Tim Livingston, Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations
After Baseball Prospectus editor Sam Miller wrote an article chronicling the Sonoma Stompers during their inaugural season in 2014, both he and Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh, co-hosts of BP’s Effectively Wild daily podcast, had an intriguing idea that led to the duo working for the Stompers as the Co-Directors of Baseball Operations for the 2015 season. During the course of the season, Ben and Sam (or Sam and Ben, depending on your preference) will be writing about their experiences with the Stompers for a book that will be released in 2016. What follows is an interview conducted by Stompers Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Tim Livingston about how Sam and Ben see the upcoming season shaping up for them and the Stompers.
Tim Livingston: So the first question I have is after Sam's article on the Stompers in September 2014, what led to you guys working with the team this season?
Ben Lindbergh: Well, we'd had this idea for a couple years and weren't sure how to make it happen, how or where to find interested teams. When you reached out to Sam and he went out there it was in the back of his mind (I think? I don't know why I'm answering for a person who's here). Then that relationship existed and no other independent league teams swooped in to offer to have a book written about them by us out of the blue. And Sonoma is nice and you guys are nice.
Sam Miller: The significant thing is that we'd each written hundreds of thousands of words about baseball, and considered ourselves experts. We had access to tons of data, we had read brilliant people studying the game, and we had spent hours talking to scouts. (In Ben's case, even going to scouting school.) But everything we'd done was academic; there was a nagging feeling that nothing we'd done had been held up to the scrutiny of action...
Ben Lindbergh: This reminds me of our book proposal!
Sam Miller: That's what makes baseball so great: Pure meritocracy. Good athletes rise, bad ones get tossed aside; same, we hope, with good ideas and bad ideas. And we wanted our ideas to be judged by that meritocracy. When I was at that game with Theo, we talked about whether there was room for Moneyball-type things in indie leagues. It seemed very rich with potential. And he said yes, definitely, but the data and the labor to analyze the data weren't really there. When we talked more about it with (Stompers general manager Theo Fightmaster), it became clearer that Sonoma was a place that Ben and I could provide both.
Tim Livingston: Do you feel that the ideas you guys plan to implement are more radical than those you would try in a Major League or affiliated Minor League environment simply because the Stompers are an independent league team?
Sam Miller: Yes and no. The yes is that we don't have the same external pressures that come with media attention at the big-league level. We don't have to worry about our city's beat writers turning on us and putting our jobs at stake. Also, because the league has different characteristics than more familiar big-league baseball, there is room (we hope) to exploit those things. Like, it's conceivable that the cut of the infield at this level will be a detail we can exploit. (Conceivable. We're not there yet.)
The No is that we have a relatively short time with these players. If we ran a major-league team, we could start trying things as soon as players began their four or five year journey from draft pick to major leaguer, and both learn from what works and get the players accustomed to playing differently. I think the yes overwhelms the no, though. There's a lot of conservatism in MLB because of the money and prestige involved; people don't want to risk those things.
Ben Lindbergh: Well, we hope the players at this level will be more open to new ideas and willing to try unorthodox strategies, because they haven't had as much ingrained instruction, and because they're more concerned with getting a shot at a higher level than they are with squandering one they've already received. These are guys who've fallen through the cracks in affiliated ball for one reason or another, and if what they've been doing thus far hasn't gotten them to the big leagues, they may be more receptive to doing something different than players who are too close to the goal to change their approach.
Tim Livingston: Do you guys feel that your strategies will be focused more in preparation or in-game? Like Sam said, you guys really only have three months with the team to implement the strategies you've come up with.
Sam Miller: Hm. I think there are three prongs: We want to have better technology to help players prepare. We want to collect better data (or, since there is virtually none at this level, any data) so that we can use just the right strategy for each situation. And we want to get away from thinking anything needs to be done because it's what we're used to. So as far as that last one goes, we'd like to rethink batting practice, and the pre-game vibe of the clubhouse, and how we track arm fatigue, and so forth. And we want to get away from these players as being limited to their roles--starter/reliever, infielder/outfielder, etc.--so that they can be used wherever, whenever and however they can most help on each play.
Ben Lindbergh: And the fourth prong, which started well before the season, is learning about the ways teams are put together and figuring out what we can contribute to that process. We hope we'll be able to help our players learn about themselves in ways that will make them better players, and we hope we'll be able to deploy them in ways that maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. But we also hope to recruit better players to begin with, so we hope the guys we found via methods that Stompers haven't explored before will demonstrate the value that can be added through those avenues.
Sam Miller: We really do look at every player we've signed and pinch ourselves, because there's no reason they should be available to us. But there are a lot of ballplayers and a ton of cracks. I'm probably most excited by the possibility that at least one of these guys is going to be in the majors someday.
Ben Lindbergh: That would be the best. If the book sells one copy, but we help get a guy to the big leagues, I'd still brag about it.
Tim Livingston: Besides the possibility of helping a player realize a big league dream, what else are you most excited to see this season?
Sam Miller: It's all aspirational at this point, but I really want to see if we can figure out a way to make the crowd a weapon, in some previously undiscovered psychologically devastating way. I don't just mean "they're loud." I want to figure out if there's a way to turn a crowd into a sort of controlled chaos that throws off the opposing team's rhythm. I have absolutely no idea if it's possible.
Ben Lindbergh: Curtain of Distraction in the bottom half of the inning?
Sam Miller: Exactly.
Ben Lindbergh: I'm looking forward to hearing players tell us interesting stories about how they got where they are. Watching players we helped sign play in actual games. Potentially sharing the airwaves with Tim Livingston.
Tim Livingston: My prediction system has calculated there's a 100% certainty that you guys will join me on the airwaves at some point this summer.
Ben Lindbergh: Then this project is a success.