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Books | Sports

May 17, 2016

Score One For Sabermetrics!

That's the cry of a Sonoma Stompers broadcaster early last season, when Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller tried to take their baseball analytics into the dugout.

Carl Bialik

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller host a daily podcast about baseball and write analytically about the sport: Lindbergh for FiveThirtyEight, Miller for Baseball Prospectus. Last summer, they got the chance to put their data-driven, empirically minded approach into practice, taking over operations for the Sonoma Stompers of the independent league. This is nearly as low as professional baseball gets, with a budget not anywhere near the same ballpark as Oakland's supposedly tight budget in Moneyball. But Lindbergh and Miller pull a few strings, call in some favors, and bring something like major-league-quality advanced stats to the Pacific Association. They also use players' prior stats to try to build a roster of undervalued talent, ending up with a mix of their spreadsheet guys, returning players, and their sabermetrics-doubting manager's favorite players.

"I’ve seen enough games between the Vallejo Admirals and Pittsburg Diamonds to last me more than a lifetime."—Ben Lindbergh

That turns out to be the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to fit in, how to assert authority and when to relent, in an organization full of players and other staffers whose attitudes toward the Corduroy Crew of statheads range from curiosity to contempt. The story of how closely the Stompers hewed to Miller's and Lindbergh's vision, and where they finished in the league, is the tale told in The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team. Lindbergh answered questions about his and Miller's project in the following interview, which was conducted by email and edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: At what point in the process did you know you might have a book and start taking careful notes about what happened, and how you both felt about it?

Ben Lindbergh: The book deal was the first part of the process. As much as I might have enjoyed it, there's no way I could've moved to Sonoma and spent as much time with the team as I did without the advance and the knowledge that we would have a place to tell the story when we were done.
I started taking notes when spring training started, though I tried not to do too much scribbling around the Stompers. Every night I told myself to jot down my thoughts before I forgot, but I was always worn out and often didn't do it. As a result, I worried all summer that I wouldn't remember enough. Our archived texts, emails, instant messages, and recorded calls were a great resource while we were writing.

Gelf Magazine: How much did you write the book as you went, and how much when you were done? Were you two sharing your chapters with each other for reference or mostly writing separately?

Ben Lindbergh: Our work with the Stompers—plus our podcast, my work for Grantland, and Sam's family obligations—took too much time to write as we went. The season ended on August 31, and we started the book the first week of September. By then we had a lot of it loosely laid out in our heads, so we pumped out pages quickly. We did discuss the book's structure with each other and share chapters as we went. We had to submit the manuscript to our editor in chunks, so each of us read and revised the other's work before each of the due dates.

Gelf Magazine: Michael Lewis got Moneyball out, about the 2002 season, on June 17, 2003. You beat him by a couple of months in turnaround time. How hard was it to do? What were the scariest moments?

Ben Lindbergh: And Moneyball's 80 pages shorter! Of course, having two authors helped.
The finished draft was due on December 15, about two and a half months after we'd started writing, and the final draft was due two months after that. It was a hectic period, but we'd always known it would be, and we wanted the book to be out. The scary moments were mostly during the season, since that's when we were out of our element. Once we were writing, we felt in control of our fates. I still didn't sleep for a day or two before the deadline for the first draft. And it was very demoralizing to get a big stack of recommended revisions to the first third of the book from our editor the next day. There was no time to take a breath after each milestone.

Gelf Magazine: To what extent were previous books about a year-in-a-team—or previous writers-turned-team-executives—influential, or not, on your experiment and your writing? I'm thinking in particular of Friday Night Lights, Moneyball, and Alex Wolff with the Frost Heaves, but of course there might be some I'm not thinking of that you were.

Ben Lindbergh: I think we mentioned Moneyball nine times in the book, so that was obviously an influence. We also mentioned Plimpton in our proposal, so it was nice to see Sports Illustrated make that connection. We were trying to capture some of the behind-the-scenes roster-construction elements of Moneyball (and the post-Moneyball "How were they built?" books about the Rays, Pirates, Dodgers, and Cardinals) and pair those with the more personal perspectives of two outsiders who were very much out of their element. It's a pretty crowded genre, so I hope that blend, and the alternating-chapter structure, make our story stand out.

Sean Conroy

Sean Conroy, the first openly gay player in professional baseball, was the starting pitcher on Pride Night on June 25.

Gelf Magazine: What have you heard from Stompers players, managers, et al who have read the book? (I'm thinking especially of Fehlandt Lentini.)

Ben Lindbergh: We haven't gotten much feedback from the players. (As we mentioned, there weren't a lot of voracious readers on the team.) The Stompers' staff and Sean Conroy love it. Fehlandt probably doesn't, but we haven't heard from him directly.

Gelf Magazine: You'd never heard of the Stompers and they'd never heard of Baseball Prospectus. Do you plan to follow them this season, and do you think any of them will read BP?

Ben Lindbergh: I'll be following them very closely—Sam and I are still offering input on the roster, and I'm really pulling for the returning players, including Sean, Santos Saldivar, Gregory Paulino, Daniel Baptista, and Mark Hurley. Some of the Stompers follow our work on Twitter and Facebook, so they might click a link, but I don't think any of them will be BP subscribers.

Gelf Magazine: How many of the Stompers had at least read or seen Moneyball? Did your approach work better with those who had?

Ben Lindbergh: I don't know how many (if any) had read it, but most had seen the movie or at least were aware of the premise. Because Moneyball is so well known, it's become convenient shorthand for anyone involved with sabermetrics. Even if someone knows nothing about baseball, we can get the basic idea across by saying, "You know Moneyball? Yeah, that's what we do." The movie was mainstream and successful and Brad Pitt was involved, so the comparison lends some legitimacy to our work.

Gelf Magazine: How much did the Stompers' opponents know what you guys were up to? Did any seem to think your access to stats normally not available at that level was an unfair edge?

Ben Lindbergh: I think most of them had some inkling of what we were doing, but they were more bemused or indifferent than indignant. One of the pitchers for our rival team wrote a review of the book, and he describes our opponents' attitude toward the whole thing more accurately than we could.

Gelf Magazine: You've been trying hard, on your podcast and on social media, not to spoil the ending, which feels kind of quaint for a professional sports result in 2016 but also makes sense for a team this otherwise unknown. How many readers do you think make it to the end without knowing what'll happen?

Ben Lindbergh: The majority, I'd assume. Unless you've purposely spoiled yourself by looking at standings or reading reviews, there's no reason why you'd know how the Sonoma Stompers did last season. People who listen to our podcast are probably much more likely to have looked than those who found the book by other means.

Gelf Magazine: You mention at the end that you realize you were really characters in the players' stories. Did you consider having any of them write chapters?

Ben Lindbergh: Yes, we originally intended to have a player write the epilogue or an afterword. But the way things worked out, we thought it made sense for Sam to have the last word. And given how tight the turnarounds were, our editor probably would've worried about the mechanics of handing off a section to somebody else.

Gelf Magazine: Are any of your spreadsheet Stompers going to play a major-league game?

Ben Lindbergh: I'll harbor some hope until the last one retires, but it's very unlikely. That said, Sean, Santos, and Dylan Stoops all deserve a shot in a higher-level league. Dylan is with a Frontier League team this spring, so he's climbed one step higher on a very long ladder.

Gelf Magazine: You review the lessons you learned at the end, like about your ability to predict pitchers better than hitters. How do you know when you're overlearning—reacting too much to the small sample size of one season?

Ben Lindbergh: Yeah, I'm not making too much of the results of one 78-game season. (We're really talking about two hitters, and one of them had a very long layoff before his first game.) I think a lot of what we learned was real, but most of it pertained to the relationships we formed or strengthened while we were in Sonoma.

Gelf Magazine: You and Sam sometimes got frustrated with the players for not caring enough about the stats. Do you think that could change in time, or do you think the best way to use analytics to run a team is for making personnel and managerial decisions, rather than for trying to change how players play?

Ben Lindbergh: I think there's plenty of potential for analytics to improve players through enhanced training techniques, either by changing how they play or by helping them be in better condition to play the same way. The ability to acquire better players still might make more of an impact, but there's something to be said for getting the most out of the players already in place. And that doesn't have to mean making players study a lengthy list of stats.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think is the future of the Pacific Association and leagues like it? Does independent pro baseball have a long and prosperous future?

Ben Lindbergh: Prosperous? Probably not. Long? I don't see why not. Indy ball has been around for ages, and as long as people like to be paid and like to play baseball, there's a place for unaffiliated professional teams.

Gelf Magazine: How much fun is it for fans to go to independent-league baseball, compared to the majors and affiliated minors?

Ben Lindbergh: Not as much fun if you want stars and high stakes. If you want to take your kids to a game or you're looking for a laid-back outing—the same game, minus the metal detectors, high prices, and long lines—it's just as good, if not better.

Gelf Magazine: You said in your AMA you rarely watch a game from start to finish. How weird was it to do that last summer, while watching baseball at a much lower level than the majors?

Ben Lindbergh: Very. I've seen enough games between the Vallejo Admirals and Pittsburg Diamonds to last me more than a lifetime.

Gelf Magazine: Were you tempted to try again with the Stompers this year? Or to revisit the idea of owning an independent-league team? Would you at least consider firing up your old spreadsheets to help your successor?

Ben Lindbergh: We have given Stompers GM Theo Fightmaster some advice on the 2016 roster. I think we'd be better at running a team the second time, so it's tempting, but as we discovered, it's an awful lot of work. We'd need a new incentive to devote that much time.

Gelf Magazine: Independent leagues seem like a good place to break barriers of baseball exclusion—for instance, you signed a guy who turned out to be the first openly gay pro baseball player, and it seems to have worked out fine. You mention in the book that you considered signing a woman to pitch, but decided she wasn't quite talented enough. From the data you were able to get from Chris Long and others, are there women talented enough to play in the Stompers' league? Have there already been some or do you think there will be soon?

Ben Lindbergh: I'm not sure the analysis Chris did would be helpful here. His work was based on normalizing college stats across divisions and ballparks based on head-to-head play, and I don't think he'd have any head-to-head games between male and female teams with which to calculate those adjustments. There are a lot of unknowns, and I think the signing would have to be based on scouting. But there was one female player in the league last season, Oz Sailors, who had played NCAA baseball in 2014. She made one start against the Stompers and didn't last very long, but I don't think she'll be the last female pitcher in the Pacific Association. The Stompers are hoping to sign one this summer.

Gelf Magazine: Michael Lewis has had quite a run on the speaking circuit talking about the business lessons of Moneyball. Have you gotten any similar offers? How applicable do you think your experience was to non-baseball businesses?

Ben Lindbergh: Pretty applicable—we probably would've sold more copies (and had higher speaking fees) if we'd called the book What Baseball Can Teach Us About Business. We have gotten one offer to speak to some CEOs, although that might just be because they were bored and wanted to talk about baseball.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you mention "a long line of supersmart people who might have cured cancer if they'd never come across a dumb game in which grown-ups hit cowskin with sticks." When you put it like that—do you have any regrets about building a career around the dumb cowskin game?

Ben Lindbergh: Well, I was never going to cure cancer, so the world wouldn't be any better off. I just would've written more about some other subject instead. I'd like to branch out, but covering baseball hasn't been a bad start to a writing/podcasting career.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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