Moneyball – Sonoma Style

Ben Lindbergh, left, and Sam Miller, right, check over the Sonoma Stompers lineup for statistics that could help bring them a league championship. Christian Keller/Sonoma Index-Tribune

Ben Lindbergh, left, and Sam Miller, right, check over the Sonoma Stompers lineup for statistics that could help bring them a league championship.

Christian Keller/Sonoma Index-Tribune

Originally Published: Sonoma Index-Tribune

Christian Keller, Index-Tribune Staff Writer

You probably won’t see Brad Pitt, or even Jonah Hill for that matter, at a Sonoma Stompers baseball game this season. But there’s a good chance you will spot one of two young men in the stands, the press box, or the bullpen, mining the game for elusive bits of information that are adding up to a championship season.

The 2011 movie “Moneyball” popularized the arcane science of sabermetrics. Now Ben Lindbergh, 28, and Sam Miller, 35, have been applying sabermetrics to Stompers ball since the beginning of the season as operations managers for the independent league team – the first such analytically-focused personnel to work with a team at this level, as far as anyone knows.

Saber-what? No, it’s not a sharp-edged sword for slicing through the plethora of factoids any single game generates, but a deeper dive into those stats to come up with some measures that add to our understanding of the role individual players have in forming a winning team, or a winning season.

That Miller and Lindbergh are avid baseball fans goes without saying – Lindbergh was an All-Star second base softball player, Miller more into the Fantasy Baseball side of things. But obviously, somewhere along the line they became fervent statistics geeks.

“The Bill James definition of sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about baseball,” said Lindbergh when we spoke with both him and Miller by phone last week. He’s referring to the widely recognized founder of the field, whose 1977 self-published “The Bill James Baseball Abstract” started the trend toward high-level baseball statistical analysis. His annual book spawned the present-day “Baseball Prospectus” book series and website, for which both Miller and Lindbergh have served as editors-in-chief.

Named from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), sabermetrics downplays such well-known statistics as batting average, runs-batted-in and even on-base percentage in favor of more esoteric measures such as WAR (wins above replacement player) or BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

“I tend to think of it as using information in a rational way to understand games and make better decisions,” said Miller from his home in San Carlos. He commutes up for game days, and since the Pacific Association independent league the Stompers play in has only four teams, there are only two games at any given time, meaning one of the two analysts are at every game.

In addition to their writing and editing for Baseball Prospectus, Miller and Lindbergh also have a podcast called Effectively Wild, usually analyzing major league players and their statistics. A year ago in their podcast they wondered if a small independent league team might be interested in applying sabermetrics to its operations.

Tim Livingston, director of media relations and broadcaster of the Stompers games (and fill-in contributor to the I-T), heard the show, talked to team general manager Theo Fightmaster about it, and they decided to give the pair a shot. They were hired as “additions to the club’s baseball operations department,” though Lindbergh points out that’s a department that doesn’t exist in most independent league teams.

Though they are not compensated, they also landed a book contract with Henry Holt to write about their season with the Stompers, whose working title is “Baseball Sandbox.”

They even got an interview on NPR’s “The Morning Edition” about the gig. “We’re hoping it’s the perfect place to kind of be a testing ground for some things that might not work as well in the majors,” said Lindbergh in that radio interview.

So far, it seems to be going quite well. The Stompers have a 28-12 record going into the second half of the season, after earning the first-half championship. If they win the second half as well, they will be crowned league champs; if another team wins there will be a single-game playoff on Aug. 31.

“The team has been incredibly exciting to watch, just from the standpoint of really dominating the league,” said Miller. Though he and Lindbergh shy away from taking full credit, they do believe their contribution is playing a part.

Since they came aboard preceding the season, their analysis helped shape the roster, the team that now takes the field three or four times a week and wins games. “We were as nervous and anxious as anyone when these guys showed up that we picked from a spreadsheet,” said Lindbergh to NPR. “But luckily, they’ve all showed up and actually looked like baseball players, which we were very relieved to see.”

As the season has progressed, Miller and Lindbergh and a squad of volunteers have diligently tracked every pitch, hit, play and run, both offensively and defensively. The pitches are recorded with the same technology many teams use, a two-camera computerized system called PITCHf/x that records speed, trajectories and location for each pitch.

They also videotape the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box for the full game, then edit the footage to show players how they throw, how they hit, to highlight strengths and weaknesses in their play. The players themselves seem to be open to the information they’re getting – not only about their own game play, but also about how to face opposing pitchers.

“A major league player would get an advance scouting report on a pitcher so they know what he likes to do, or what he’s likely to do, or what his strengths and weakness are,” said Lindbergh. His and Miller’s reports are giving these independent league players the same level of information players in the Bigs get.

Miller and Lindbergh both emphasize the quality of the team’s players, and their own role as part of the management team as a whole. “We do a lot of talking with the other decision makers in the organization about the best way to run the team,” said Miller.

One member of the organization casually mentioned that one of the most valuable players on the team was outfielder Matt Hibbert. With a .304 batting average, 42 hits, 2 home runs and 17 runs batted in, he’s clearly a good player – but his value emerges when you begin to look at some of the other statistics.

In short, he gets on base a lot. He has drawn 23 walks and been hit by a pitch 13 times, both statistics that don’t show in his batting average. “And he’s stolen some bases,” added Lindbergh. “He’s well-rounded and good at everything.”

“I think another player that you might not notice in the stats is Isaac Wenrich,” said Miller. “His batting average is pretty good though it’s not at the top. However sabermetricians are able to more fully appreciate the effect that a good defensive catcher can have on a team.”

Miller points to Wenrich’s ability to “get more strikes from his pitcher because of the way he catches the ball, “ and his skills at calling pitch sequences, keeping an eye on pitching mechanics and coaching pitchers through a game – it all adds up to his total value. Along with the team’s other catcher, Andrew Parker, Miller concludes, “I would say we have the two best catchers in the league, it’s not even close.”

For the two “sabermetricians” it’s been an exciting season so far, and an enjoyable one – especially for Lindbergh, who is spending the summer a long way from his Manhattan home. “I think we lucked out doing it here. Because of the personnel that’s in place and the people that we work with, but also because it’s Sonoma, a nice place to spend the summer. And there’s a nice supportive community around the team.”

The team plays at Arnold Field tonight, against last year’s league champions the San Rafael Pacifics. First pitch is 6 p.m. And, according to the numbers, the Sonoma Stompers are favored.