What if everything you thought you knew about the game of baseball was wrong. What if we have been playing baseball wrong since the beginning? Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller attempt to use the data that has emerged in baseball to lead the Sonoma Stompers in the next baseball revolution. Their seemingly crazy attempt is chronicled in The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.
The Pacific Association of Professional Baseball is one of the bottom rungs of independent professional baseball. The players are playing the game more for the love of the game and one last shot than for the paycheck, which is rather small. Despite being so far from the Major Leagues, it is still baseball. The fastballs might not be as fast, the fielding might not be as crisp, and the fields might not be as pristine, but the same data approach can be applied. Lindbergh and Miller set out to see if their data can give the Sonoma Stompers an advantage over the other three teams in the Pacific Association. Deploying a five man infield or a four man outfield against a batter regardless of game situation, crazy right? The numbers don’t think so. Why wait until the 9th inning to use your best relief pitcher, the closer, when the most critical moment in the game occurs in the 7th inning. If a team can’t hold the lead in the 7th, there may not be a game to save in the 9th.
Baseball can be a game of habits that is slow to change, because “we’ve always done it this way.” The Only Rule is a real life experiment to see if all the data is nothing more than noise or if it can change the way managers manage and players play. The experiment did not take place within a controlled setting. Lindbergh and Miller run into issues with players and the manager about implementing their approach. Baseball does not change quickly, and the people who live and work inside of it are not always willing to change because they believe their experience and understanding provide insights toward make the best decisions rather than fully acquiescing to the data.
The Only Rule is a fantastic book that a baseball stat nerd and a casual baseball fan can both enjoy. The book makes you rethink many of the basic assumptions we have all held regarding the game. The Sonoma Stompers, at least for one season, are on the cutting edge of baseball because their General Manager, Theo Fightmaster, decided he would allow two men who worked at Baseball Prospectus to indirectly manage his team. As you read you learn that baseball does not have to be set in stone and you begin to ask yourself, “if baseball was different, how different would it be?” What if the best hitter always batted at the top of the line up, what if a pitcher was pulled before he went through the lineup for the third time, and the what ifs go on forever.
My wife and I stopped by the Stompers stadium on our honeymoon, too bad it was their day off. (The Winning Run)
Looking at baseball on a personal level through Lindbergh and Miller expose how much work is put into achieving every victory in professional baseball. It is much easier to lose than it is to win and, even when you are doing everything possible to win, success is never guaranteed. Baseball is a daily grind that lasts for months on end. In many ways, today’s success is built upon the work of yesterday, yet at the same time yesterday’s success has little impact upon achieving success today. Much like the best battle plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy, the best scouting and data information are no match for the abilities and reactions of players on the field. A five man infield should all but ensure if the ball is hit on the ground that an out is recorded. However, the player must still field and throw the ball, the nature of the game leaves room for human error. No plan is perfect but you still must have a plan to be successful.
I first heard of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller while working an office job fresh out of graduate school. Their daily podcast Effectively Wild was different. They sought to find the fun and the weird in baseball and to see if they could uncover something else. Why go on and on about last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game when instead you could spend an hour looking at how Jose Altuve’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was through the roof. Searching for and finding the oddities of baseball can help to uncover players before they burst into stardom, or it can help you appreciate how a team keeps winning when they seemingly should be losing non-stop. Listening to the Effectively Wild podcast got me through that summer and when I heard Ben and Sam were going to write a book about their wild real life baseball experiment I knew I wanted to read it. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work did not disappoint me, even with so much internal build up. Baseball is a crazy game, so why not use crazy tactics to win?