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March 10, 2011

Overthinking It

A Review of Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%

by Ben Lindbergh

Three years after PECOTA projected 88 wins for a Tampa Bay Rays club that had never before surpassed 70—only to see those expectations eclipsed by a team that went on to earn  97 victories and an American League pennant—the team's rise to relevance in baseball's most competitive division has received the full-length book treatment, courtesy of Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (available now at an online retailer or brick-and-mortar bookseller near you). Jonah is a friend—not to mention a former author of Baseball Prospectus—so if I'd had nothing nice to say about his book, I likely would've taken my mother's advice and said nothing rather than publish a negative review (not that I imagine my condemnation would have made much of a dent in sales). Fortunately, I was spared that decision, since The Extra 2% is consistently well-researched, informative, and entertaining, which should come as no surprise to regular readers of Keri's previous work or those intrigued by the tale of an underfunded team that could.

The book’s title refers to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg’s philosophy that rather than attempt to lap the field—an unrealistic goal, given the team’s financial realities and the challenge posed by sharing a division with baseball’s behemoths—he and his subordinates should merely seek to gain a 52-48 edge on the competition. Although the subtitle promises to explain  the team's success under its capable cadre of Wall Street-trained executives, a considerable portion of the text is devoted to recounting how the franchise first plumbed the depths of failure. The bulk of the book's first third examines how the franchise got itself into the hole that the regime fronted by Sternberg, Matt Silverman, and Andrew Friedman was forced to dig it out of after acquiring a majority stake in October 2005, so once you’ve completed the prologue, be prepared to wait a few chapters before being reintroduced to the principal characters behind the organization’s rebirth.

The narrative picks up long before the team became a gleam in the eye of meddling, oversensitive, and miserly inaugural owner Vince Naimoli, unearthing the deep roots of baseball in St. Petersburg and the exhaustive (and exhausting) start-and-stop efforts made by community leaders to lure a major-league franchise to the west coast of Florida. This section comes complete with a riveting blow-by-blow account of the Giants' aborted move at the hands of former owner Bob Lurie and details the political machinations inside the league office and the exclusive community of owners that sabotaged both that and other proposed relocations and expansions.

Although it may be more exciting to read about the team's eventual regular season and postseason successes, I learned more from Keri’s account of its initial failures, including a compelling yarn about the scouting department’s decision to pass on Albert Pujols. Keri makes a convincing case that the Rays' early struggles—while partially attributable to unfavorable expansion policies that handicapped the team in the talent department from the start—stemmed from bad casting in the ownership and general managerial positions, which resulted in an inability to construct or maintain a coherent team-building philosophy and a parade of overpaid, unproductive free-agent acquisitions particularly ill-suited for a team in the Rays’ position. Former GM Chuck LaMar seems to have been one of Keri’s most forthcoming interview subjects, and his regret for his Tampa Bay transgressions comes through very clearly. (Unfortunately, that’s likely of little consolation to long-suffering Devil Rays fans of the late ’90s and early aughties.)

With the lean years out of the way, the book trains its focus on the origins of the team’s purported two-percent edge (with only an occasional repeated anecdote or bit of background information marring the narrative’s time-shifting structure). Part of the edge stems from the fact that the Rays front office holds onto secrets more fiercely than Tyler Durden, protecting its hard-earned intellectual property by giving nothing more than guarded quotes to anyone on the outside. It's difficult to quibble with the organization's approach, but the shortage of loose on-the-record lips within the organization works against the book, just as it does the 29 other major-league clubs. You won't catch Rays AGM Dan Feinstein explaining the intricacies of his department’s approach to evaluating defense, à la Paul DePodesta in Moneyball; The Extra 2% leads us to believe that the Rays—led by BP alum James Click—have devoted much of their analytical brainpower to cracking the fielding code yet doesn't provide any juicy details about the fruits of that labor. Similarly, baseball operations analyst (and former online PITCHf/x expert extraordinaire) Josh Kalk gets plenty of ink, which makes the absence of any of his potentially groundbreaking findings related to injury prevention all the more frustrating.

It comes as no surprise that Keri dubs the Rays’ dream team of number crunchers the “Mystery Men” and resorts to padding the section devoted to them with quotes from Mariners special assistant Tony Blengino, the rare team stat guy who’s always good for a quote. Although it contains valuable information on the Rays’ tendency to stack their lineup with same-handed hitters against pitchers with large reverse splits, their employment of a standout sports psychologist who views his role as proactive rather than remedial, and their successful adoption of unorthodox baserunning drills to improve their efficiency, the chapter on the analytical component of the extra two percent comes off as a bit of a tease, which isn’t so much a failing of the book as it is a testament to the Rays’ commitment to preserving their advantage. Given the spotlight shined on Oakland’s front office—which then included Feinstein—after the publication of Michael Lewis’ seminal profile of another disadvantaged team’s cutting-edge efforts to contend, it’s hard to blame either the Rays for being more reticent this time around or Keri for his inability to coax them out of their secretive shells.

To its credit, the book’s look at the post-Naimoli Rays is broader than the glamorous world of baseball operations: the team’s efforts at rebranding and community outreach also receive ample attention. The excision of the “Devil” from the team’s name, the organization’s aggressive campaign to entice fans into empty seats with concerts, theme nights, giveaways, and free parking, and even an usher retraining program aimed at promoting a more fan-friendly atmosphere at the park all serve to distinguish the new bosses from the Naimoli regime. One of the book's most telling anecdotes describes the ideological impact of a suggestion box placed in the team's offices shortly after the new administration took charge, something that came as a shock to the Rays’ downtrodden corporate drones. Simply asking for input was enough to change the prevailing attitude around the team, since the organization’s previous owner was known for being extremely unlikely to take advice, let alone solicit it.

The Extra 2%'s pages aren't crammed with WARPs or VORPs that could scare away an unsuspecting mass-market audience; for the most part, its sabermetric arguments are made with words instead of numbers, which subtracts little from their strength. In this and other respects, the book is perhaps better suited for a general audience than a readership already deeply attuned to the sabermetric world. Those who followed the analysis community’s take on the Rays' turnaround as it happened or who have kept up with the work published since then on the subject will likely find that large chunks of the book won't come as news. Keri leans on prior analysis from the internet's leading baseball analytical lights in making his case for how the Rays have managed their on-field magic under the open-minded Joe Maddon, though he makes sure to supplement his source material with ample helpings of background material and original insight. (His explanation of how the mismatched 2007 team’s abominable bullpen came to be, followed by an overview of the thought process behind the genesis of the 2008’s squad’s more well-rounded roster, was particularly enlightening.) The writing remains clear enough throughout that you won't mind covering some old ground, and if you’re fairly new to the subject, you’re in for a treat.

Although he goes to great lengths to establish his subjects' bona fides as razor-sharp thinkers, strategists, and negotiators, Keri does a great job of humanizing his subjects, allowing us to root for the Rays’ head honchos without feeling that we've cast our lot with a collection of emotionless front-office Terminators. Toward that end, the book describes Friedman’s endearing infatuation with RBI Baseball, as well as a Halloween party in which employees were encouraged to poke fun at the ugly old contracts that made the organization’s early years so unpleasant. The chapter devoted to Maddon’s upbringing in rural Pennsylvania is where the author’s gifts as a storyteller truly shine; it’s clear that the innovative veteran minor-league manager and the baseball outsiders who hired him were made for each other, in a professional sense. Moreover, the Rays’ insistence on extending their radio network to Maddon’s birthplace of Hazleton, PA (Pop. 23,329) in an effort to capitalize on the skipper’s popularity provides some indication of the lengths to which they’ll go to uncover any additional revenue.

Keri doesn’t paint his subjects as infallible, but he does stress that they almost have to be in order to prevail with the deck stacked against them; even missteps as minor as the Pat Burrell contract, which the Yankees or Red Sox could shrug off with ease, threaten to topple the precarious competitive ecology made possible by the extra two percent. The tripartite challenges posed by Tropicana Field, an unproven market, and a revenue-sharing system that punishes them for success makes the odds against the Rays appear borderline insuperable, notwithstanding their two division championships. Still, after reading about the Rays’ successful efforts to assemble their last collection of effective relievers by combing through the major-league scrap heap, it’s tempting to view their latest bullpen makeover as an opportunity instead of a reason to discount their chances in the AL East this season—as Cory Schwartz observed earlier this week, Joel Peralta could be the next free-talent Rays reliever to exceed expectations.

Mark Cuban’s self-serving foreword portrays The Extra 2% as a business manual more than a baseball book. To be sure, the Rays’ strategies are applicable in other fields and bear the imprint of their leadership team’s prior professional experience, but the book’s lessons of a financial nature can largely be reduced to a belief in buying low and selling high (as Sternberg says in a quote reprinted from the Times, “When I hear ‘horrible,’ I go ‘ooooooh’”) and a commitment to looking for small edges (reflected in creative initiatives like the team's Brazilian baseball academy). As Keri notes, neither of those notions is new to baseball, but the Rays have adhered to each with uncommon devotion. You won’t be qualified to step in and run a billion-dollar business after reaching the end of The Extra 2%, but you’ll have gained a richer understanding of baseball, the Rays, and what it takes to field a winning team in today’s game.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Rays,  The Who,  Week In Quotes,  The Week In Quotes,  Team

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