The book: “The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team”
The authors: Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
The vital statistics: Henry Holt and Co., 368 pages, $30. Will be released May 3
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com. At the publishers website.
The pitch: The Sonoma Stompers, you’ve got to figure, are named so after those who crush grapes for the local wineries.
Yet no one is going to squish the dreams of Lindbergh and Miller right now.
Although you couldn’t blame them for getting a little whiny now and then.
The Stompers are an entry in the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs in Northern California, full of players trying to attract the attention of anyone except, perhaps, the Stompers.
And they come without warning labels, full of flaws, gaps in their resume and a glove full of lies.
“Baseball has a caste system and at our level, we’re trafficking in Untouchables,” Lindbergh writes in Chapter 5. “If the (Oakland) A’s were ‘a collection of misfit toys,’ as Michael Lewis wrote (in the book ‘Moneyball’), then we’ll be building a team out of toys that got recalled because they were choke hazards.”
And that’s just the starting point of the challenge that Lindbergh and Smith, two sabermetric prophets from the Baseball Prospectus, gave themselves in trying to see if they can apply their math to a real-team building in real-time baseball.
It translates to real easy read, because it’s not just enjoyable or “blissfully funny” at Nate Silver notes on the cover blurb. It’s because it’s something we all wish we had the chance to do in our 20s aside from dabbling in a rotisserie league that had a minimal payoff.
Lindbergh, a former writer at Grantland.com while currently writing for FiveThirtyEight.com, has convinced the owner, GM and manager of this team that he’ll act as the director of baseball operations.
Miller, holding the current title of Baseball Prospectus editor, becomes the assistant to the GM and scouting director.
They wouldn’t have even thought to take this path if not for the encouragement of Dan Evans, the one-time Dodgers GM who happened to be on one of the Lindberg-Miller “Effectively WIld” podcasts and told them about how he was trying to revive his own independent minor league.
When things don’t add up right away, it’s clear that that with all due respect to their data, the level of talent they’re dealing with — the 0.1 percent who MLB scouts passed on — is difficult to quantify on their spread sheet columns.
But once they pick their roster — some of it just based on how a guy’s numbers line up in Excel — the two will pick their spots in trying out unorthodox defensive shifts, experiment with pitch effectiveness and crunch the numbers on the batting order to maximize its potential.
Then, it’s just a matter of getting everyone else on board.
Lindbergh is a New York native, and Miller, now in San Francisco, spent time as an Orange County Register news writer who also got involved in blogging about the Angels.
Once the Stompers get out to a 6-0 start in the 2015 season, and an wRC+ of 146, which is supposed to be pretty good, they get understandably giddy.
“We’re brilliant. Baseball is easy,” Miller writes in Chapter 8. “Walking out to shut down the stadium lights with (GM) Theo (Fightmaster), talking about the game the way actual front-office execs get to talk about games, the walk-and-talks that make us feel like we’re living an Aaron Sorkin script.”
At that point, with some credibility, they try to convince 37-year-old player/manager, lead-off hitter, center fielder (and Sonoma native) Fehiandt Lentini that the lefty-vs.-righty lineup needs some adjusting.
Lentini isn’t following. Besides, why mess with success.
“Winning has become its own obstacle,” Miller writes.
Seven pages later, after their first loss, they’re running an idea past Lentini that involves using their best starting pitcher to throw his usually strong 4 1/3 innings later in the game – in relief – as a more effective use of his talents. Besides, he’d still get credit for a win, since the starter didn’t go long enough.
Lentini, again, isn’t following.
Miller is compelled to also write: “Losing, it turns out, is just as much an obstacle as winning.”
This book delivers in the same kind of buddy-movie joy ride that Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster took us on with “We Don’t Care If We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever.” Like that duo, we’re of course pulling for Lindbergh and Smith to succeed, to dream bigger, stay optimistic.
“Although Ben and I are on the public front lines of baseball’s analytical movement,” Lindbergh writes in Chapter 2, “we’ve fought our battles from the safety of our screens: Our ideas about baseball are academic, theoretical, never exposed to tobacco spit and stray infield pebbles … Can a creative, incisive use of numbers really sharpen the performance of players who’ve never been able to fulfill their major league dreams?”
That’s the seven billion dollar question — a number we just came up with because, as Lindberg notes, their starting pool of talent to choose from is, by their estimation, “seven billion. We don’t know where to look, we don’t know what to look for, and we don’t know whom to ask.”
As Miller adds in Chapter 3: “The game we learned to love as kids was a gateway drug to baseball’s unseen structure, where the interactions of complex forces lead to wins in ways that are often imperceptible to people who’ve been watching, playing and even teaching the game for years. … We just want to be self-made Stompers who aren’t just pretending to be part of the team.”
It’s insanely goofy that they’ve allowed themselves to get this deep into the process – at one point, they allow Jose Canseco to play (and pitch in) two games at Arnold Field, and find out that star relief pitcher Sean Conroy will eventually makes news for something he does off the field and won’t reveal itself in the metric data.
But then writing about it all for this book takes it to a new level, one where Dodgers fans could easily imagine a conversation that Andrew Friedman and his Think Blue Think Tank might be having every day with rookie new manager Dave Roberts, but then telling him, “Hey, it’s all up to you.”
When, really, it isn’t.
More to know:
== The Sonoma Stompers will start their next 78-game season in June against San Rafael, Vallejo and Pittsburg. League tryouts are this weekend in Vallejo.
== The 2015 Stompers, as noted by Baseball-Reference.com, included former Long Beach State outfielders Brennan Metzger and Matt Hibbert, the later of whom was in the opening day lineup but batting ninth instead of first, to the consternation of Lindbergh and Miller. Hibbert was 11th in the league with a .308 average, but also led the league in getting hit by pitches (18 in 68 games).