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Turns Out, Running A Baseball Team Is Hard

Some people daydream about becoming professional baseball players. Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller daydream about being general managers. The two co-host the “Effectively Wild” podcast for Baseball Prospectus (Ben is also a writer for this site), and last summer they learned that one of their listeners was the media relations director for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent minor-league baseball team in California. Lindbergh and Miller floated the idea that the Stompers should let them act as general managers for the team, advising on player personnel and strategy. The Stompers bit.

Their new book, “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work,” chronicles a summer spent trying out their weirdest analytics-driven ideas on the actual playing field.

On this week’s What’s The Point, Ben Lindbergh discusses his summer with the Stompers, and the larger lessons about what it’s like to try to use data to change a team’s culture.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Read an excerpt from the book here. Here is a transcript of a highlight from the conversation.

Ben Lindbergh: These players were far enough from the majors that they were willing to mix things up. Someone who is at AAA, one step from the big leagues, would’ve said, “I’ve gotten this far with what I’ve done, and I’m not willing to do something new.” But these guys were getting desperate enough that they were willing to listen.

Jody Avirgan: That’s the key — you have to find a community that is desperate enough to listen to what you have to say. That’s actually the key to this podcast.

But, what was your relationship with Sam [Miller] like? You host the podcast every day, I assume that you’re friends. Now all of a sudden you were thrust into a working relationship.

Lindbergh: There was some tension. Usually we are separated by a continent and we get along just fine. But when we were in the same place, running this team and writing this book, we definitely had some philosophical differences.

I remember on Opening Day I wanted to march into the manager’s office and say, “Here’s the batting order for today’s game.” Sam didn’t want to do that because he thought we would alienate the manager, and it would have a ripple effect, and we’d be fighting for the rest of the season. I thought we had to assert our authority [right away].

Avirgan: And who won that battle?

Lindbergh: I don’t know if there was a conclusive winner. Eventually Sam moved towards my side of the spectrum, but there were things he saved me from doing throughout the season.

Avirgan: Overall, do you feel like this project was a success, not just in that it was fun … but in that it taught you larger lessons about the work that you’re going to continue to do?

Lindbergh: I think it taught us about selling yourself, and storytelling. We probably could have packaged this book as “what baseball can teach us about business” or something, and sold a million more copies.

Avirgan: You could have done a TED Talk!

Lindbergh: Shoot, we should have done that. But, really — it is about management and finding a way to present your message to people who may or may not be receptive to it. You may have the spreadsheets, but don’t always show the spreadsheets. Make it fun and exciting.

Take your conclusion, one that’s sound and driven by the data … but don’t always show your math. Know your audience. So we learned a lot about how to present our findings, and that can be applicable in any field.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.