23 May 2016

Book Club: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

Disclaimer: Ben Lindbergh and I wrote this piece on Spring Training performance and the John Dewan Rule, so I know him somewhat.  Sam Miller was my editor during my stint writing for Baseball Prospectus and we actually briefly discussed potential talent to acquire for the Stompers...very briefly.

Before computers were a staple in most homes, I had baseball cards.  My favorite ones were not the sought after rookie cards, but those that covered a player's final season and all that came before.  Rookie cards mattered if they included minor league seasons.  Hours were then spent with my brother "drafting" teams, constructing lineups, piecing together rotations, and arguing which team was superior.  We would create model ballparks and discuss differences between playing fields in how they impacted performance.  That is what my brother and I did when it rained or snowed or if we were up at 1am and UHF channels were boring.

With that kernel to my being, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller wrote a book that slots right into the more primordial substrates in my brain.  In The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, the duo write about their experience in jockeying into position to run a professional baseball team for a season.  No, they were not able to instruct the best players in the World at the MLB stage.  Instead, they worked with a rung of very, very good baseball players; the kind that exist on the lower rungs of professional baseball.  For a season, they ran baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers.

While those familiar with the Baseball Prospectus and Five Thirty Eight writings of the two might expect an analytical book, that is not what this is.  Yes, the authors underpin their choices with analysis, but that is not the focus.  The focus is how exactly do you incorporate these ideas into an organization that would likely benefits from those ideas, but is greatly suspicious of your ability.  In other words, this book is primarily a process oriented book about people without industry credibility figuring out how to implement change.

The preponderance of and imperfect approach to achieving some level of control of the club is what gives the first half of the book its amazing helium.  Ben and Sam clash with the manager who the players generally dislike, but still admire more than Ben and Sam.  Navigating through that is quite compelling.  It actually is something a reader can look at and think of how it may reflect their own experiences in their industry.

The second half of the book though unravels a bit.  For reasons often beyond their control, their team begins to fall apart.  This leaves the authors into a great deal of self reflection.  The second half winds up taking on a completely different tone and somewhat gets lost in itself.  In a way, we learn more about Ben and Sam, but that increased knowledge does not exactly inform us about who they are within the context of running this club.  It turns from applied memoir to a more traditional in-the-mind memoir.

If I was to compare it to another work, I would call it a Full Metal Jacket book.  Like Full Metal Jacket, the first half is at times stunning and impactful.  I read many things that I have actually seen quite similar in the experiences of friends in MLB analytic departments.  The second half, like Full Metal Jacket's second half, takes on a different tone and I am a bit nonplussed as to how, as a reader, I am to take it.  There certainly are memorable moments in that second half, but it struggles to sustain the energy that continually fuels the first half.

Yes, you should pick this book up.  It is one of the best baseball books to come out in the past few years.  No, it is not transcendent.  It won't make you question your beliefs unless you are one of those data science or die stereotypes that supposedly fill up mothers' basements.  It is however a solid and enjoyable case study.  There are lessons to be learned, though you might have to figure out what exactly those are on your own.


The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team
by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
368 pages
Henry Holt and Co.

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