Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

Note: The following is a rare (for this blog) timely book review.

The premise of The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is that respected sabermetrically-inclined authors and podcasters Ben Lindbergh (Baseball Prospectus, Grantland, Five Thirty-Eight) and Sam Miller (Orange County Register, Baseball Prospectus) were given the opportunity to act as the baseball operations department throughout the 2015 campaign of the Sonoma Stompers, member of the four-team Pacific Association, a low-level indy circuit in northern California. Lindbergh and Miller were granted wide berth to put their mark on player acquisition, roster construction, and in-game strategy, and also attempt to bring modern data collection tools (PITCHf/x, video scouting, etc.) to the bush leagues.

Lindbergh and Miller are embedded deep within the team--in the front office, the clubhouse, the dugout, and even (for a moment at least) kangaroo court. Thus it serves as one of the most revealing examinations of daily life in baseball from an outsiders' perspective. Most books that have provided similar access to the inner workings of a team have been written by insiders, even if they might not fully fit into the world in which they have spent many years (think your Jim Boutons). While the life of an indy-league player is certainly less lavish than that of a big leaguer and perhaps less structured than that of an affiliated minor leaguer, it's hard to imagine that the basic human impulses of (largely) twentysomething, athletically-gifted ballplayers varies much between Sonoma and San Jose, San Jose and San Francisco. The authors are able to observe the scene with some combination of bemusement, paternal-ish concern, and comradery to give the audience a different perspective on the people who play the game. Certainly the majority of the audience members can better relate to the authors' stations in life and can now imagine how they might fit in (or not) if thrust into the life of a ballclub.

While it should hardly be necessary at this point for sabermetricians to defend themselves against scurrilous charges of not watching the games, one thing that the authors don’t reflect too closely upon but that is obvious to the reader is just how much low-level baseball they watch over the course of the summer, and just how devoted to their cause they are. Granted, Lindbergh and Miller are aided by a small network of volunteer scouts that earns the derisive nickname "The Corduroy Crew" around the league, but one or the other personally does advance scouting of nearly every game the Stompers' opponents play. This in addition to the hours spent researching potential players with their proverbial noses buried in a spreadsheet. While it would be wrong to hold Lindbergh and Miller's labors (which of course were performed with at least the secondary intent of providing fodder for a book) up as a pure representation of baseball love to be extrapolated to all of their sabermetric compatriots, it would be less wrong to do so than to brandish the common stereotype.

One of the disappointments of the project is that many of the radical ideas the authors dreamed about being able to test are never put into play. While shifts and flexible usage of the relief ace take hold in the second half of Sonoma's season, batting orders largely remain tethered to convention, starting pitchers still generally work in rotation, and the manager holds on to ultimate in-game command. While this may be disappointing to the reader longing for sabermetric red meat, the implications raise questions worth considering. Is it necessary for change in baseball tactics to come one easily digestible piece at a time? Why can a grizzled bench veteran and former pennant-winning manager of a major league team (Clint Hurdle) pivot to the approach his superiors' desire with more aplomb than a 37-year old pot-smoking player-manager who goes by Feh and dabbles in 9/11 conspiracy theories? Do the high stakes of the majors actually make them a more suitable laboratory for experimentation, as players and managers can count on their million dollar checks regardless of whether they may look unconventional on the field? While these questions can't be answered by the book, it provides some entertaining anecdotal evidence to consider.

Along the way, the Stompers inadvertently break ground in the social realm of baseball as well, as one of the authors' hand-picked college signees, relief ace Sean Conroy, comes out as the first openly gay player in professional baseball. The authors do an excellent job of relating this part of the story without falling into self-congratulations or allowing it to swamp the baseball portion of the narrative. Lesser authors with a less interesting baseball story to tell (and perhaps less respect for their subject) could have easily allowed Conroy's story (which includes being one of the Pacific Association's most valuable pitchers) to crowd out other aspects of the Stompers' season in the narrative, and could hardly have been blamed for it.

The authors alternate chapters, and if you are a regular listener (as I am) of their Effectively Wild podcast, you will likely be able to pick out which voice you are reading after a couple of pages even if you forget for a moment whether it is an odd or even chapter. Lindbergh's earnest verbosity and Miller's cheerful nihilism carry through to the written page in book format yet complement each other well, imbuing a diversity of style to the writing while still making you feel as if you are reading the same book.

As luck (or the residue of design) might have it, the story has a dramatic conclusion that I will not spoil here, except to say that I'm very glad the majors have resisted the allure of the half-season format, except for every ninety years when unusual circumstances take hold (if I live to see baseball in 2071 I promise to be grateful and not complain about it too much). Were it ever turned into a movie, the scriptwriter would even have something of a "pick your own adventure" opportunity to affect the outcome with only the proverbial flap of a butterfly's wing.

And maybe that's one of the lasting lessons to take away from The Only Rule Is It Has to Work. That despite the careful planning, the on-the-fly adjustments due to injuries or player poaching (at this level), the dedication of the players and support staff, the superstitious rituals, and the motivational speeches that are poured into baseball clubs, not to mention the attempts to drag baseball kicking and screaming into the sabermetric age, we will never be able to escape what seem from our imperfect perspective to be random rolls of the die.

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