Mar
23

Book Review: In Tampa, an Extra 2% edge

By

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the least heralded success stories in sports of the past decade. In 2007, it was business as usual for the then-Devil Rays. They went 66-96, good for their ninth last place finish in ten seasons as a Major League club, and just under 1.4 million fans watched Alberto Reyes rack up 26 saves.

Since then, the Rays have won the AL East twice and made the World Series once. They’ve dethroned the league’s two richest teams and still sport a solid young core of players that make them a perennial threat in the American League. They don’t have a new stadium and still draw under 1.8 million fans per season. Yet, the Rays have become the latest small-market success story. How?

The how is the subject of Jonah Keri’s latest book. Entitled The Extra 2 %, Keri’s book explores, as the lofty subtitle says, “how Wall Street strategies took a Major League Baseball team from worst to first.” With a new ownership group in place that was willing to experiment and push the envelope, the Rays took advantage of their position at the bottom of baseball’s economic pecking order to dig for advantages. Luck played no small part in it, but the Rays have something that works, for now.

To set the stage, Keri spends the first few chapters exploring the tortured history of baseball in Tampa Bay. The sprawling metropolitan had always appealed to Major League Baseball more as a threat than as an actual landing place for a team. Whenever a successful franchise needed a new stadium, it would threaten a move to St. Petersburg. The White Sox did so in the early 1990s; the Mariners followed suit a few years later; and the San Francisco Giants were apparently this close to shacking up in the Trop.

Yet, despite the fact that St. Petersburg went so far as to build a stadium — an ugly one at that — without a tenant, Major League Baseball never graced the area with a team. Miami got its franchise first, and it took the threat of a lawsuit that would have rocked baseball from its lofty perch atop an antitrust exemption to see the Devil Rays enter the world.

When they did, it was a spectacular disaster. Vince Naimoli was the wrong man to own the team, and Chuck LaMar was the wrong general manager. The club burned draft picks by signing bad free agents. They wasted other picks by avoiding top talent in the name of “signability.” Sometimes, they landed the right guy; Carl Crawford stuck. But Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton are a testament to the disaster.

Keri’s narrative picks up the Extra 2 % when Stuart Sternberg, a baseball fan and Wall Street guy, buys the club from Naimoli. He brought Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman with him. Together, these three guys changed the franchise. They changed the way it does business; they spruced up Tropicana Field as best they could; and they began to search for the edge — the Extra 2 % — that would allow the Rays to remain competitive in the rich American League East.

Unfortunately for Keri’s book, the meat of the Extra 2 % is a proprietary one. James Click and Josh Kalk, two former Baseball Prospectus writers, are among the top figures working behind the scenes, but the Rays, who cooperated with Keri only at the end of his reporting, keep these minds away from the press. A certain part of the Extra 2 % is still a secret.

Yet, that doesn’t leave the book lacking, and Keri provides deep insights into the Rays’ process. He talks with Silverman and Friedman about their baseball arbitrage process, and while he doesn’t go inside the Rays’ draft room, he explains how the club is working to identify baseball talent on the cheap while selling high and drafting wisely. The Extra 2 % comes from the organization’s idea that they have to be that much more diligent than their competitors. The Devil Rays might have missed out on Albert Pujols in the early 2000s, but that’s a mistake the current regime will not make again.

Ultimately, the book is a great read, and I can’t recommend it enough for Yankee fans of all stripes. We might envy the Rays their recent success and no longer view them as the pushovers they once were. But that doesn’t make them an unlikeable franchise, and Keri’s book humanizes a franchise long scorned by the baseball cognoscenti.

The end of Keri’s book, on the current stadium, left me wanting the more than isn’t there yet. Tropicana Field is ugly and out of the way. It’s in a town with very high unemployment, and while the Rays have the highest TV ratings in the game, they can’t get fans to come. They also can’t force the area to fork over public funds for a new stadium.

So my question still remains: Can the Rays maintain their success? Keri says they can, but I’m less optimistic. (Perhaps, that’s my inner Yankee fan speaking.) Their payroll this year is much lower than in recent seasons, and their bullpen and lineup approach resembles something of a band aid. They will rise and fall on their arms, but as the young guns grow up, can they keep winning? The cast of The Extra 2 % came of age at a time when the Rays had the right guys making the right Number 1 draft picks. Success comes at a price, and in 2011, we’ll learn if the Rays can sustain success of it small-market wins are merely cyclical.

Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri is a good friend of mine, and his publisher supplied me with a review copy of the book. Joe and I are also mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements. Still, this review is an impartial one.

Categories : Reviews
  • mbonzo

    Does Keri talk about the Ray’s chances of success in the future if they stay in Tampa? The team could have a lot of success in a place like New Jersey, but would have to fight an uphill battle against owners like the Steinbrenners. While fans would embrace a new rivalry, a substantial fan base of Yankees/Mets/Phillies fans in NJ would probably convert to Rays fans. Depending on how revenue sharing changes, this might become less and less of a factor against teams competing for such large fanbases. I wonder where Keri believes the best possible location for the Rays is.

    • Esteban

      I think it would take a while for fans to convert. You don’t go from being a lifelong Yankees/Mets/Phillies fan to being a Rays fan just because they are suddenly closer to where you live.

      • whozat

        No, but you’d probably start catching a couple games a year, as it’d be closer and WAY cheaper. And that’s really more what they’d care about, I think. I live in the bay area now, and I go to Giants games 5-10 times a year. I don’t care that much about the Giants, but I want to go out and see baseball. Sure, if the Yanks were two hours away, I’d make a point of getting out to see them, but if people from work are going to a game, or if some of my buddies in the city decide to go at the drop of a hat, it’ll be a Giants game. And I’ll buy a ticket just to go hang out with friends in the sun and watch Timmy or Matt Cain or Bumgarner pitch. And I think butts in the seats is really what they care about most.

      • mbonzo

        As a huge Yanks fan it would be hard to imagine switch allegiances, but I am also a Giants (NFL) fan, and I could see giving some loving to a local football team more than I would the Giants.

    • Mike HC

      Tampa to New Jersey seems like a lateral move to me. Whats the point?

  • Cult of Basebaal

    Any Yankee fan will find it interesting, and you probably won’t hate the Rays as much after reading it.

    Why would I hate the Rays at all?

    • Ryan

      because their unwillingness/inability to keep their players from becoming free agents allowed the red sox to become substantially better this offseason

    • Mike HC

      I agree. What Yankee fan has disdain for the Rays other than the normal division rivalry?

      • steve s

        How soon you forget the end of the 2009 season when Maddon ordered his pitchers to throw at Tex in retaliation for Pena getting hurt and wouldn’t pitch to Tex so that Pena could stay tied for the HR lead. Bush league all the way.

        • Mike HC

          I personally like Maddon and have no particular problem with the Rays. But you are right, I really should not be talking for everyone. I’m sure there are plenty of fans who particularly hate the Rays.

  • gargoyle

    Great, now we have to hear about “WallStreetBall.”

    • Mike HC

      haha … except it seems like he wrote the entire book without ever finding out exactly what “wallstreetball” is, ha.

  • Januz

    Yankee fans don’t hate the Rays, there are essentially two teams we hate. 1: Boston. 2: The Mets (Specifically their fans). We certainly do not like any team in our division (That also means Baltimore & Toronto), but that does not rise to the level of hatred (Although fans of every other AL East team HATE the Yankees). It is a similar concept as being a Steeler fan: We hate Baltimore & Dallas, but we simply do not like the Bengals & Browns, because they are in our division (While fans of all three division teams hate the Steelers).

    • gc

      As a Yankee fan, I don’t hate any team more than the next. Nor do I put high stock in media and/or fan-driven “rivalries.” To me, they’re ALL just another team in the way. Obsessing about other teams, or defining how I feel about my team by focusing on what other teams do…is what fans of other teams do. About the Yankees. Not the other way around. At least to me.

  • Charles

    What about Las Vegas? Their Mayor has been begging for a Major Sports franchise there for forever.

    • Rick in Boston

      I doubt the MLB would be willing to blaze that trail. Two of baseball’s biggest historic black marks are the Black Sox and Pete Rose, both major gambling issues. The only way MLB would go in is if the Vegas casinos removed the sport from their sports books, and that’s not going to happen.

    • A.D.

      Las Vegas would be amazing, but a ton of hurdles

  • Mike HC

    Not that glowing of a review. I will definitely read it at some point but it doesn’t seem like anything to rush for.

    • http://www.thebronxview.com Scott Ham

      I’m in the process of reading it and am enjoying it so far. Keri’s style feels more article/blogger than it does book narrative which feels a little weird but keeps the pace moving.

      Although I haven’t finished the book yet, I think Keri tries to get into the 2% concept a little more than Ben gives him credit for. There are certainly some backroom metrics at play that are not revealed, but it also refers to the effort ownership has made with fans and the community. There doesn’t appear to be any insight into how they approach their player evaluation but the overriding philosophy applies to every facet of the organization, from concessions to parking, etc.

      • Mike HC

        Thanks for the added information. Maybe Ben was being “too” impartial. There is no doubt this book is right up my alley, so it is only a matter of time before I get it. I will prob ask my library to buy it for me if they don’t already have it.

        • Mike HC

          Ben seems to be a pretty harsh reviewer from the small sample of reviews I have seen from him, maybe 2 or 3. I have liked a couple of books that Ben knocked pretty good.

  • S

    If the Rays are using Wall Street Strategies, I guess that means they are defrauding both the one fan they have, and the mlb in order to get the top mlb ready players?

  • I am not the droids you’re looking for

    I don’t lightly toss around the word Retarded. But this book sounds Retarded. Completely. Fucking. Retarded. A “reporter” would’ve, you know, *actually found out* what the 2% is and…reported it. This ownership group purports to be smart. And maybe they are. But maybe they’re just incredibly lucky. This book tells us nothing in that regard apparently. Retarded when that premise is explicit in the title.

    I’m going to write my own book about the success of the Yanks called The Extra 20%. But I’m not going to tell you what the extra 20% actually is or consists of. Because I don’t know. No one told me. The Yanks told me there are two guys I am not allowed to speak with. And I’m a bad enough reporter that I couldn’t get the info otherwise.

    Oh wait, I know, the Yanks’ extra 20% is the payroll. Wink.

    Retarded.

    • RichYF

      Tell us how you really feel.

    • http://www.thebronxview.com Scott Ham

      What’s “retarded” is criticizing a book you haven’t read based on a review. It’s like the people who protest a movie because it’s about their religion yet they haven’t seen it and can’t tell you why it’s bad. Its just bad!

      • I am not the droids you’re looking for

        There’s no mystery here as far as the nature of my criticism and what we are told in this review, and therefore what I said is not remotely retarded. We are told plainly that the substantive information behind the title of the book is missing. Therefore, it is impossible to know what, if anything, the missing information is. The title clearly posits that it’s some wisdom. Knowable, shareable, stealable.

        But the author of the book not only doesn’t know this information, he doesn’t even know that there is actually information to know. I.e. It may be luck. Would you really write (or read) a book about a team being lucky? And yes, to me, in the spirit of “a broken clock is right twice a day” and “even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time” I think a preponderance of losing seasons resulting in a preponderance of high draft picks would likely lead – sooner or later – to a decent team, even if run by a bunch of idiots. Just because they changed ownership groups doesn’t mean there’s any causality.

        The author has ultimately told us nothing about what the title plainly sets forth as the central premise of the book. And that’s retarded.

        • http://www.thebronxview.com Scott Ham

          The author has ultimately told us nothing about what the title plainly sets forth as the central premise of the book. And that’s retarded.

          Ben has clarified that in the comments.

          And as someone who is reading the book, I can tell you that your assertion is wrong. The Extra 2% doesn’t just relate to player evaluation but everything else that is done in the organization, from clubhouse amenities, fan treatment, etc. It’s about trying to find a little edge in a multitude of areas that will hopefully add up greater success.

          But I know that because I’ve read the book and not made a rash judgement about something I haven’t read based on a review.

          • http://www.thebronxview.com Scott Ham

            Didn’t close my quote. Apologies.

  • Pat D

    But the Rays weren’t part of the Montreal Expos.

    /parody’d

  • http://www.secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

    Just to address a few points raised in the comments: I don’t mean to be overly harsh toward this book. It’s a great book, quick read and paints an interesting picture. Keri does explore what the Extra 2 percent is as well. It’s basically an aribtrage process that has the Rays identifying undervalued baseball assets and picking them up on the cheap. They’re more than willing to talk about that part of the process that gives them the edge in a very competitive division.

    What the book doesn’t cover are the analyses behind that process. It doesn’t explore the proprietary systems the Rays use, and in that sense, it’s unlike Moneyball. There’s no one thing that pops as OBP did in Lewis’ book. That’s not a bad thing, and I really did enjoy the book. It’s just something that’s missing.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for

      Thanks for the added color. But we still don’t know whether the emperor has clothes. Just because they say they’re doing something smart doesnt mean they are (see: Madoff, Bernie).

  • Ted Nelson

    Pretty interesting stuff, sounds like a good read.

    The franchise definitely seems to be a lot better run, but I do think there’s also a lot of luck involved.

    Josh Hamilton and Rocco Baldelli, for example, were everyone’s favorite prospects and didn’t make it on the Rays for pretty random reasons (from the team’s perspective when they drafted them). I remember Brazelton being fairly highly touted as well even if he was a reach, and he was a BA Top 60 prospect before pitching a pro inning for what that’s worth. Standridge was a #31 pick, so hard to consider that too much of a flop.
    Along with the bad luck, some of the guys who have carried them recently were added under the previous regime: Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Delmon Young (= Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, which is the new regime but impossible without picking Young), and I believe Jaso was picked before the new group (I don’t know who ran their 2003 draft).

    And it’s not huge luck considering how high they were picking, but getting Longoria and Price in back to back drafts even picking that high seems lucky to me. Not picking that high it’s nearly impossible.

    So of the Rays 28.6 fWAR from position players in 2010, 13.5 (47%) were inherited and another 6.9 came from Longoria (24%)… so 70% might be somewhat attributable to “luck” for this new regime.
    On the pitching side, Garza and Price combined for 6.1 fWAR (40% of their 15.2 fWAR). Niemann (1.2 fWAR) was also a very high pick they’ll no longer have the luxury of taking so long as they’re good.
    Overall, of 43.8 fWAR 27.7 came from inherited players or top 4 overall picks.

    Don’t get me wrong… I think they’re a well run organization and would like the check out the book… I’m just saying that without plenty of luck I don’t think they’re nearly the success story they have become. Even getting the Rays to .500 was an accomplishment and of course any new regime will inherit players. Drafting is obviously not all luck, and they’ve also found some steals later in the draft. The 2011 draft alone may set them up nicely for the next decade.

  • Calvin

    Can you judge your own impartiality?