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The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team Hardcover – May 3, 2016
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“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 Durham―a 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
About 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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Top Customer Reviews
It was really an impossible task. Professional sports at every level are filled with highly accomplished and competitive athletes, with real lives and real egos. Now imagine walking in one day and suddenly trying to convince them that they should be doing things differently. Who do you think you are?
I was one of the analysts who helped Ben and Sam in this quest, and I wanted to write some thoughts down from my own perspective, not as one of the main characters, but as someone more behind the scenes. These are some very short initial thoughts only, but I'd like to followup with some more ideas on where things went wrong from my perspective, and also how independent league teams can better identify roster talent from some non-traditional sources.
My focus was on attempting to identify talent overlooked in the MLB draft. This is extremely challenging; there are 30 teams, 40 standards rounds plus other picks. Furthermore, among those players left, many sign as amateur free agents post-draft. You're left with players from lower divisions, very small schools, 23-year-old seniors, bad bodies, soft tossers, poor defenders, etc. But, still, there may be players who aren't good MLB prospects, but who could still perform well as part of an independent league team.
Looking at top framing college catchers was a bust; this is a premium defensive position and very little is overlooked.
Among the undrafted senior hitters and pitchers there were several potential prospects, many of whom you'll read about in the book. The most important fact to keep in mind is that these are real people with real lives, real families and real hopes and dreams, and playing independent ball isn't nearly lucrative enough to pay the bills. Harsh reality will limit your pool even more, and those who choose to pursue it will face the additional stress of financial strain.
That being said, was Ben and Sam's experiment a success? You'll have to read the book, but absolutely, some talent was found.
The authors start with the sequence of events that landed them with the Sonoma Stompers for the Summer of 2015. One key reason is something that hadn't occurred to me: the "General Manager" of a low-budget team spends most of his time selling tickets and keep the concessions flowing, so he is happy to get free help building a roster (the task we associate most often with a team's front office).
Then Ben and Sam dig into the nitty-gritty of building a team. They do a great job of laying out all the numbers that they had in front of them for such tasks as: choosing which players to sign; making lineup recommendations; employing extreme defensive shifts; and building detailed reports on opposing pitchers for use by the team's hitters. Seeing the raw data made the book much more enjoyable than if they had just jumped ahead to the conclusions that they reached.
The authors also do a great job of conveying the storylines and emotions associated with the team. It's reminiscient of a movie like Bull Durham: the overarching plot is about baseball players trying to get a crack at the majors, but the most interesting and important events revolve around the players' individual growth and interpersonal relationships.
Finally, I found this book inspiring as a personal story of humility and frustration, combined with some great insight into how to "make friends and influence people". I would honestly recommend this book to aspiring business leaders or consultants. Ben and Sam are two extremely bright guys with great communication skills. So one might assume that they had an easy time showing up at the Sonoma Stompers and turning the team around. But I know that my life is never that easy -- and I have to admit it's nice to see that their lives aren't either. Although Ben and Sam are nominally in charge of the roster, it's difficult for two guys that never played professional baseball to earn credibility in the clubhouse. But if you keep reading you see that more often than not they are able to succeed at what they try to do -- relying primarily on honesty and candor and true generosity, more than on any spreadsheet.
This is less of "The Book," by Tom Tango, and more of "The Soul of Baseball," by Joe Posnanski; it is more story than stat. Ben and Sam may have been the ones who got to run this indy-league baseball team, but through their writing you feel like you're right alongside them. You cringe when they're getting scolded by the team's manager. You're sad when a player leaves for greener pastures. You pump your fist when the team comes through. It's funny, it's dramatic, it's gripping. By the end, you realize you've grown to love this ragtag group of characters just as the authors did.
This isn't just a baseball story. It's a story about people, about relationships, about finding your way. My only regret is that that summer in Sonoma had to end.