Thursday, July 7, 2016

From the Box Seats: The Only Rule is It Has to Work

From the Box Seats is a series in which I read baseball books and then write about them. This is the first such entry, but I plan on releasing a new book review every month.

The Only Rule is It Has to Work
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
2016 - 343 Pages

If there is a bright center to the baseball universe, the independent leagues are on a planet that is farthest from. Much like Luke Skywalker’s hopeless, derelict planet in Star Wars, the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball is a castoff and swept-aside league consisting of four teams in and around the greater Bay Area of Northern California. The fledgling league began play in 2013, when it included two teams located in Hawaii. Much like other indie ball leagues, it exists financially on the atmosphere of family-friendly entertainment. This includes, but is not limited to many of the gimmicks that line the foul lines of affiliated clubs, without the financial backing of a parent organization.

In the summer of 2015, the co-hosts of the long-running podcast Effectively Wild took an opportunity to bring their theoretical and hypothetical baseball concepts into the real world. Ben Lindbergh (of 538) and Sam Miller (current EIC of BP) took control of the Sonoma Stompers, a Pacific Association franchise previously owned by another, the rival San Rafael Pacifics. The Only Rule… is the story that answers the question that Lindbergh and Miller have proposed for years- If baseball were different, how different would it be? The duo utilized radical shifting, roster structuring that goes against a century of theory, and moves based purely on raw data.

On a whole, a baseball season is grueling, especially when your team only plays the same three teams in rotation for months. The Only Rule… lets the summer breathe, while fully engaging the reader in the typically unseen drama of a baseball club. The book is drenched in statistics and mathematical theory, but what Lindbergh and Miller do with it all is captivating and ultimately gives life to a form of the game that is otherwise unseen. Players come from all over the continent, vying for a chance to keep their baseball dreams alive. Their numbers are inflated and their abilities are enriched far beyond reality in hopes of luring the attention of teams from any league that will have them. Teamed with the impeccably-named Stompers general Theo Fightmaster, Lindbergh and Miller learn the success and error of their hypothesis. They are not former players, and that draws the ire of players and coaches. Still, when the night ends with a Sonoma victory, most ill-will is washed away.

The bounty of pitfalls that can sink an independent league team is overflowing. Money gets in the way of nearly everything, causing injuries to be catastrophic. Higher leagues mean larger payrolls, so players can be poached if they perform too well. Everything can be an advantage, however. Like the Moneyball A’s, Lindbergh and Miller are out to exploit the inefficiencies of the status quo. This can sometimes mean under the table deals and questionable scouting methods. Its really only cheating if you’re caught, right? Ethical strafes aside, the manner in which Lindbergh and Miller run their team is with the best of intentions. They encourage players to take better offers if they come long- sometimes for the benefit of the Stompers.

There is a raw, human element to The Only Rule… that is not felt in any baseball book I have read. Perhaps it is my bias and love of independent ball, but the smaller-town feel of the Sonoma community is endearing, even when some qualities do more harm than good to the team. I feel like the book is part fantasy baseball manual, part CW drama series, and I mean this in the highest regard. Lindbergh and Miller, who alternate writing duties each chapter, find a rhythm that is built on years of talking to each other about the same damn thing. As a long time listener of Effectively Wild, I tended to read each chapter with the voice of its author in my head. It was weird at first, but then the prose made even more sense, given their difference in demeanor and candor. Sam Miller delivers a motivational speech for the ages, like something out of Hollywood, but baseball will humble even the most temporarily embiggened of men.

Most of the story is told either through conversations translated into firsthand accounts or by well-devised play by play of the most powerful moments of the season. There are long streams of Lindbergh or Miller philosophizing how certain events occurred, how they translate to theory or data, and yet it all feels like a conversation within the realm of a few extreme baseball fans gathered at the nearest pub. It rarely wanders into the territory of pretense that the reader understands advanced baseball analytics, and yet still fully engages those of us who enjoy the Excel macros and figurative probabilities. While I would not recommend The Only Rule... for old-school types, perhaps this look into the realm of the other half could at least build a bridge.

The Only Rule… is a book that has the power to change the way players are used on the field, and viewed by the fans. It isn’t Ball Four, but it does shed light on the dark corners of baseball. It isn’t Moneyball, but it extends the concepts of team-construction in a deeper manner of analytics that could have a ripple effect elsewhere. I found myself laughing at least a half dozen times, while feeling uncomfortable in my own skin almost as much. A great baseball book with give you a full spread of emotions, and this one does just that.

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