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How Two Stat-Heads Turned a Minor League Baseball Team Into Their Own Personal Laboratory

How Two Stat-Heads Turned a Minor League Baseball Team Into Their Own Personal Laboratory: Photo via StompersBaseball.com

Photo via StompersBaseball.com

“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it,” is a thing retired pitcher Goose Gossage said, channeling his inner ‘80s movie villain during an interview with ESPN back in March. The Hall of Fame reliever wasn’t entirely wrong. Like nearly every other aspect of popular culture, the nerds have won—at least so far as MLB’s front offices are concerned. (With a few exceptions, the on-field play is still largely the realm of the jock.)

In the 35 years since baseball oracle Bill James coined the term “sabermetrics,” his “search for objective knowledge about baseball” has grown from an outsider curiosity to a driving force behind the scenes of America’s pastime. The phenomenon, which uses oft overlooked statistics to evaluate players and optimize team performance, has led to an explosion of stat-head hires who have helped to fundamentally transform the game. In the process, it has devalued traditional metrics for newer models, inflaming the perpetual struggle of jocks versus nerds.

Baseball Prospectus has been fanning those flames since the mid '90s, pioneering new statistical tools and offering some of the most insightful statistical analysis in the business. Since 2012, the site has been home to the equally wonderful daily podcast Effectively Wild, cohosted by then editor-in-chief Ben Lindbergh and his successor, Sam Miller. Lindbergh has since left the site (he now works as a writer at former BP managing partner Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight), but the pair still post the show every weekday like clockwork—with the notable exception of certain stretches in 2015.

Henry Holt and Co.

Henry Holt and Co.

The pair had a book to write—and a baseball team to run. Last summer, Lindbergh and Miller took the reigns of the Sonoma Stompers, utilizing the independent league team as a sort of real-world laboratory in which to finally bring their wildest stat-head theories to life. The result, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, is quite possibly the most engaging entrée into the labyrinthine world of baseball statistics since Moneyball.

Along the way, the Stompers experience the highs and lows of a baseball season, sign Sean Conroy, the first openly gay player professional baseball player in the country, and have a predictably hilarious encounter with mixed-martial artist and sometime baseball player Jose Canseco.

Lindbergh and Miller hopped on Skype to discuss the book ahead of its May 4 release.


At what point did the whole experiment become real? And when did the book enter into the equation?
SAM MILLER: The first time that I felt like it was actually going to happen was when I first spoke to the owner of the Stompers. When he said he thought it was a good idea, we realized it was plausible. From there it kind of took care of itself. It’s a pitch that everyone immediately responds to fairly excitedly. It’s actually fun—although it’s much less fun when you actually get down to the nitty gritty of it, because you realize that everyone involved is a person with their own competing agendas and interests.

BEN LINDBERGH: The book and project came together in tandem. As much as we would have been tempted to do it without a book, it just wouldn’t have been feasible. I had to move out to Sonoma for the summer and Sam had family obligations that he had to give up. The project was always continent on the book. When we got the book deal, we realized we were really doing this.

Was there pushback against the idea of using this entire season as a sort of laboratory experiment?
SAM: I think there was some trepidation from the people whose careers we were going to be in a position to affect. When you tell the manager or players that you’re going to do this and to trust you, they don’t know you well enough to trust you. And they don’t know what your intentions are. It’s very easy for them to imagine the worst. I think Ben and I are very conservative in the way we approach this project and the way we approach everything, but they didn’t know that. I think they got comfortable when they realized we weren’t going to be super radical—but I think you can make the case that we should have been more radical. If we had to do it over again, we would probably take an approach that would be a little more disruptive and worth worrying about.

There was a lesson in there about not holding any players back from positions in higher leagues for the benefit of the team. A lot of players ultimately see this as a stepping stone.
SAM: They see it as a stepping stone and almost everyone involved sees it as a stepping stone for them. That is why these leagues exist: so guys can get another chance. If there wasn’t a realistic possibility for them to move up, you wouldn’t have the talent. And if you didn’t have the talent, you wouldn’t have the business. I think everyone knows that you have to go along with this system—and it’s a hard system to deal with when you’re losing your best pitcher or best centerfielder a week before the end of the season. If you didn’t allow that guy to go, leagues like this would cease to function. Partly you don’t want to step in their toes and get in the way of their career. But you’re also spending three months with these guys. You’re there 10 hours a day, and lot of camaraderie that extends to you in the front office, and you don’t want to be unpopular. You want to stay on the good side of the clique. To some degree, I was at a disadvantage because of my insufferable need to be liked. Going back to childhood, I have a very hard time not being like by jocks.

If we had simulated this season a million times, in very few of them would we have gotten a better narrative arc.

You only had the single season, but it was split into two parts — which played out with extremely different results. Why was there such a huge divergence between the first and second halves?
BEN: It was incredible how distinct it was. It kind of went completely the opposite of how we hoped it would. We hoped we would do well enough to stay in the race and not embarrass ourselves in the first half—that gradually we would gather all of this intelligence, because the more time we had, the data we would be able to gather. We thought we would be able to apply all of that knowledge in the second half and go undefeated from then on. That didn’t happen. We started off incredibly well. We couldn’t lose. And to some extent, we couldn’t completely figure out why. So it became an impediment in certain ways, because the big thing in baseball is that when you want to try something new, there’s always some objection, and if you’re losing, there’s some pushback because the manager or whoever is making these decisions doesn’t want to look like he’s panicking. But if you’re winning, you have an even more uphill battle because the manager can tell you that you don’t need to change anything. It was hard to experiment because we were already winning and they felt like they didn’t need to do anything different.

In the second half, we did do more, and we somehow lost more. i think that was more correlation than causation, I hope. We lost a lot of players—we were victim to our own success in a way. We had some of the best players in the league, and when you’re that low in the professional baseball pecking order, other leagues look down and hoist up the best players from the league below. That happened to us and it became a challenge to fill these roster slots on the fly.

The phrase “baseball is a game of failure” pops up a few times toward the end. What did you mean by that?
SAM: I don’t think I believe that baseball is a game of failure. I resist that idea. It’s a zero-sum game. If I learned anything, particularly in the second half, it’s that you’re just going to run into good teams. It’s sometimes tempting to think that the outcome of a game is a referendum on your abilities or who you are as a person. But sometimes you’re playing a good team. We went up against a team that was doing things completely differently than us. If you had said that it was going to be a season where the stat-heads are going up against a team that is doing things completely sub-optimally, we would have said, “What a great setup.” But the problem is that they also had strengths.

The second-half collapse was because we kept losing really good players, but a lot of it was just that we were getting out hustled for new players. We didn’t really figure out a way to crack that the way that they did. Other than that, to a large degree our vision about what the team should be was realized in the second half. We just didn’t have the players anymore.

BEN: We were lucky from a storytelling perspective. If we had simulated this season a million times, in very few of them would we have gotten a better narrative arc. We got the highest highs and the lowest lows, and we got some incredible individual stories and angles that we never would have planned for. There were ways in which we could have been a terrible team that was never in contention or we could have just walked to the title. But there wouldn’t have been very much narrative tension, but as it was, we happened to get this very distinctive split season where everything was going great and then everything was going horrible and all of these stories presented themselves.

And you got Sean [Conroy], which has to be the best story of the season.
BEN: In very many ways. Sean Conroy was one of the players we signed, based on college stats. He was passed over in the major league draft by every other professional team in the country. They weren’t interested because he doesn’t throw extremely hard—he’s a side armer, he’s not a huge guy—but he was incredibly effective. We signed him, and not only was he one of the best players in the league and a great guy to be around, but he also became the first openly gay professional baseball player in the country. How he handled that was really impressive to watch and gave us unexpected insight into how a clubhouse works. He makes it more than just a story about stat-heads.

Do you get the sense the Stompers will be carrying any of these lessons over into the next season? Or will they just be hitting the reset button?
SAM: I think they’re definitely carrying some of this forward. But they’re somewhat limited. We were very lucky in that we had access to a tremendous amount of data that wouldn’t otherwise be available at that level. We were gifted with PITCHf/x (a pitch tracking system) cameras at the park and software that helps with advanced scouting, and we had a great volunteer labor force that went out and scouted games for us. The Stompers won’t have that, so a lot of the data that we had access to they won’t have. Even without that, though, one of the things about playing in a four-team league is that there aren’t very many secrets if you’re paying attention. [Stompers general manager] Theo Fightmaster was in perfect syncronicity with what we were doing all along. I would expect the team to play a brand of baseball that’s—if not the most radical thing in the world—certainly different than the kind any of the other teams are playing.

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