Welcome back to the second installment of the RI Baseball Book Club. This month we are discussing The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First by Jonah Keri.

I’ll get us started with some of my thoughts on the book. You guys can feel free to add your comments below, or ask questions. What did you like? What did you not like? How do you think the 2011 Rays fit into the 2% model?

Also, feel free to suggest any books you would like to see as part of the Book Club in the future. Tomorrow we will take a handful of the suggestions and put them up for a vote.

The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First by Jonah Keri

I guess in a bout of “full disclosure,” I just noticed last night when cruising through my notes that Rays Index is listed among the “valuable sources” for whatever that’s worth. But to us it is infinitely cooler than having some nerdy whale DNA paper cited in some other nerd’s whale DNA paper.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I loved the historical nature of this book. I loved how the failure of the franchise for so many years was put into its proper context. When, as a fan, you get constantly bashed by fans of other teams, and talking heads from around the country, it is nice that somebody finally stood up for us.

And if you have been a diehard fan of the Rays for many years, a lot of the stories early in the book are probably already familiar to you. But even I, who makes it a job to read everything on the Rays, still found enough new tidbits or extra details to keep me pulled in.

And a lot of stories brought me back to (I know this sounds corny) but a time of innocence. I was in elementary school when the area was trying to get a baseball team. Keri at one point mentions “Florida White Sox” t-shirts. I actually owned a Florida White Sox hat at one point.

But even beyond the nostalgia, there are many interesting take-home points from this book…

On Vince Naimoli…

Early in the book we get a horrifying behind-the-scenes look at Vince Naimoli. We always knew Naimoli was a terrible owner. And we had heard stories of his temper and ineptitude. But I am not sure I had ever full grasped just how horrible he was.

There are the crazy stories about how Naimoli demanded money from the St. Pete chamber of commerce for use of the team logo. How he wouldn’t shell out $35,000 for the rights to the name “Sting Rays” (which might have actually been a good thing: How many “Stink Rays” references would there have been?). How he pulled the team’s merchandise from a local store. And how as recently as 2003 the team had no internet access and one front office employee had to use an AOL account to send emails.

On Chuck LaMar…

There is also the look back at some of the horrible baseball decisions that Naimoli and Chuck LaMar made, like “The Hit Show” and trading Bobby Abreu.

And there was the jaw-dropping story about how the Rays missed on a chance to draft Albert Pujols. But that did leave me wondering whether that was so terrible for Albert Pujols? If the Rays had drafted Pujols in the 10th or 11th round, would he have been given an opportunity to thrive in this organization? Or would the talent have trumped the ineptitude?

On Stuart Sternberg’s takeover…

I was enthralled with “The Takeover” and the time period between the time Stuart Sternberg purchased a piece of the team and the time when he actually assumed control. Just how frustrating must that time have been? You can see that they were already starting to lay the groundwork so that when the takeover occurred they could hit the ground running. But how much of that was done behind Naimoli’s back and without his approval? It would be interesting to know just how covert Sternberg had to be with some of his moves.

On a sidenote, it was interesting to see the different names that Sternberg and Co. tossed around when they decided to rename the team, including “Tampa Bay Nine,” as in the “Mudville Nine.”

On Joe Maddon

There was one line in the book that I thought best summed up Joe Maddon:

Maddon makes decisions one way with one thing in mind: Trust the process, don’t sweat the results.

This drives a lot of fans nuts, and it is why there are still some fans that can’t stand Maddon even though the team has been successful. For Maddon, his work is done before the game. He analyzes the numbers. He looks at the matchups. He maps out the game plan to the point that he already knows exactly what move he will make at any given moment. Of course, that means the game is almost an afterthought. Sometimes the plan works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

On building for success

Keri spends a good deal of time writing about how the team was not going to spend money just to win a few more games and be a 70-win team instead of a 65-win team. And it is obviously a sound business approach that explains why the Rays were still a horrible baseball team in 2006 and 2007. But was it fair to the fans that were buying tickets those seasons? Isn’t there some obligation to at least try to win a few more games and to try to be just a little better, even if it means nothing at the end of the season?

And Keri seems to contradict this as a useful strategy when he mentions later on that each win in the standings is worth $1.2 million in revenue. Typically it does cost more than $1.2 million to find a player that is worth one win. But it is possible.

And what does this mean for the Rays this season and next? What if the Rays quickly fall 10-games back in the standings? Will the Rays give up on the season in May and start trading some of the older players? Will the front office be OK with a 95-loss season even though they sold this team to the public as a contender?

On Keri’s writing…

I did find it a little interesting that Keri referred to Cliff Floyd’s leadership abilities in the clubhouse and JP Howell being “clutch.” If you follow Keri’s writing, he doesn’t believe “clutch” is a real thing and he often downplays importance of leadership.

On BJ Upton…

We loved this line about Maddon and Upton:

Maddon began to sense complacency among a few players. Few players could push Maddon’s button more than B. J. Upton.

This amuses me because few players push the fan base’s button more than BJ Upton. And if the fans get upset with BJ, some will label you a shitty fan. One blogger even suggested that criticism of  Upton is driven by the color of his skin. So is Maddon a racist? Of course not. And neither is 99.99 percent of the fan base.

On secrecy…

If there is one problem some have with this book it is the lack of details on exactly how the Rays implemented their Wall Street strategies. After all, that is the title of the book. But while the details are minimal, this isn’t really Keri’s fault. The Rays are a secretive bunch, and in some respect that is a big part of the Wall Street strategy.

We have to find [the next big thing]. And if we do, I promise you we’re not going to talk about it. – Andrew Friedman

Apparently the front office sat down with Keri, but I remember reading somewhere that it was just for maybe a couple of hours on one day.

The baseball fan (and the scientist) in me wants to know every little detail and wants the answer to every question. But the Rays fan in me doesn’t want everybody else to know all the answers. So while part of me was disappointed, and some are left wanting more, it may not really be that bad, right?

So, among your own comments, I am curious how you guys felt about the level of detail in the book. Did you want more? Are you ok with the Rays minimizing the access Keri received?

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8 Comments

  1. Scot says:

    I can't remember the last book that I purchased on the day it was released, but I really enjoy the Rays. So with tremendous excitement, I downloaded the "Extra 2%" and began reading.

    I almost didn't read beyond the 2nd chapter. It was so painful and difficult to read that it reminded me of a book assignment from high school English class.

    Problems:
    1) Editing. The book can be best characterized as a series of baseball articles with a front cover, a back cover and a staple on the top. Information was repeated constantly across chapters. Yes we know that the management of the Devil Rays were cheap. Yes we know Stu and party did work on Wall Street.

    2. Editing. Every sentence was hand crafted and meticulously analyzed by the Author. (sarcasm off) There was no subtlety in comparing Naimoli and Stu, et. al. One was over the top cheap and the other was over the top of the Harvard School of Management style.

    3. Specificity: You said it best, "if there is one problem...lack of details on how the Rays implemented their Wall Street strategies." There were essentially no details, just suggestions. However, I did find hiring a physicist was new and interesting.

    4. The characters: Once you moved beyond the previous management, outside of Maddon, these guys are boring and almost non-human.

    5. More the characters: Possibly other than Maddon, the only person who wasn't given a cartoonish characterization and was depicted as a human was, of all people, Chuck LaMar. At least he tried to explain his thinking and agreed that mistakes were made.

    Keri is best when he talks about analysis. A couple of his last chapters were interesting and informative. The physics analysis was new to me (but I read it wasn't new to others.)

    My take on why Michael Lewis's book on the Athletics is engaging and Keri's book on the Rays is not, may be that Lewis was not really looking at the Athletics, but rather the historical development and the process of statistical analysis and applying the philosophy of taking advantage of the undervalued (under appreciated) aspects of the game. Keri focused on 1 team and could not draw on enough details of the techniques used.

    Also Lewis's book was well edited and the people involved seemed - human.

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    • dustin says:

      agreed on all counts, but i think #3 is the most damning. i salute mr. keri for avoiding the easy good guys-bad guys thing that made moneyball such a fun but misleading (and somewhat disingenuous) read.

      that said, the suggestion--and it's really nothing more than that--that stu and the rays' management succeed via a mixture of scouting, player development, and statistical research is hardly a revelation. the rays are a small-budget team, so they have to be careful with their money, and they can't expect to contend every year. apparently, it'd be nice for the team if a new stadium was built. for whom is this a revelation?

      also, tho it's nice to be reminded just how bad the naimoli-lamar era was (it's also true that lamar has done pretty well with the phillies over the past few years).

      where, other than in the historical sections, does mr. keri give us new information? good writing, poor editing, and little-to-no inside access makes for a readable, slightly sloppy, and ultimately unimportant book.

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      • Scot says:

        It may be the case that my memory of Moneyball is tainted with time. Hence if the Prof has not decided upon the book for next month, I would be ready to re-read Moneyball. We may be more sympathetic with Keri's constraints. I agree that many misread Moneyball as praise to the A's for being the only team to recognize the importance of OBP or worse, an autobiography by Billy Beane, and maybe I'm may also be a victim as well.

        Other possible choices that link well with Heyward's book - Bouton's Ball Four (which I have read), or Jim Brosnan's "The Long Season" (which I have not read).

        A list of 9 great books according the LA Time Book Critic David L. Ulin:
        http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-et-0331-baseball-books-20110331,0,7729658.story

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  2. Steve says:

    I think Scot nailed this front office's biggest problem. The Wall Street strategies are good for building a team, but the secrecy and lack of any humanity is terrible if you are trying to connect with the local population. I get a feeling sometimes that Stu has a great personality, but he is so driven by the "process" all the time that we rarely see it, and in turn, we don't get a chance to like him.

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  3. Mike says:

    Gotta say. Did love the history lesson, but i learned a he'll of lot more about Vince Naimoli and Chuck Lamar than i did about Stu Sternberg and Andrew Friedman. And i am sure it wasn't Jonah's fault. I remember reading that the Rays weren't excited about the idea of the book, so he Jk was battling an uphill battle. Still, the name of the book is a little misleading IMHO. Still a good read though.

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  4. Susan says:

    I actually haven't finished the book, but if you will allow me...I was surprised he was so hard on Lamar. Naimoli wasn't unexpected (although i think he glossed over just how much this area owes Naimoli for getting us a team). But Lamar I thought was generally considered a decent GM. Really good at drafting. A guy that just had his hands tied or was forced to make some dumb moves (The Hit Show). Anyway, I guess I'm curious if this was a common perception of Lamar or was this a little too unfair?

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    • Scot says:

      A fair comment. It is another example where Keri is over the top. For me, with the quotes by Lamar, at least he comes across as having some type of depth.

      Keri has produced some excellent material. He appears to be very bright and motivated. Unfortunately, this book simply may not have lent itself to his strengths.

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  5. I agree with some of what Scott said. I also felt the book was a little too "preachy" trying a little to hard to convince me of stuff instead of laying out the facts and letting me decide for myself. For some reason, that type of writing always turns me off.

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