One team allowed Sam Miller, Ben Lindbergh to put their ideas to the ultimate test
Have you ever wished that a know-it-all pundit could put his money where his mouth is and actually see how difficult it is to run a professional baseball team? Ben Lindbergh of FiveThirtyEight.com and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus — lifelong fans who never even played high school baseball but who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions on their highly rated podcast, Effectively Wild — took on that challenge and put their personnel philosophies to the ultimate test. The duo spent the summer running the baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent team in the Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs, and they have chronicled their adventures in a book titled The Only Rule Is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team, which will be available in May. Athlon’s Mitch Light talked to Lindbergh and Miller about the experience, which proved just as stressful as you would imagine — but also just as fun.
This feature and more appears in the 2016 Athlon Sports Baseball Preview, available on newsstands everywhere or on Amazon.
How did this come about?
Sam Miller: We have a podcast (Effectively Wild) together that we record every night in which we imagine all the different ways a baseball team could be better. So, one night in the summer of 2013, we had a friend on, Dan Evans, who is the former GM of the Dodgers and was going to be the commissioner of the Northern League, which was an Independent league up in the Northeast that had gone dormant for a while but was going to be restarting. We talked a little about that on the podcast and joked that if they were giving away teams, we would take one. And the joke actually got a sort of serious reaction from Dan, who said, “You know it would actually be interesting to see what a bunch of Baseball Prospectus guys could accomplish with a team.”
So we had that idea in mind for a couple of years, but the Northern League never did end up getting off the ground, so it was just on the back burner, in case an opportunity ever showed up. So last summer, 2014, I was up in NorCal, and I found out about an independent league up here that I’d never heard of. And I went up there to spend a game with the GM and find out how you put together an independent league team. And they were a really interesting story because they were an expansion team basically, and in their first year they were challenging for the pennant. They were in first place late into the season going up against the team that had had a lot more success in the past and had a lot more history.
And so we talked a lot about that and we talked about whether there were opportunities to do things better at that level. And he said, “Well, there are, but we don’t really have any staff. We have no labor whatsoever to speak of. If I had extra labor they would be selling t-shirts, not advance scouting the other team or figuring out sabermetrics.”
So Ben and I thought it over and pitched him the idea that we would be that labor, that we would be basically a baseball operations department at a level that never really had a baseball operations department. And we would do it in a way that would be reflective of our philosophy about the game, our education about the game, the way that we see the game and all the research we’ve done as well as all the extremely smart people that we’ve had the privilege to know, and to edit, and to write with, and to work with at BP (Baseball Prospectus).
So we pitched that to them, they liked it a lot, and we proceeded from there.
How would you summarize your baseball philosophy?
Ben Lindbergh: Evidence-based would be one way to look at it. We’ve both written for BP, we’ve both been the editors of BP, and we’re readers of BP before we became involved with it, so we tend to look at things from more of the statistical side, but not necessarily just the statistical side. We want to incorporate any kind of data or evidence that we can, basically. And that could include scouting information. If you think that that’s a form of information, which it is, then you want to factor that into your decisions too.
Basically, we just want to do things that we think are supported by the evidence, or at least that there was a strong enough argument that it would help us, that we could do it, that we would feel comfortable asking our players to do it because we wanted make a case that any idea we proposed, any player we wanted to sign, would actually help the Stompers, and we wanted that to be based on something.
Sam Miller: I think that there’s a lot of comfort in baseball, in the fact that the game has mostly been played the same way for 150 years. And it makes it easier for everybody else to not really have to reexamine the things you do, the reasons you do them, and the ways you do them.
And I think a lot of people in baseball think that there may be better ways, but it takes a certain amount of courage and effort to suggest doing something differently. And I think that my philosophy going into this was that we would be willing to examine every part of the game and think about the reasons we do things the way we do and whether they make sense. And if we came to the conclusion there were other ways to do it or better ways to do it, we would have the boldness to suggest it and to try to implement it. And to do all the work necessary to do those things.
How big of a role did you guys have in forming the roster?
Ben Lindbergh: Well, that was something that we kind of worked out as we went along. We had this sort of push and pull with: Do we want to come in and put our feet down and tell everyone that they’re going to do things a certain way? Or do we want to come in and try to earn their respect and earn the authority and persuade them that we have people that they should want to listen to because we know what we’re talking about? No one really who was involved with the team other than the broadcaster Tim Livingston and the GM Theo Fightmaster knew who we were or knew of our work. So, you know, we couldn’t really walk into the clubhouse and say, “We write for BP!” and expect that to mean anything to anyone. So we sort of had to justify our presence.
With the roster, there were returning players from 2014, good players that we wanted to be on the team. And then there were guys that our manager wanted to sign and there were guys that we wanted to sign. It was sort of, we get one and he gets one and we bring a guy back, that sort of thing. In the season, we were constantly looking for players in other leagues or players who had just graduated from college who might be available to replace people who left or upgrade over the players we had.
So, by the end of the season, we had put a pretty significant stamp on the roster, whether it was guys that we liked in the tryout when first saw some players in March or guys we signed totally sight-unseen from a spreadsheet, based on their college performance. So we had a pretty significant impact, I would say. There were a lot of guys that were there for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with us, but there were other players who were essentially retired when we called and said, “Hey, come play for the Stompers.”
Sam Miller: I think at the end that there are, by my quick count right here, I think there are 13 players that we found completely on our own, using completely statistical means. And then there are another two or three or four, maybe around four, where we were the primary people who selected them, but using kind of more traditional means, in a little bit more of a collaborative sense. And then there were probably about half the team where either they were coming back, they were returnees, or they were known by either the manager or the GM through some other way and we had kind of veto power over those guys. It was a fairly collaborative process, putting the roster together, as a whole.
Lindbergh, in the grey shirt, spent games in the dugout.
How much interaction did you guys have with the players?
Sam Miller: We were in the dugout every day and for every game. That was one of the things ... that was really kind of the first thing that we did that was unusual and maybe uncomfortable for some the players. It’s very rare to have a front office person in the dugout — it’s rare to have any non-uniformed person in the dugout, and we thought it was very important to be there. Not just so that we could contribute to the discussions over strategy, but so that we could really learn from the players and from the managers by being close to them in the moment and understand what caused them strain, what caused them tension, what made implementing the right moves difficult sometimes in the moment. And so that we could get constant feedback from them and also build the sort of relationships that you can only build when you’re in the dugout for three hours of a hard-fought game night in and night out.
So, the answer is, a lot. We were there for batting practice, we were there in the dugout, we were there after the game. We were in the cars driving to the road games with them, sometimes were driving the cars with them. Our role was different than a bench coach because we were the front office. We were kind of the front office ourselves and also a liaison between the front office and the dugout. But also, in a lot of ways, we were there so much that we were kind of like a bench coach.
Did you meet with the manager to discuss strategy? How did that work? Like, we’ve got this player and you’re not bunting, you’re not hitting and running enough. How did all that work?
Ben Lindbergh: That was something that we had to sort of carefully navigate also throughout the season. It varied because we ended up having more than one manager and a different relationship with each one.
Did the manager get fired?
Ben Lindbergh: Uh, he was traded. He was a player-manager.
We didn’t go in and write the lineup on the board. We didn’t flash the signs from third base. We weren’t involved on that level necessarily, but we would sort of interject whenever we saw something we didn’t like or at least we would try to suggest alternatives, gently suggest alternatives.
And it was, again, it was sort of a political negotiation, where you’re constantly worried about alienating someone. Because, obviously, the traditional role of the manager, the manager has had final say over all of this stuff. It’s his domain. The front office gives the manager the players, and then the manager decides what to do with them. We were trying to overturn that a little bit, or at least have more of a direct involvement than your typical front office executives would. Again, it was, What’s the best way to go about this? Do we want to come in and say, “You are hitting this guy fifth tonight and that’s the end of it”? Or do we want to show some numbers and look up some evidence and suggest that this is why he should hit in this spot and try to persuade the manager that it was his idea all along, or that at least our idea had some merit to it? So, it varied a lot from game to game and from manager to manager, but it was something that we were constantly trying to navigate.
Sam Miller: When I say that we were trying to look at every aspect of the game and see if there was a better way to do it, that includes — and in many ways especially includes — the question of how you handle disagreements in strategy, how you try to convince people. We learned very early on that the biggest challenge was going to be making sure that you approached everybody the right way to get buy-in, and we spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways that we were doing that and thinking about the ways that we were doing that, and sort of experimenting with the ways we were doing that. In a way, it was a three-month process of figuring out how to convince people that aren’t necessarily inclined to agree with you.
Do you think you got buy-in?
Sam Miller: We got a lot of buy-in from some people. We got no buy-in from some people. And, overall, I think that the last month of the season was much better than the first month. I felt like we had accomplished a lot by the end. And by the last month of the season, I felt completely integrated into the team and into the team’s decision-making and got to see the team playing in a way that reflected how I think baseball should be played.
Sam, you have said that you dreamed of putting your theories into practice. Any theories prove to be wrong? Did you sit back and say, “You know what? It’s easy for us to sit back and talk about this on a podcast or write about, but when you’re in a game, in the dugout, that might not work”?
Sam Miller: Some of our theories that we have developed from observing Major League Baseball turned out to be more challenging in indie ball because of the size of the rosters. We have a 22-man roster instead of a 25-man roster, and you don’t have the benefit of a Triple-A club where you can pull depth from at any given time. And so some of the things that we would love to see a Major League team be creative about were really difficult to put into practice or even consider putting into practice at that level.
I think that three or four years ago, Ben and I were very dogmatic about a lot of things. The process of writing and talking about baseball every day forces us already to engage with opposing views and engage with the arguments against some of the things we believed in. So I think we came into this already realizing that most of the things we believed, they had challenges, that they were not necessarily as easy to implement as we would have liked to think. And so we went in there with a fairly blank slate as far as what we were committed to doing. We were going to survey the landscape, really, before we implemented anything.
I can’t think of anything we did where I thought that (it was) a disaster. There were areas where we were less successful than others and I would love another crack at.
Lindbergh (left), Miller (right)
What was the best part of the experience?
Ben Lindbergh: For me, maybe for both of us, it was just seeing some of the players succeed. The few high points of the season — and you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what they were — there were certain times during the year when everything came down to single moments, where our reputation was on the line and the success or the embrace of something we wanted to do was very much on the line, and a player that we had come to care about was on the line. And in those moments, it could be as simple as that, or even one pitch felt like the whole season was hanging in the balance in more than one way.
And when it worked out, it was wonderful. It was great to see some of these players who had been strangers to us weeks or months earlier, who would have spent the summer working as their school’s assistant baseball coach, getting to succeed in a professional baseball setting in front of actual fans. It was, I think, really rewarding to see these people whose names we just saw on a spreadsheet come out and be real players and real people and have some sort of signature moments that kind of validated their own talent and what we had believed about their talent. So, I think it’s hard to re-create those moments, just as someone who follows baseball and writes about baseball and hasn’t really rooted for a specific baseball team for years, I had more investment in these games pitch to pitch than any baseball I’ve watched for at least a decade. So, it was really exciting for both of us in that respect.
Sam Miller: I think my favorite part was probably hanging out in the bullpen. Generally speaking, hanging out with baseball players is really fun. I’m in my thirties now and I haven’t been around … I haven’t been on a team in 20 years. And there’s really something that develops in all those moments of boredom that’s irreplaceable. And the bullpen in particular is just the liveliest place, the funniest place, and getting to spend three hours every game, every day with people who are completely unfiltered and hilarious, and also bring different perspectives to the world than I do, was nice. It can be very easy to have a small circle of people in your life who all think like you and come from a similar background to you. And this was not that — these were 22 kids from all over the place, from different countries, from different backgrounds who have had very, very different levels of success in baseball. Some of them have played in Double-A and some of them are basically getting their first professional look that they never even thought was coming.
So to have such a variety of people all bonding together was fun, and to hear the way that they talked was particularly enjoyable for me.
Did you guys gain an appreciation for what front office people have to do and the stresses involved?
Ben Lindbergh: I would say so. I think I already had some appreciation for that, but I think just the … it took us a long time and a lot of effort to get to a basic competence that we took for granted. Whether it was getting the statistics that we wanted in a workable form, or editing video and taking video of our players so we could show it to them after the game. Those were things that real baseball teams do and they have staffs devoted to those tasks and we just kind of figured, “We’ll come in and we’ll do those things. Other baseball teams do them, so we can do them too.” But every little task that sounded simple, the minimum that you would do with a professional baseball team, was hard just to get to that point.
So in that sense, yes.
And being there when players are getting cut is difficult, and we got to see that first hand. So you gain some appreciation for a non-fantasy team and how that works when you pick up and drop players. There’s an emotional side to it that most people don’t get to see. I think I had a healthy respect already for what baseball teams do, but having to do it ourselves revealed our incompetence in many ways.