Everyone with even a peripheral knowledge of baseball knows the basic premise of Moneyball. Both the book and the movie were hits, the latter even garnering a best picture nod. The story of Billy Beane’s desire to shape a winning team around the use of sabermetrics brought the notion of OBP to a much wider audience.
(If you were only half paying attention, OBP is “on base percentage” which represents a player’s ability to get on base, either by hits or walks)
The Only Rule is it Has to Work is not Moneyball, make no mistake, but the similarities are there. In Only Rule, statheads Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, co-hosts of a baseball podcast and editors for Baseball Prospectus, get the chance of a lifetime. They’re given the opportunity to play their own minor league version of Moneyball by taking over the Sonoma Stompers independent baseball team. Do they want to hire guys using a spreadsheet? Sure. A five-man infield? Why not. Aggressive shifts? Yup. Ben and Sam get carte blanche to run the Stompers however they want. It’s a dream come true.
Only Rule demonstrates that living every armchair manager’s dream isn’t quite as ideal as we might imagine. Ben and Sam butt heads with their chosen manager, they struggle with a threadbare hiring budget, they learn quickly that just because an idea looks good on paper doesn’t mean it will fly in real world situations. The men quickly realize that they are in over their heads, and running even a minor league team will be a lot more difficult than they had anticipated.
This book hit all the right notes for me. Romantic idealizations of the game, as told by guys who are just as much on the sidelines as I am. It gives the story something you can connect to on a personal level, because the reader can easily put themselves in Ben and Sam’s shoes. They do manage to try some very interesting things that worked well on paper but not nearly as much in real world scenarios.
It also showed just how much friction there is between the new sabermetric ideas, based on stats and math, and the old baseball thinking of “the way things are done.” Ben and Sam’s biggest fight of the season was being allowed to use their best pitcher earlier in games, but having the manager resist because of his adamant believe that “the closer is the closer is the closer.”
What’s especially compelling about this book–told in alternating points of view between Ben and Sam–is watching them discover that even they are not immune to the human heart at the core of the game. They become attached to the players, they feel the loses and victories as real as if they were wearing cleats and taking at-bats. They are reminded, throughout the course of the season, that the game is as much about people as it is about numbers.
The Only Rule is it Has to Work is a deeply satisfying read, providing a perfect complement to Moneyball without being in any way connected to it. It hits all those same notes, leaving you feeling just as attached to the Stompers as the authors are. It also provides an honest glimpse into the trials and tribulations of minor league team operations, and makes the reader wonder if they could actually run it any better if they were given the chance.
Ultimately the book is not about crafting the perfect winning season, so much as it is about finding new ways to appreciate the game we think we know. It’s a funny, charming, intelligent book that can be enjoyed by the baseball-addicted and the casual fan alike.