The Only Rule Is It Has to Work (★★★★★)


Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller   *   Henry Holt & Co.   *   May 3, 2016   *   368 Pages

Full disclosure:  Sam Miller is my cousin. I don’t think I’ve seen or talked to him in maybe a decade-ish, but we are related. Well, not technically, like, “blood related,” since we are cousins through my stepdad’s side. But, yes, growing up, we saw each other at family get togethers twice a year. So there you go.

Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh cohost Effectively Wild, a podcast that makes predictions and offers insights about baseball based on crazy in-depth statistics (called sabermetrics). Both have also been editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, which, in their words, is “the leading media outlet devoted to data-driven baseball analysis.” So, yeah. These nerds like baseball–a lot–and examining all the teeny tiny variables of the game in the hopes that they might accurately predict which players and teams will succeed and which won’t is their idea of a pretty good time.

Amazingly, after so many years of sharing their predictions, criticisms, and insights on air and online, they are offered the opportunity of a lifetime when they are asked to help run baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent minor league in Sonoma California. Guided only (well, mostly) by statistics, they’ll have the freedom to eliminate players, reposition players, switch up outfield positions, you name it…so long as they have the statistical evidence to support their decisions.

Of course, Miller and Lindbergh jump at the opportunity, and The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is the story of their experience. They start the season with good intentions, ambitious goals, and perhaps slightly naive expectations. The learning curve is steep, however, and they are pushed to absorb and adapt quickly, all while making fast, creative, and (hopefully) correct decisions, despite limited access to data. Sometimes they get it right. Many times they don’t. In the end, they learn that running a team–and especially building a team–is complicated. Sabermetrics may be cold, hard, objective FACTS, but people are messy.

I surprised myself by loving this book. I mean, I love baseball. I love watching baseball. I love playing baseball. But baseball stats? Ick. No thanks. And I thought that was what this book was going to be:  just a bunch of numbers and spreadsheets. But it’s not. Yes, there is a lot of number talk in here, but numbers aren’t the main focus. The people are. The players, the coaches, and of course, Miller and Lindbergh.

What makes this book so powerful is the honesty with which the story is told. Miller and Lindbergh hold nothing of their experience back–even when it makes them look bad, even when they are so unsure, even when they struggle to make their team feel like, well, a team. It’s so obvious that they care about the game, about the players, about getting it right–but they don’t hesitate to admit when they screw up. There is vulnerability here, and heart. And you don’t need to know baseball or statistics to recognize it. In the end, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work is more than a book about baseball, and certainly more than a book about sabermetrics. It’s simply a good story.



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