Running a baseball team is a pipe dream for most. Having the ability to choose players is a fascinating exercise, and most of us are relegated to armchair status complaining to our friends. Two writers actually got that opportunity. Sam Miller is currently the Editor-in-Chief at Baseball Prospectus and Ben Lindbergh writes for FiveThirtyEight and formerly wrote at Grantland. The pair, known together for their podcast, Effectively Wild, are on their 888th episode as of this morning and is a great daily listen.
Ben and Sam received the opportunity to take over an independent league team, the Sonoma Stompers. The results of that experience have been put together in a book, The Only Rule Is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team. The book is out and available now. The website for the book also has a ton of great information.
Ben and Sam graciously took the time to thoughtfully answer the questions I had for them about this incredible experience.
VEB: When MLB teams create their rosters, they have had years of drafting 40 players per year and signing many amateur players, allowing smarter teams with advanced processes to hopefully gain a systemic advantage over time. You started basically from scratch with little chance to let things develop over time. What processes did you use to try and help create your team that felt gave you an advantage?
Sam: The day we started the job, the team’s GM, Theo, started forwarding emails from players who wanted to sign with us. We got tons of these, and we started out taking them seriously, but then we started to notice that it seemed like these guys all had a lot of the same references, had played in the same teams and leagues with each other, and tried to hype themselves using the same types of boasts.
And it occurred to us that there seemed to be this, like, network of 1,000 or so ballplayers floating around, joining whatever indy league they could latch onto. Same thing with the way that guys always had a buddy who would play for us who was a baller or a two-way beast or whatever. It felt like that’s where most indy-leaguers were coming from: the indy league network. And it wasn’t so much that these were the best players who weren’t in affiliated ball; they were just the ones emailing 300 teams and trying to keep their careers going.
So we did some math, and concluded that 1,000 or so players with indy ball experience meant that there were billions of humans without indy ball experience out there, and maybe some of them were good. That’s what led us to the spreadsheet that Chris Long put together for us, which, in short, ranked every college senior based on their adjusted stats.
That approach wasn’t just about finding the players that the higher leagues had given up on, but about finding the players who had given up on the higher leagues—who, more or less, retired because they weren’t the email-300-teams types. That basically gave us our own network of players that nobody else was competing for.
Ben: The first player we approached about playing for us was Sam’s cousin, a college catcher who couldn’t catch because of a broken hand. He turned us down. That was a pretty convincing sign that our personal connections to players weren’t going to get us anywhere. Fortunately, we knew smart stat people who could help us compensate for our lack of clubhouse contacts in the lower levels of pro ball. Ideally we would have had both, but we made the most of our resources and discovered some untapped talent.
VEB: As a non-decision maker, it is incredibly easy for me to sit back and say "small sample size" for any number of players and situations. Does that become more difficult when you are more invested in the team and making more decisions. Is there an impulse to micro-manage or overreact to some situations?
Sam: In one sense, yes, but for kind of good reasons. The fact is, we didn’t have a lot of data on these guys, and our assumptions about them were swinging wildly just because we were finally acquiring more data. If everybody came to us with a few thousand well-recorded plate appearances in the Pacific Association, we would probably be pretty steady in our evaluations—and, in fact, for the players who had PA experience before we got there, I think we were a lot less prone to fluctuating assessments. But not having that data changes everything, and instead of being prone to recency bias you’re prone to some other fallacy altogether—anchoring, I guess.
Being prudent means not getting married to one assessment of a guy. But otherwise, I don’t think that was a big issue for us. We were constantly reminding our manager that sample sizes were too small to draw conclusions about some particular thing, and steering him away from some of the things he was asking for because we feared he’d make too much of them. But our ability to largely hold onto "Small sample size" as a mantra is what got us through the season without totally losing our minds. Unfortunately, the season ends and the sample is still pretty small.
There were two players in particular who struggled for us who I continue to believe would have thrived in a larger sample. One of them, a really great kid named Peter Bowles, was an outright disaster for us after we added him late. But it was his first time playing with wood bats, he was rusty because his college season had ended a couple months earlier, and that was all compounded by small sample and first exposure to these pitchers.
I was talking to one of our guys before our last home series, and I just sort of mumbled that I still think Peter’s a ballplayer, and I wish he’d gotten a full season, or another season, to prove it. One of our pitchers whom I respected the most told me he agreed, and said "he’s better than [another guy on our team who was way above average for our league that season]. If we were starting the season over, I’d still take him over [the other guy]." Small samples were all we got.
Ben: We were also constantly terrified that a single unfortunate outcome would spoil our chances of applying a strategy we believed would pay off in the long term. The first time we shifted our infield, the opposing batter dropped down a perfect bunt and got an easy single, and we worried that our fielders would refuse any further instructions. (That didn’t happen, but still, we worried!) It’s a lot easier to talk about the primacy of process over results when you aren’t in the dugout getting sideyed by big ballplayers when something you recommended goes wrong. In person, the correct course can be uncomfortable. So we often found ourselves rooting really, really hard for favorable one-time-only outcomes. We knew they probably weren’t predictive, but we also knew they had the power to make our lives a lot easier.
Looking back at your performance, if you were one rung above on the ladder, would you have hired yourselves given how you performed?
Sam: Yes. If we hired us, though, we’d learn from our experience: The organizational responsibilities would be a lot clearer and there’d be a lot more scheduled conversations.
Ben: For most teams at that level, which lack the technology and labor we brought to the Stompers, the choice wouldn’t be between having us and having other people who’d do the same job; it would be between having us and having no one. It’s a low bar, but I think we were better than no one. And probably some someones!
If either one of you had been doing the job alone, how would it have been different? How was the collaborative process beneficial. Was there anything about it that made decisions more difficult?
Sam: I probably never would have gotten PITCHf/x without Ben, and I would never have figured out how to use BATS without Ben, so we would have had very, very little data. Ben’s extremely good at asking people for their help. As he will tell you, I tend to hoard my favors and never cash them in.
Also, though: It would have been lonely! It’s hard to maintain your sanity when 22 people think something and you’re all alone thinking something else. Without Ben, I would have really doubted whether I was right on some things that we turned out to be right about.
Ben: What Sam said. It did make some of the decisions more difficult,of course, because we didn’t always agree. At those times, it would have been easier to have one less person to object to whatever one of us wanted to do. But in most cases, it also would have been worse. We saved each other from making some mistakes, and each of us was good at some things that the other wasn’t.
Obviously, it also would’ve been harder for either of us to write a whole book than half a book, and there’s no way we could have painted as complete a picture of the players and the team without tag-teaming the project. Because there were two of us, we were able to cover much more ground, talk to more people, and witness many more events in person, and that resulted in a richer narrative.
You are both back to your successful pre-Stompers work. If you had the choice (not saying you haven't been presented with one), would you rather be pursuing a career running a baseball team?
Sam: I’d rather run a baseball team than write about it. But I’d much rather have a writing career than pursue one running a baseball team. I watched 22 guys pursuing a baseball playing career this summer, and it’s brutal and dream-crushing for pretty much all of them. Rewarding, too, in unexpected ways, but brutal and dream-crushing in all the expected ways. That kind of ambition is a young person’s game.
Ben: As excited as I’d be if someone inexplicably made me a major league GM, I’d be almost as jazzed about the prospect of one day writing a memoir about my time with the team. I really like writing, and I love the lifestyle and listener/reader interaction it allows. When I was in school I wanted to work in baseball, but interning for a team removed the hunger to do it that you have to put up with the long hours and office hierarchy and total secrecy surrounding your work.
I don’t have the expertise or tolerance for travel to scout, and I don’t have the math/technical skills to stand out on the statistical side. I’m better at this than I would be at anything I could do for a team, and lately I’ve been lucky to work for places that have given me chances to branch out a bit. I love baseball, but I value that variety.
When you started the Effectively Wild podcast, what was your biggest goal for the podcast? How far has this experience exceeded those goals and expectations?
Ben: Sam’s main goal was probably to make me stop sending him emails about doing a podcast. My goal was to start a show that would make listeners’ lives slightly more pleasant, and Baseball Prospectus slightly more entertaining, and me slightly more employable.
I think we achieved those objectives, but we’ve also gotten to write a book, generate revenue (thanks to our generous supporters on Patreon), and become acquainted with a lot of really great people in the community that’s sprung up around the podcast, both in our Facebook group and at an excellent spin-off blog, Banished to the Pen, that’s already produced great writers who’ve gone on to other sites (including this one!).So, expectations exceeded, easily.
Thanks so much to Ben and Sam for providing insight into their experience. You can follow Ben Lindbergh on twitter @BenLindbergh and Sam Miller @SamMillerBP, but more importantly, you can buy their book.