Monday, May 2, 2016

Behind the Speadsheet

In the book "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team", Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller recount a grand adventure to take command of an independent league baseball team, with the vision of trying every idea, sane or crazy, in an attempt to achieve a winning edge. Five infielders, four outfielders, defensive shifts, optimizing lineups - everything.

It was really an impossible task. Professional sports at every level are filled with highly accomplished and competitive athletes, with real lives and real egos. Now imagine walking in one day and suddenly trying to convince them that they should be doing things differently. Who do you think you are?

I was one of the analysts who helped Ben and Sam in this quest, and I wanted to write some thoughts down from my own perspective, not as one of the main characters, but as someone more behind the scenes. These are some very short initial thoughts only, but I'd like to followup with some more ideas on where things went wrong from my perspective, and also how independent league teams can better identify roster talent from some non-traditional sources.

My focus was on attempting to identify talent overlooked in the MLB draft. This is extremely challenging; there are 30 teams, 40 standards rounds plus other picks. Furthermore, among those players left, many sign as amateur free agents post-draft. You're left with players from lower divisions, very small schools, 23-year-old seniors, bad bodies, soft tossers, poor defenders, etc. But, still, there may be players who aren't good MLB prospects, but who could still perform well as part of an independent league team.

Looking at top framing college catchers was a bust; this is a premium defensive position and very little is overlooked.

Among the undrafted senior hitters and pitchers there were several potential prospects, many of whom you'll read about in the book. The most important fact to keep in mind is that these are real people with real lives, real families and real hopes and dreams, and playing independent ball isn't nearly lucrative enough to pay the bills. Harsh reality will limit your pool even more, and those who choose to pursue it will face the additional stress of financial strain.

That being said, was Ben and Sam's experiment a success? You'll have to read the book, but absolutely, some talent was found.