Extra 2%

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

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You gotta love it when someone messes up an accepted narrative.  And there hasn’t been a narrative in Major League Baseball over the past several years that has been more widely accepted than “The Yankees and Red Sox have an unfair advantage.”  And, sure, structurally-speaking they do. They’re richer than Croesus and are run by the smartest men in the game.

And for two of the past three years they’ve been beat by the Tampa Bay Rays for the division crown. What gives?

The answer to that question is the major draw to Jonah Keri’s excellent new book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.  He covers more ground than that, of course, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but really, no one would read a book about how the Yankees exploited all of the resources at their disposal to win. Er, to continue winning.  Keri’s book is about solving what may be the biggest problem in baseball: how to compete on an inherently unlevel playing field.

And there are no easy answers. This is not Moneyball. It’s not about some would-be genius figure thinking circles around the competition through some breakthrough involving esoteric baseball concepts. It’s about how a couple of former Goldman Sachs colleagues — team owner Stuart Sternberg and president Matthew Silverman — and their friend — former private equity whiz and current Rays GM Andrew Friedman — simply worked harder and smarter in incremental ways. How they have literally applied that “extra 2%” to every move they’ve made in order to grab whatever advantage they can.

And despite the investment banking background of the principals and the phrase “Wall Street Strategies” in the title, this isn’t a book about deceptively simple business theories and it’s not the kind of book that consultants will hand out at seminars in which they peddle the latest in management trends. Which may kind of suck for Keri because there’s a lot of money to be made in that racket, but it’s great for baseball fans because its lack of gimmickry is what makes The Extra 2% the best, most fulfilling look at what it takes to run a successful baseball team I have ever read.

And it’s the comprehensiveness that really sets this book apart. Turning the Rays around wasn’t a matter of some simple, Billy Beanian observation about the value of a handful of sabermetric concepts. It was a baseball challenge, a business challenge, a public relations challenge and a morale challenge. Keri explains the problems the former Devil Rays had in all of these areas and explains exactly how the Sternberg/Silverman/Friedman team dealt with them.

In this Keri eschews Michael Lewis’ tale-telling and character-sketching tendencies in the name of straight-forward reporting.  And while I loved Moneyball, I found –and I think most baseball fans will find — Keri’s approach to be more informative and intellectually fulfilling.  Lewis taught us a lot about the inner-workings of a baseball team, but it was always in service of his dramatic narrative, which wasn’t always easy to accept at the time and hasn’t been unequivocally vindicated in the past eight years. Keri, in contrast, plays things matter-of-factly and simply answers more questions all of us have about what it takes to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox at a fraction of the price.

Which isn’t to say that this is a clinical read.  To the contrary, the book is packed with fun, most particularly when dealing with the Rays’ previous owner Vincent Naimoli, who redefined the concepts of ego, greed, cheapness, pettiness and cluelessness when it comes to running a baseball team.  Those who rooted for the Rays between 1998 and 2005 may get sick to their stomaches reliving Naimoli’s follies, but for the rest of us it’s great theater. Deadspin ran an excerpt of all of this last week for those wanting a taste.  My favorite part is the stuff about Naimoli not allowing employees to have Internet access.  As late as 2003. Yikes.

One other thing that those of you who read a lot of non-fiction will appreciate is Keri’s writing style.  There seems to be a tendency these days for non-fiction writers to mess around a lot and get all cutesy in the name of stamping their work with their personal brand. I’m thinking of guys like Malcolm Gladwell and others who mistake sophistry for analysis and who try to infuse every other sentence with a “gee whiz!” tone that tells you that what you are reading Is Truly Important. Keri doesn’t do that. He’s engaging without drawing too much attention himself. He’s straightforward but doesn’t eschew flavor. It breezes along but never feels too light.

More generally speaking, it’s a book in which the subject — and not the author’s decision to tackle the subject — is the main point.  That may seem like an odd thing to say, but for most of the non-fiction I’ve read in the past five years, it seems like the majority of the effort was put in the book proposal and, once it was accepted and the advance paid, the rest was just filled out around it.  “See my neat nut of an idea!” the author seems to say. “Now let’s see how many anecdotes I can string together in order to show you just how neat an idea I had!”  To the contrary, Keri tells a story that teaches us stuff. He didn’t set out to make a point and then search for a story that supported it.

The Extra 2% is one of the best baseball books I’ve read in recent years and I recommend it highly.  If you care a lick about what it takes to run a baseball team — or if you care a lick about the inequalities between baseball’s haves and have-nots — you should definitely pick up a copy.

And stay tuned, because later this morning I’ll be running a Q&A with Jonah in which he (a) reveals the single most important move in the ascendancy of the Tampa Bay Rays; and (b) explains why — contrary to everyone who is sleeping on them — the Rays will most certainly be in the thick of things in the AL East this year.

Yoenis Cespedes says he does not plan to opt out of his contract

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 04: Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets reacts after he hit a two run double in the eighth inning inning against the Miami Marlins during a game at Citi Field on July 4, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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Yoenis Cespedes is in the first year of a three-year, $75 million deal with the Mets that includes an opt-out clause leading into 2017. It’s a great situation for him. If he was hurt or ineffective this year, hey, he still gets $75 million. If he rakes he can go back out on the free agent market this November and see if he can’t do better than the two years and $50 million he’ll have left.

Cespedes said today, however, that he does not plan to exercise his opt-out this winter:

Speaking through an interpreter, Cespedes stayed on message, saying his focus is on “helping the team win so we can hopefully make it to the playoffs.”

When asked by The Record’s Matt Ehalt if he intended to honor all three years of his current $75 million contract, without opting out, Cespedes flatly said, “Yes.”

The beautiful thing about baseball contracts is that the Bergen Record is not a party to them and thus statements made to them about the contract are not legally binding. Cespedes can most certainly change his mind on the matter — or just lie to the press even if he fully intends to opt-out — and nothing can be done to him. At least nothing apart from having someone write bad things about him, but that’s gonna happen anyway. The guy can’t play golf without someone who has no idea how to Cespedes’ job say that he “just doesn’t get it.”

So, will Cespedes opt-out? He’s certainly making a case that it’d be a wise thing to do purely on financial terms. He’s hitting .295/.365/.570 with 25 homers in 98 games. And those numbers are dragged down a bit by the fact that the Mets kept playing him through an injury for the second half of July.

Maybe Cespedes just likes New York and maybe he’s happy with his two-year, $50 million guarantee and won’t opt out. Maybe he doesn’t want to deal with the drama and uncertainty of free agency again, even if he would have no trouble finding a job. Maybe he thinks that he’ll fall short of the $25 million average annual value he’s looking at for 2017 and 2018 if he opts out, even if he does get a longer deal as a result.

We have no idea and we have no say. But it’s not hard to imagine that, if he keeps hitting and especially if he helps the Mets get into the playoffs, he’d be leaving a ton of money on the table if he doesn’t test the market once again.

Oakland A’s officials taking a tour of a possible waterfront ballpark site

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  A Maersk Line container ship sits docked in a berth  at the Port of Oakland on February 19, 2015 in Oakland, California. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) longshoremen at the Port of Oakland took the day shift off today to attend a union meeting amidst ongoing contract negotiations between dockworkers and terminal operators at west coast ports. The port closure, the seventh one this month, has left 12 container ships stuck at the dock with no workers to load and unload them. The ILWU members at 29 West Coast ports have been without a contract for 9 months. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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The Oakland Athletics’ ballpark saga has gone on for years now, with false starts in Fremont and San Jose, lawsuits and seemingly interminable talks with the City of Oakland over a new place on the current Coliseum site. That’s all complicated, of course, by the presence of the Raiders, on whose address — be it Oakland, Las Vegas or someplace else — the A’s future is still largely contingent.

The city has tried to get the A’s interested in a waterfront site for several years now. There are a lot of problems with that due mostly to zoning and regulatory matters, as well as proximity to transit and other practical concerns. The artist’s renderings are often pretty, but it takes more than artist’s renderings to make a good ballpark plan.

But no one is giving up on that and, it seems, even the A’s are willing to at least listen to such proposals now:

Oakland A’s co-owner John Fisher is expected to join officials Thursday for a hush-hush tour of the Port of Oakland’s Howard Terminal, a cargo-loading area near Jack London Square that Mayor Libby Schaaf tirelessly promotes as “a fantastic site for a ballpark.”

Guess it ain’t so “hush-hush” anymore. As with all Oakland ballpark stories, however, feel free to continue snoozing until someone gives us a real reason to wake up.

Note: The above photo is from the Port of Oakland. I have no idea what the proximity of the working part of the city’s port is to where they’d build a ballpark, but I used this picture because I love the story about how George Lucas spotted those things from an airplane as he was leaving Oakland or San Francisco or whatever and used them as inspiration for the AT-AT Imperial Walkers in “Empire Strikes Back.” Which may be a totally aprocyphal story, but one I love so much that I told it to my kids when we flew in to Oakland back in June and will choose to believe despite whatever evidence you provide.