In retrospect, Moneyball had to bring a backlash. It is undeniably great book that kickstarted baseball's sabermetric revolution, but it also has an undercurrent of smugness. The tone of Billy Beane and his acolytes suggests they can scarcely believe how stupid the rest of the league is, and how they should probably not get away with robbing other front offices blind. It's no wonder that so many old-school types have reveled in Oakland's current doldrums.
Jonah Keri's excellent new book about the Tampa Bay Rays' rise from the cellar, The Extra 2%, has no such issues of tone. The front office people he profiles seem like genuinely likable people, and are also much more tight-lipped about their exact methods than Beane and Co. ever were, thus leaving themselves less open for ridicule. Plus, the miseries Tampa Bay suffered through on and off the field prior to 2008 were so soul crushing that the reader can't help but root for them. It helps that the Rays' primary competition, the Yankees and Red Sox, are the baseball equivalent of the rich camp across the lake.
What follows is not really a review of The Extra 2%, though I suppose it could function as that. I read Keri's book partly on its own merits (which are many), and partly to see if it had any lessons to pass along to the Mets as they go through their own rebuilding period.
The Extra 2% is a relentlessly entertaining book, with the same kind of appeal one gets from any good Slobs vs. Snobs tale. The story is so improbable that Keri sometimes gets ahead of himself. Many times in the early going, as he chronicles the Rays' old way of doing things, he can't help but remind us, "Don't worry, things get better!" His prose is engaging and witty as well, making chapters on the intricacies of finance and scouting read much easier than they should. When describing Tampa Bay's acquisition of free agent sluggers Greg Vaughn, Gerald Williams, and Vinny Castilla for the 2000 season, a trio the team dubbed The Hit Show, Keri writes, "The Hit Show needed an extra 'S' to properly illustrate its catastrophic effects on the Devil Rays."
The book is subtitled "How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," and that is part of the tale. The new ownership/front office regime of Andrew Friedman, Matt Silverman, and Stuart Sternberg has an impressive Wall Street resume, and the techniques they used in business served them well when rebuilding the Rays (particularly arbitrage, the practice of buying something while simultaneously selling something of greater value, ensuring profit). But it's not so much dollars and cents that have given the Rays new life, but raw numbers.
The same could be said of Beane's Oakland front office, but whereas Moneyball preached a specific gospel--on base percentage as market inefficiency--the Rays tried not to limit themselves to one particular tactic. Their new-found success relied on the accumulation of as much data as possible, relentless analysis of said data, and cultivation of a Loose Links Sink Ships mentality. The Extra 2% contains several examples of baseball analysts who worked for the Rays, virtually in secret, to develop proprietary metrics for the team's use, making their front office seem like Bill James meets CTU.
The Rays, as portrayed in the book, are definitely not the sabermetric zealots of Moneyball. In pointing to the Rays' renewed emphasis on fielding, Keri points to True Outcomes King Adam Dunn and says his home run power is offset by that fact that he "would give much of that value back in the outfield with his suspect range and poor instincts." (A statement that seems hand-crafted to ruffle the feathers of the Slide Rule Set.) Keri isn't afraid to admit that in baseball, as in all human endeavors, luck plays an enormous role, although he concedes that luck is often the residue of design.
The idea presented in the book is not so much that the Rays are tied to any particular method or school or way of doing things, but that in their position, they must give thought to even the most outlandish notions of how to do things. This extends to their manager, Joe Maddon, hired not to be an avatar for the front office a la Art Howe in Oakland, but entrusted to play both the numbers and his gut.
The Extra 2% lists plenty of Maddon's unorthodox decisions, some of which would delight Baseball Prospectus types and others that would give them nightmares. (For Mets fans, there is a brief but encouraging mention of Terry Collins' influence on Maddon, who worked under Collins in the Angels' system.) The Rays believe in his decision making skills and character enough to let him operate virtually unfettered. The chapter on Maddon's upbringing and background is so preternaturally cheery and uplifting, as you read it you have to remind yourself that it's all real and not a Hallmark card.
Long story short, what does all of this mean for the Mets? I'm not sure if it means anything in particular, in terms of how Sandy Alderson and his own Moneyball refugees will rebuild the team. I suspect they are already trying apply many of the principles articulated in The Extra 2% or something in the same vein. Plus, the Mets will not have the same financial limitations going forward that the Rays do. Regardless of what happens with l'Affaire Madoff, the Mets will have lots of money at their disposal, whether it's from the Wilpons' pockets or somebody else's.
However, there is a lesson in here for the team, and it lies in one largely overlooked component of the Rays' rehabilitation: the fans.
Anyone who laments the Wilpons' ownership of the Mets, get on your knees and give thanks to the god(s) of your choice that the Mets were never owned by Vince Naimoli. The former Rays owner was instrumental in bringing a major league franchise to Tampa Bay after decades of being used as a bait-and-switch tactic for MLB teams who wanted sweetheart deals for new stadiums. But the good he did for the team came to an abrupt end there.
When Naimoli wasn't pinching pennies or micromanaging every detail, he was engaing in cartoonish supervillainy of almost Montgomery Burns-ian levels. This was a man who made high school bands invited to play the national anthem at Tropicana Field pay their way inside, who enlisted his ushers to sniff out patrons who brought outside food (and sometimes joined them in the detective work), who encouraged the hometown crowds to boo first-draft-choice bust Dewon Brazleton. No, I did not make any of this up. All of those things actually happened.
For a brand new team with no fanbase, in a region with many transplants from up north who have their own traditional baseball allegiances, Naimoli's ridiculous behavior was box office poison. His inconsistent, ham-fisted roster building techniques were bad enough. Doing things like threatening to revoke a reporter's credentials because he dared bring food into the press box meant that the Rays' awful teams had no equity with the local media, even in a relatively provincial town like St. Petersburg. And when Naimoli wasn't whittling away public goodwill, he was shooting himself in the foot with shortsighted cost-saving measures like not setting up email accounts for his team--a stance that continued as late as 2003.
So when new ownership took over in 2005, they weren't just charged with rescuing the Rays from years of losing. They also had to repair every bridge to the community that Naimoli carelessly burned down. The previous regime's no-outside-food policy was rescinded. Theme nights and postgame concerts were relentlessly promoted as a way of getting extra butts in the seats, and hopefully turning some of them into Rays fans. They even won an auction on a fan who put his loyalties for sale to the highest bidder. In this, as in building the team itself, the Rays were forced to think outside the box and do whatever they could to get attention and build equity with fans.
If the Mets are not quite in this position, they're not that far from it, either. The team has suffered through some seasons that could charitably described as trying. And yet, going to CitiField is still treated as a premium experience, when watching the team has been anything but. Admittedly, the fan experience at the new stadium is much better than it was at Shea, where patrons were treated like distant relatives who showed up at 3 in the morning to borrow money. Still, there is a definite vibe that the Mets (as an organization) take their fans for granted, as if there was no other team in town; say, one with far more financial and on-field success.
Obviously, winning puts people back in the seats. But since no one can foresee when that will happen, the Mets need to take a lesson from the Rays and think outside the box when it comes to reconnecting with fans. You see some signs of willingness to do this, such as Alderson's inclusion of bloggers in the occasional press conference. The reintroduction of smaller ticket plans was a good idea as well. (Hell, I got suckered into a 5-game plan.)
I would have thrown the new Mr. Mets' Landing into this mix, a kids' section at CitiField with low prices, exactly the kind of thing the team should be doing to build up equity with fans. Unfortunately, they just renamed that section BJ's Landing (after sponsor BJ's Warehouse). Had the Mets gotten over their excitement of actually landing a sponsor, they might have noticed that naming any part of their stadium "BJ's"--let alone the kids' section--is another punchline for a team that already has too many.
A little thing? Maybe. It's certainly not as bad as anything Naimoli ever did. However, it is indicative of the team's inability to think through any of its PR moves. This is an area where the team will need much more than 2 percent to catch up with their competition.