There are easy and convenient explanations from both side of the spectrum in baseball analysis as to how the Tampa Bay Rays were able to craft one of the best and most efficient organizations in baseball.
Were they the product of stat-based theories with some outside-the-box application of strategies from other industries?
Were they beneficiaries of the ample number of high draft picks accumulated as a “benefit” of being so awful for so long?
Are there ancillary aspects to the surge from baseball purgatory to a case study of how to run a team properly?
Is it all of the above?
Jonah Keri answers all of these questions and more in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.
Stuck in a small market with an atrocious and difficult to access stadium; a history of heinous on-field results and rotten off-field behavior; awful front office decisionmaking; and an owner who micromanaged and alienated civic leaders and local businesses, the heretofore named Devil Rays were a laughingstock like no other.
There was no hope; no future; no reason to pay attention to them…until they were taken over by a young, fearless and energetic group led by Stuart Sternberg.
Foregoing what had failed in the past for the Devil Rays and other clubs, sifting through what worked and didn’t work by cutting to the heart of what makes a successful player, team and organization, the newly named Rays have become the blueprint on how to run a baseball team whether in large or small market.
What was the secret?
Those who are invested deeply in stats see the Rays as a validation of their way of doing things with cold, objective reasoning; old-school thinkers point to the high draft picks, speed, pitching and defense that would’ve made John McGraw proud; others (myself included before reading the book) feel that the Rays turnaround began in earnest once they stopped tolerating players like Elijah Dukes, Josh Hamilton and Delmon Young whose behaviors on and off the field led to the perception that the Rays were like the lawless deserts of Yemen—anything goes with no one willing to put a stop to it. They also stopped bowing to the Yankees and Red Sox as evidenced by the willingness to get into on-field scraps with both.
The truth is that it’s a combination of everything.
Sternberg, team president Matthew Silverman and de facto GM Andrew Friedman took advantage of the foundation that was left by the prior regime; they were lucky with players like Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour, Dan Johnson and Carlos Pena; they jettisoned the likes of Dukes and Hamilton and were unperturbed by Hamilton’s blossoming into a star with the Reds and Rangers; they got rid of Young, but made sure they acquired the pieces—Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett—that were a tremendous boon to their leap into a pennant winner.
The Rays took bits and pieces from everyone and everything.
They utilized former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart’s innovation of locking up players long-term before they reached arbitration years; it was that which allowed them to sign Evan Longoria to what’s being called the most value-laden contract in baseball history.
Dumping contracts before they became prohibitive—like their trading of Scott Kazmir—provided freedom to do other things they would otherwise not have been able to do like trade for an established closer in Rafael Soriano.
They’ve opened baseball academies in countries where baseball isn’t a known entity; I’ve long thought there were ripe areas to explore in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and South America. The Rays are doing that and finding players whose athletic skills would’ve been on a soccer field rather than a diamond; they’re bound to find players in this manner and other clubs will by copying them.
Of course, sports is reliant on people and their performance; you can’t look at the numbers, calculate a formula and automatically expect the desired result—it doesn’t work that way. In any endeavor of dealing with human beings, there are bound to be times for a necessary and conscious decision to deviate from established praxis.
The front office and manager Joe Maddon are aware of this; Maddon is allowed the freedom within structure to defer to his baseball wisdom—accrued through years and years of doing anything and everything within the game—and run his team as a man with a brain and not as some faceless, middle-managing automaton.
Maddon isn’t under threat of job security if one of his off-beat maneuvers doesn’t work. I’m on record as saying that I don’t like the way Maddon game-manages; nor am I a fan of his quirky “theme trips” like players wearing hockey jerseys on the road. I’m the “you’re wearing a coat and tie and shut up” guy; but Maddon’s style is suited to the Rays from the front office through the players.
Sections in the book—such as the discussion of how the Rays missed out on Albert Pujols (it’s specious and mentioned that every team except the Cardinals missed on Pujols); and the battle for viability with no money and a terrible ballpark—drag a bit; but this is no love letter to the Rays way of doing business at the expense of dissenting thought.
All voices are heard without ridicule or dismissal.
The Extra 2% and the Rays turnaround under a strict budget is compared to the Moneyball model, but Moneyball and The Extra 2% are sparsely compatible. You can almost see Keri’s subtle and lightly expressed eye-rolling at the cut-and-dried nature in which Moneyball was presented as a biblical text; that the implication in Moneyball of “if you don’t do it this way, you’re a moron; Billy Beane is Midas, period” is viewed with disdain.
The Extra 2% is not Moneyball and like other strategies, the narrative therein cannot be copied by mirroring what the Rays have done. Each circumstance is different. One question postulated and answered is whether the Rays would be able to run their club the way they do if they were in a more scrutinizing market with a fan base that reacted angrily if something like trading a Kazmir was done while the team was still in a moderate form of contention.
The easy answer is no.
But given the fearlessness with which the front office has squeezed every ounce of use they could from the players they’ve had and dispatched them without remorse, I believe they would run the team in the best way based on the bottom line of winning and doing it within their financial parameters; it’s a testament to the strategy. It’s not about taking Wall Street to baseball; it’s about doing what is necessary to maximize the investment and that, more than anything else, is the overriding theme of the book.
The Rays way is done without smugness, condescension or abuse; it’s systematic and it works. You’ll see that in Keri’s book.
Speaking of books, my book got a nice shoutout on Twitter from WCBS in New York sportscaster Otis Livingston.
I published a full excerpt on Wednesday here.