pair go over all their insecurities and uncertainties, chronicling not only their successes but also their failures. The season even ends in a fairly climactic manner.
Oh, and it mentions me on page 26! (Oddly enough, the study of mine they mention might be - IMHO - is a study that I'm not sure has aged that well. But it's nice that they though enough of it to mention me.
A very enjoyable book. Tons closer to five stars than to three. But I'm a toughie at handing out fives.
This book was so fun! If you're a baseball fan and a stats nerd, look no further for your next summer read.
We went and saw Ben Lindbergh, one of the authors, give a book talk about The Only Rule Is It Has to Work at a Busboys and Poets in 2016. He was super engaging and I remember hoping that the actual book would capture Lindbergh's enthusiasm about all things stats and baseball.
The Only Rule Is It Has to Work tells the story of Ben Lindbergh and co-author Sam Miller's attempt to run the Sonoma Stompers, an independent baseball team in California. After mentioning the desire to run a baseball team according to sabermetric principles on their podcast, the Sonoma Stompers offered Miller and Lindbergh the chance to serve as general managers, in control of assembling a roster, setting a line up, outlining broad in-game strategy, and more. In doing so, they have the opportunity to apply the sabermetric techniques that they've both written about for years for Baseball Prospectus and other like minded publications.
Though major league front offices have for the most part adopted data-driven techniques during drafting, such as applying empirical statistical analysis to identify undervalued players, other sabermetric ideas have had a harder time taking hold. A prime example of the latter is abolishing the designation of starting pitchers, set-up men, closers, and the like. Instead, all pitchers should be available to the manager in any situation, allowing for a level of optimization that the current game doesn't allow. This has always been anathema to players and manager, who argue that in order to perform at their best, players must have a "role" on the team to provide structure and identity.
Like this new take on pitching, many of the changes that Lindbergh and Miller try to implement are controversial and not always well received (or implemented) by team and manager. The book is billed as getting to see sabermetrics in action, but so much more time is spent on the obstacles that Lindbergh and Miller encounter. In some ways, this was frustrating to read - so much of the book was Miller and Lindbergh venting about the difficulties of getting people to carry out the vision they want to apply to the team - but I'm sure it was even more frustrating for them to live through.
Despite having to live through these implementation challenges, there was so much stuff to like. both authors cut their teeth on the blog circuit, so the writing has that style, which is a-okay for an easy-read book about baseball. Lindbergh and Miller alternate writing each chapter, which is an excellent choice. They don't always agree on how to manage the team and getting to compare their perspectives (on each other and how the season is going) gives the book additional depth.
Although sabermetrics was the main "hook" of the book, Lindbergh and Miller were also forced to deal with another side of the game: the financials. The Stompers are part of a four-team independent league that is more or less always in a precarious financial situation. The result? Our illustrious GMs are forced to come up with some creative ways to increase attendance, including signing Jose Canseco to a one-game deal. Another attendance booster: a Pride Night, where it just so happened that baseball's first openly gay professional player, Sean Conroy, pitched a complete game shutout, striking out 11. Baseball, amirite?
Seriously, though. Check this book out, particularly if you enjoyed Moneyball.
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.
Inspiring, heartbreaking, funny, tragic, thought-provoking. The Only Rule is what's great about baseball. Miller and Lindbergh are given the opportunity of a lifetime- to bring their baseball philosophy into the real world. As a longtime Effectively Wild podcast listener (I think my first episode was around 80) I initially bought The Only Rule because it was written by two guys who are as much of my life as my coworkers and mysterious neighbors. In the end, the book was so much more than an extension of the podcast. It became a story that embodies what makes baseball a beautiful and cruel game.
Like Moneyball, The Extra 2%, and Big Data Baseball before it, The Only Rule presents a different way to create and run a baseball team. Unlike those other (also recommended) books, The Only Rule succeeds in finding flaws within its own premise- that baseball is predictable and also not predictable. The storyline of the season is littered with flashbacks and hindsights, setting up exposition through results, not descriptions. It's a thoughtfully written and smartly crafted glimpse into a possible answer to the question- "if baseball was different, how different would it be?"
This is an enjoyable read from two talented writers who embarked on the journey of a lifetime by attempting to run an independent league baseball team using statistical analysis and other sabermetric principles. It's sort of Moneyball (my review) on a much smaller scale, with better stories and fewer boring parts.
As with Moneyball, although the book documents a process, its sharpest insights are reserved for the people who comprise that process. The characters that inhabit this world—players, managers, the authors themselves—make it a rich place, and it's difficult to read about them without becoming invested in their arcs.
This is not necessarily the book I was expecting to read, and I'm glad for that. It's a human story, engaging at every turn. Much like baseball, it is informed but not defined by numbers. Much like life, it is full of surprises.
Disclaimer: I know both authors and many of the people involved with or referenced in this book.
Disclaimer, I am a big fan of the San Rafael Pacifics, the "enemy" of the Sonoma Stompers, so I think I was pretty pumped to like this book, as I've been attending games since the league was founded! And I did like it! Lots of great behind the scenes information about how this team was run, and tons of statistical data about how some of the decisions were made. It was also cool to read about the league in general and of course, baseball in specific! And even though I hate "the shift", I did enjoy the perspectives given by the authors! Fun to read, and a MUST read for any fan of the Sonoma Stompers!
I really enjoyed "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work." It's like Moneyball if it were written by Billy Beane himself (and if he were self effacing and witty [I mean, he could be. I don't know him]). Anecdotal and analytical, this book is a really fun read that I believe appeals to more than just baseball fans. It's an underdog story with outside the box thinking and outsiders looking in. That's human, dude.
There's a lot to get upset about with athletes and sports in general these days, this book is not one of them. It's a great example of why people like sports in the first place.
As a lifetime baseball fan and stathead (I was calculating WAR in spreadsheets to make the case Grady Sizemore should have won the MVP in 2006, before WAR was a published statistic anywhere), the premise of this book was compelling. I must say that it totally blew away expectations. The story was a page-turner, beautifully written and fascinating. It was less focused on the statistical side than I expected, and a much better book for it. The authors are very talented and i hope they produce more in the future.
This is the best book I've read so far this year. If you're into baseball, it's a must read. You've got to be a little nerdy to fully appreciate things (so I had no trouble fully appreciating it), but it's well worth your time. Read this book.
Sean Conroy, a hard-throwing reliever, was the first pro ballplayer to come out while active. It happened that two Baseball Prospectus podcasters were running the front office of his club, the very-very-minor-league Sonoma Stompers. This is the story of their season with the club. Much of it is a BP piece at book length, which I enjoyed just fine. But Conroy’s story is downright moving, and the authors to their credit don’t make it about themselves.
This was a very entertaining read for a baseball geek like myself. Ben and Sam manage an independent league team and do some really funny/experimental things. Obtaining draft picks for donuts? Enacting a 2 man outfield? Convincing a player trying out to fake sick and go home so other scouts won't see him? Persuading a MLB team to scout and sign your opponents' best player? There are several hilarious moments. Jose Canseco even makes a cameo. This book is an intriguing window into the strengths and limitations of the sabermetric movement in the game of baseball. It does a better job at this than Moneyball. A solid baseball read.
Sometimes, a chance comes out of the blue to let you do something you've sort of always dreamed of but didn't really work toward, a great opportunity you never expected.
For Ben and Sam, two of the funniest and smartest baseball writers around, that chance came one night while recording their popular podcast, when a baseball executive mentioned in passing they might be able to help run an independent league team. Ben and Sam delight in the little absurd mysteries of baseball, like thinking about the hypothetical impact of there being a tree planted in front of the pitcher's mound. They provide regular updates on the two obscure pitchers who have the most career games finished without ever saving even one game. Beyond the in-jokes that their audience eats up, they're also fully versed in baseball sabermetrics, which is maybe the most public-driven scientific field of inquiry out there today. For example, Ben's work on catcher framing has led to breakthroughs in our measurement of the surprising extent to which catchers can impact a team's performance. By the way, these are the same types of insights real baseball teams are using to win real games. People who used to work for these guys now draw salaries from MLB teams.
Their product attracts other baseball nerds. A significant portion of sports fans these days can talk about strategy, tactics, player value, and the underlying math without having played the game. There are also folks who resent those who speak with authority about a sport without having played it (which includes most of the people who get paid to talk about sports on television). As a former backup left-fielder on a little league roster of ten, you can guess which camp I'm in.
So for a couple of writers who didn't play baseball, going to run a team was always going to be a challenge. The story doesn't disappoint, as you get a real sense of the story of their time with the team, warts and all. There are colorful characters and personality clashes. They try hard to be able to leverage the same data they successfully use to understand the major leagues in the modest ball fields of their tiny indie league, with amusing results.
Here are the mild spoilers. They succeed (to a degree) in trying out some of their best unconventional ideas. They also pull off some baseball history. They roster and play the first openly gay player ever to play professional baseball (which is brilliantly covered in the book). They promote the first ever Japanese manager of an American professional baseball team.
They don't pull punches on themselves. You see the self-criticism, the disputes, all the junk I think I would have tried to edit out of this story if it were my own, but that make it all the more worth reading. They clearly express how awkward it was to acclimate to the culture of a clubhouse, and talk about it with a real measure of humility. And oh, by the way, they are darned good writers.
I was having kind of a lousy week last week, but this book was the saving grace. I couldn't put the thing down, and there were moments in each chapter when I laughed out loud. If any of this sounds at all interesting to you, you should read this book. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This is a personnel management book disguised as a sports book. The sports part sets up the premise, that a couple of baseball writers/podcasters get the opportunity to run an independent-league team. The hook is that they have never actually worked "in" baseball, except that one of the guys did a summer internship once with the Yankees. Other than that, Ben and Sam are just well-known new-school stats-minded writers who sound like they know what they are talking about.
However, once removed from the ivory tower of the baseball internet and thrown into the trenches of real-world management, Ben and Sam learn some important lessons. Like:
*If you are a nerd in a jock's world, and take a respectful and unassuming attitude, most people will ignore you. *Turns out not everyone likes math. *Don't show up to spring training wearing exactly the same business-casual outfit as your co-writer or the team will never let you hear the end of it. *Managing a low-level independent league team is definitely not like managing a major-league team, and only vaguely even like managing a minor-league team. Your budget is minuscule, and information scant. Your player pool consists of the dregs of the dregs of major league prospects. There are no five-tool players. Most have one tool, on good days. If you actually unearth someone who shows some promise, they will probably earn an opportunity to go somewhere better.
So mostly the lesson is that translating theories to real-world practical outcomes is hard. Ben and Sam's optimistic dreams are challenged, and sometimes totally derailed, by logistical or communication problems. It's a story that will be easily appreciated by anyone who has ever had a job.
I was familiar with these authors and found the book to be a satisfying extension of their usual day jobs writing about baseball and producing the daily Effectively Wild podcast, which has become my favorite podcast. They get it. They get what's fun about the sport, what's funny about the sport, and how you can understand it better by understanding how statistics work and how cognitive biases affect everyone. They write very emotionally and truthfully, but also realistically (if a little too realistically--sometimes there is extensive play-by-play of games when some narrative would do). Good process isn't always possible, and even when it is, it doesn't mean good outcome. Their stats are "right" but they also understand the limitations. This is recommended reading for all, and should be required reading for the entire population of pompous baseball twitter--anyone who has used the platform to call for a managerial firing should have to read it twice and write a reaction essay.
This book likely has a very narrow audience: readers of BP, fans of Effectively Wild, sabermatricians, statheads, nerds, fantasy baseball aficionados, and anyone who's ever thought "I could do that better" when looking at their favorite baseball team's most recent move. There's a ton of overlap in all of those groups, which creates the narrow audience. If you fall into one of those categories, and especially if you fall into more than one of those categories, you're probably going to love this book.
Don't get me wrong. Even if you're the target audience for this book, there are going to be moments of frustration (speak up earlier and more often! F&*# Feh and his nonsense closer mantra!). Reading about the team's second-half collapse after all of the early successes is torturous. Realizing that the better Ben and Sam were at picking players who could turn into something, or even the better their players were who they had nothing to do with, only results in weakening their team down the stretch is depressing. And reading Sam's epilogue, a letter in which he lays out the life lessons he learned over the summer is both uplifting and the height of absurdism (in the literal sense).
The structure of the book, with Ben and Sam alternating chapters, was not only a nifty trick that cut down on the writing for both of them, but it is also one that leads to a nice narrative where each party gets to provide their POV and personal insights throughout the course of the season. They express their differences almost in passing, but you can get a sense where some of the major disagreements during those months existed. It also allows them to talk about topics that must have made up the majority of their time in Sonoma over the course of dozens of pages and chapters instead of hitting heavily on one topic for a few pages and then moving on.
Overall, if you think you might be interested in this book, or you're familiar with the subject matter and are curious, you should read it. You're probably going to like it. If you're not sure what you're getting into, think Moneyball without stakes with people even further removed from the typical "baseball insider" path in charge.
A thoroughly entertaining ride-along with two Baseball Prospectus writers who are given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play general manager for a season and test out their sabermetric theories at the lowest rung of professional baseball, with the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association.
This book starts out as a captivating "Moneyball"-style journey of how to build a team's roster from virtually scratch on a miniscule budget and with with no scouting, using sabermetric principles to find talented players who have been ignored or discarded by what we know as Organized Baseball.
Along the way, the book evolves into a story about life in the independent minor leagues and the interesting -- often sad and desperate but always amusing -- people who play and work in them, with little chance of ever reaching any major-league glory. As the summer drags on and these 20-something players have to make a choice between continuing to play baseball for a meager living or moving on with their lives, the Stompers' season becomes less about which of the co-authors' analytical strategies worked best and more about how to survive in the indie leagues -- and field enough players to make a full team.
There are plenty of interesting characters and dramatic moments to make the book worthwhile, but if you're looking for an answer to the question "did it work?" you won't find many answers here. Life in the Pacific Association doesn't at all resemble life in the nearby Triple-A Pacific Coast League, one step below the majors. The co-authors' inexperience and timidity around the ballplayers turn many of their interactions with the team into a "jocks vs. nerds" dynamic. But this book does offer keen insight into the relationship bridges that must be crossed in order for any team to have good communication between a sabermetrically inclined front office and an old-school clubhouse. Even a team at the lowest level of professional baseball.
I wanted to LOVE this book - I'm in the advanced analytics crowd when it comes to baseball, and I frequently listen to Effectively Wild and even more so use Fangraphs to view data. Overall, this is a good book. But I wanted more.
I wanted Ben and Sam to have more authority and utilize their strategies more often, whether it's a five-man infield or telling hitters to how to approach counts. Instead, the majority of the book is focused on the duo conflicting with their manager. There's also a lot of complaining and excuse making by Ben and Sam.
To my surprise, my favorite parts of the book were learning more about the players themselves. They didn't spotlight many (which was a disappointment, as some were just names I didn't know existed), but getting to know Sean Conroy was the highlight. Most of their Opening Day roster left the team either to retire from baseball or advance to a higher professional league, which made the the second half to a season boring as new, irrelevant players filtered through the locker room.
For the most part, it seemed players were fairly receptive to sabermetrics, but in the end Sam made it seem like no one gave them a chance. Sam's sentence in a conversation with their GM furthered lowered my rating: "I hate this team."
In that case, I'm not sure there was a need for this book to be written. It's cool to see all of this technology used at a no-name ballpark in California, but the season ends and it's like they regret the decision to take on this project.
If you're a baseball junkie, I recommend giving this a try. But for casual fans, it may not interest you.
This book was a lot of fun. I'd probably rate myself as more than a casual baseball fan, but not particularly rabid, so if you're at that level or higher, you'll likely enjoy it. Your level of interest in statistics is irrelevant. They're central to the plot, but not the story. Funny, thoughtful, and suspenseful (yes), a good summer read, especially in tandem with the baseball season.
Without question, the ideal audience for this book is hard core baseball fans, and even more specifically, those who consider themselves stat-heads, sabermetrician geeks, or fantasy baseball addicts. I qualify for two of these three: stat-head and fantasy addict, but I remain only a fringy sabermetrician obsessive. What these three things have in common is a love of numbers, a compulsion to amass knowledge, and a desire to use available information to gain a logical advantage within a competitive game. This is exactly what authors Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller have a chance to do for one season with an independent baseball team on the west coast. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is essentially their memoir of that experience, told by each author in alternating chapters.
Before having this opportunity, both Lindbergh and Miller had made a name for themselves via the baseball podcast Effectively Wild and as writers and editors for the website Baseball Prospectus. After years of using advanced statistics as tools for commentary and to develop strategic theories regarding baseball (e.g. player selection, defensive alignments, etc.) they are given the chance to put their theories into practice.
Both Lindbergh and MIller are talented writers, and thus the book is engaging from beginning to end. Since the narrative is about much more than simply stats and what to do with them, there are many aspects that may intrigue a wider audience, for example these consistent themes: the psychology of navigating relationships within a hierarchy and developing trust within those relationships; the emotional ups and downs that come with being deeply invested in any endeavor; and the general concept of using information to gain a competitive advantage. This last aspect reminds me of my love for backgammon, where learning about the odds of dice-rolling and making moves that increase the chances of “pointing up” or decreasing the chances of a “kill” are crucial to being competitive in the game.
Having just finished reading, it is an insight from the “Epilogue” that sticks with me: “But once we started signing players and getting to know them, and especially once we saw them in spring training, we realized that they were not in our story so much as we were in theirs.”
As a teacher of college writing, this strikes me as something of an epiphany, not because I haven’t considered the student-teacher dynamic in a similar way, but because I’ve never quite thought of it in terms of ���their” vs. “my” story. While in most cases we’re merely blips on each other’s timelines, it is the students who are in the classroom pursuing a destination to elsewhere, and they have little control over the “coach” who will set the parameters for their brief time in Composition class. Of course I want my blip in their story to be a good one and a helpful one. But being human, my desire is persistently to focus on my own story, and contributing to someone else’s story can sometimes feel like an infringement on my own, especially when that contribution is so time-consuming. But I believe Sam Miller is right; a worthy mindset of a GM toward a team is to best serve the individuals on the team, just as a good teacher prioritizes serving his or her students.
Finally, I like the accuracy of the above quote from Miller because it recognizes the overlap of these stories rather than isolating them as separate arcs. By including the phrase “so much as,” he recognizes the nuance that those we serve are in our stories, but we are not the center. As the publication of this book proves, the Sonoma Stompers and its players were very much in the stories of these two authors’ lives, and perhaps one of the ways this is demonstrated is in the realization that the players themselves belong in the center of the frame.
Interesting tidbit: The title of the book is taken from an inspirational speech that Miller prepared for the players but never had a chance to deliver. The full speech is included for readers, and it's a good one.
Similar books of interest: Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe (Sam Walker) Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Michael Lewis) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Michael Lewis) The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (Jonah Keri) Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak (Travis Sawchik)