Sunday, January 01, 2017

Review of The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (baseball writers who up to basically yesterday co-hosted the podcast Effectively Wild) wrote a very entertaining book about trying to use sabermetrics to run a baseball team. In The Only Rule Is It Has To Work (2016) they chronicle how they got wide latitude to run an independent league team, the Sonoma Stompers, using data to make decisions.

The book is a great read because they're smart, funny, and self-aware. By the last I mean they know and admit when their decisions aren't working, and try to honestly figure out why. They also have a keen eye for the people in the story--and there are so many I often lost track, but it doesn't really matter anyhow. Indy leagues are funky, and they capture the funkiness. Even Jose Canseco makes an appearance.

What I got out of the book is that no matter how much you might want to, you cannot take the people out of the analysis. Data can point you in the right direction, and you should use it to do so, but humanity constantly gets in the way. Ben and Sam try to measure clubhouse "chemistry" but ultimately can't. What's it mean for a guy to be a "cancer" in the clubhouse? They don't know beyond what people tell them, all of which is biased and self-serving. They get rid of people based on data, but it's very hard to ever know whether those decisions were better than not doing them.

Since this was written earlier this year, it's interesting how the World Series validated them to an extent. In the book they were frustrated about use of closers, where managers resisted using them before the ninth inning. As they learned, "the close is the closer because he's the closer." They had to fire a manager in part to break through that. Yet in the World Series we famously saw top relievers like Andrew Miller coming in very early. Data says it works, but getting that through to baseball players who go from the gut is tough.

But, as they note various times, they also had to go with the gut. Baseball games move fast and you rely on instincts because you don't really have any other choice. It's fun to read about two guys trying to balance that.


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