My Book Report: The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri

The Extra 2

The Extra 2% by Wall Street Journal and ESPN.com contributor Jonah Keri is the story of how one smart small-market team used strategies born on the trading floors of Wall Street to challenge their big budget competitors for October glory. That plot may sound familiar. On the surface, The Extra 2% is very similar to Michael Lewis’ game-changing write-up of the Oakland A’s and their iconoclastic GM Billy Beane.

Written more than seven years after Moneyball changed many people’s opinions of baseball strategies and management, The Extra 2% might tell a similar rag-to-riches story, but it is unlikely to have the same impact or to become short-hand for a contentious philosophy. Keri is writing in a world that has largely accepted statistical analysis and where young Wall Street-trained front office personnel are commonplace. As a result, the story of how the Tampa Bay Rays managed to pass baseball’s two richest teams in the standings and become a regular contender in the game’s toughest division, offers little in the way of revelation for the reader. In Keri’s telling, the Rays’ top management takes a poorly run team and uses intelligent PR, marketing, and negotiation tactics to turn the franchise around. The team’s turn-around in the standings is enough to make this book compelling, but the lack of a consistent narrative thread holds this book back and leaves the reader lacking a real understanding of how the Rays are different from any other intelligently run organization.

 

The early chapters of the book deal with TampaBay’s struggle to land a baseball team and the ensuing disaster that resulted from Vincent Naimoli finally bringing the Devil Rays to life. Keri’s account of how Naimoli and company alienated fans and made the Devil Rays into the laughingstock of the Major Leagues provides some of the best writing and the most entertaining moments in the book. Particularly hilarious is the story of Naimoli’s refusal to adopt the new "fad" known as email, causing his staff limitless headaches. Red Sox fans who remember the early days of the Devil Rays might not be surprised to learn the team was poorly run, but the extent of incompetence is truly impressive.

 

However incompetent the previous regime might have been, Keri is begrudgingly forced to acknowledge the fact that the division-winning Tampa Bay Rays teams of 2008 and 2010 were built in large part to the draft picks accumulated in those losing seasons. This is where the book struggles the most. Under the management of Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman and Andrew Freidman, Tampa Bay selected some very important key players like Evan Longoria and David Price, however the Naimoli era saw GM Chuck Lamar landing many important pieces as well, such as Carl Crawford, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and BJ Upton and the infamous theft of Scott Kasmir from the guileless Mets. Keri may have good reason to exalt the new management team and chastise the previous one, but his assault on Chuck LaMar reads scattered and, at points, even slightly disingenuous.

 

He spends nearly three pages recounting the tale of a Ray’s scout taking a shine to a dumpy looking kid with a powerful right-handed swing and no real position, only to watch as the team ignores the kid and lets Albert Pujols pass them by. Of course, Keri later acknowledges that 31 other teams ignored their area scouts as well and Pujols was a 16th round pick when the Cardinals finally took a flyer on him. Is that really a failure worth pinning on LaMar? Was Josh Hamilton really a bad pick simply because he never materialized as a star with the Rays? Was Rocco Baldelli, losing his career to a literally one-in-a-million illness, a sign of incompetent scouting? Keri wants to give his heroes, Sternberg, Silverman and Freidman the loin’s share of the credit for building the 2008 Rays pennant-winning team, and in service to that, he downplays the contributions of Chuck LaMar and others and exaggerates fairly typical draft misses into systematic flaws.

 

With the arrival of Sternberg and Co, The Extra 2% once again parallels Moneyball, recounting the pedigrees of the new men in charge and illustrating how their backgrounds shaped them into the prefect figures to effect such miraculous change. The Wall Street vets of places like Goldman Sachs and Bears Stern learn to spot the undervalued and put a favorable price on what they need, be it the stock of fortune 500 companies or middle relievers. Their story is well-told, but it is not a new one. Sox fans have only to look at their own ownership to see obvious examples and the baseball world has many others these days.

 

The story of the Rays’ charismatic field captain Joe Madden is one of the book’s highlights. Madden is an impressive baseball mind and a fascinating figure and Keri is at his best when he recounts the forces that shaped the eccentric manager into a man capable of garnering the respect of his players and while at same time going against the grain in his strategies and his personality. Keri makes it clear throughout this book that Sternberg sought to change the entire culture of the team and in hiring Joe Madden, he seems to have found his most important instrument of change. Madden embraces the quantitative as much as any manager in the game, but most importantly, he gets his entire team to buy into the plan.

 

The Extra 2% will also hold particular interest for those in the statistical analysis community, as Keri details the Rays hiring of Pitch F/X experts and their forays into advanced defensive strategies. Keri is on strong footing when writing about such topics and it shows. As a regular contributor to such esteemed sites as Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, he is fluent in advanced metrics and the tenants of sabermetrics. He is careful to write to the larger audience though and readers without knowledge or love for these concepts will not be left out when reading about the way the Rays have used Pitch F/X to prevent injuries or looked into splits to find better ways to align their defense.

 

Red Sox fans should be warned: this book vilifies the Red Sox as much, if not more than the Yankees. This is not surprising given the intensity of the rivalry between the two teams, but it does detract from the enjoyment of the book at times. Whether you love or hate the Rays, the story of how one of baseball’s poorest teams became one of the best should interest you. However, if you are a Red Sox fan, this book will likely get under your skin in places. The two teams are certainly worlds apart in revenue and market-share, but they are both run by young, business-first GM’s, both owned by ex-Wall Street tycoons and both are looking up at a competitor with nearly limitless resources. Yet, The Extra 2% tries continually to shake off the comparisons and writes off the Red Sox as just another big market team. This seems most ironic as Keri outlines the Rays attempts to become a regional force, in the very image of the Boston Red Sox.

 

The Extra 2% has a lot to offer fans of the Rays and aspiring business leaders. Jonah Keri’s writing is solid and the book is well-researched. It suffers in part because it is so directly comparable to Lewis’ Moneyball. Lewis presented the Oakland A’s as a team winning through the exploitation of market inefficiencies born of the irrational biases of the baseball world. He intertwined the stories of castaway players like Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford with the new ideas Beane embraced, giving a personal feeling to his tale of business success. Keri also touches on some of the Rays player’s back stories but these tales rarely connect strongly to what the Rays are building or their core philosophy. In fact, any core philosophy the Rays might have is left unclear. Keri portrays the Rays’ management success as a result of doing everything better than other teams and as a fundamentally different approach.

The story of the Rays turnaround is interesting, but it doesn’t offer all that much revelation for the serious fan. The Rays had lousy owners and better ones bought the team. They stopped chasing name-brand free agents and invested in player development. They hired experts in statistical analysis and then actually listened to them. They did all these things and they went on to win the toughest division in the league two out of three years. It is a good story, but it doesn’t offer much that is really new. It is quick to overlook the impact of luck and to assign credit and blame where it fits best into the narrative. For those with a keen interest in baseball management and business, this book has some great things to offer. The more casual reader, however, can skip this one, especially if said reader happens to be a rather sensitive Red Sox fan.

You can buy a copy of The Extra 2% here. 

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