Book Review: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

It’s been nearly 35 years since Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts reached a mass market. Moneyball has been around for more than a decade. And every year since, we get a new group of books that are promised to bring some new variation of the Moneyball theme.

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The problem for many of these new books is that the ideas that made the Abstracts and eventually Moneyball ground-breaking are now part of the common understanding of the game. There are still advancements being made in sabermetrics, but the gains are much more incremental.

No one in 2016 would say that we lack for quality books about sabermetrics, but nowadays it’s also fair to say that there are a number of sabermetrically themed books that are derivative works, without Michael Lewis or Bill James’ flair for writing.

But The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh’s first-person account of a year of running a team with sabermetric principles, actually gives a new slant on a topic that has been investigated time and time again.

Lindbergh, a former staff writer for Grantland.com who now writes for FiveThirtyEight.com, and Sam Miller, editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, first discussed on a podcast the idea of what would happen if they got to run a team.

Luckily for them, the Pacific Association, a four-team independent league based in Northern California, had teams that were willing to be creative. They figured that Lindbergh and Miller’s approach might help win some games, and it would also give some attention to a league that never minds additional publicity.

Lindbergh and Miller found a willing cohort in Sonoma general manager Theo Fightmaster. Fightmaster was willing to run a team with a stat-heavy approach, but his job as GM involves selling tickets and making sure the concessions are stocked, as much as it was building a roster and winning games.

So he took Lindbergh and Miller on as a two-man baseball operations department and let them loose from the preseason draft and free agent signings to on-field defensive shifts and lineup optimization. In the span of six months, the authors went from being indy ball neophytes to guys who figuratively lived and died with the outcome of every Stompers game.

The Only Rule tops most works of its genre because it explains the real-world successes and pitfalls that come with trying to take theories and apply them to a team of real humans who might not always be as receptive to change as a simuation league team. If you ever wondered what it would be like to jump from running a fantasy team to being a GM, The Only Rule is your guidebook.

And the Pacific Association is a perfect laboratory for their approach. While every MLB team now uses analytical principles, the Pacific Association is far enough down on the food chain that the idea of using big data and Pitch/FX data seemed impossible before Lindbergh and Miller arrived.

Lindbergh and Miller quickly realize that getting buy-in from the players and coaches is a key aspect of any of the changes they want to implement. It’s what makes this book different and provides a consistent theme from the preseason to the end of the season.

By having the two authors trade off writing responsibilities from chapter to chapter, the book bounces back and forth in style and tone, but it works. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is yet another worthy read in a very good year for baseball books.

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