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Q&A with Jonah Keri

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 8, 2011 03:17 PM

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If you're among those Red Sox fans convinced that the offseason exodus of Carl Crawford among others means the Tampa Bay Rays will cease being anything more dangerous than a nuisance in 2011 and beyond, well, let's just say we have some suggested reading for you.

Jonah Keri -- the esteemed baseball and business writer, Expos fan, and, lest we forget, ambassador of the Friendly Toast, the official breakfast place of this blog -- makes a case as entertaining as it is thorough in his new book that the Rays, even with their financial disadvantages, are as smart, thorough, and progressive as any organization in baseball.

The book, titled The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took A Major League Baseball Team From Worst To First, details how the Rays' current management team -- namely owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman, and general manager Andrew Friedman, all of whom come from a Wall Street background -- resuscitated the franchise after the disastrous inaugural ownership regime of Vince Naimoli.

"The Extra 2%," which hit the shelves today, is a worthy companion to "Moneyball" on that edge of your baseball bookshelf that bumps up against the business section. It's a terrific read, insightful, breezy, and overflowing with fresh anecdotes. Long before you turn the final page, you will respect not only the Rays' results, but the process in which they got to them.

What follows is a fun conversation I had with Jonah a few days ago regarding the book , the Rays, and how it all relates to the Red Sox. Warning: The Q&A is long. We think you'll find it worth the read; we know you'll love the book.

Before we get to all the good baseball stuff from the book, let's start with the prologue to the project. How did the "Extra 2%" come about?

Keri: "It's a funny story. I used to post on an Expos message board in the late '90s. I read Bill James as a kid, wrote about stats before -- well, Rob Neyer was writing about stats before, but not a lot of other people -- and I was just some guy. I was not a professional writer, I was just some guy. And I would write things down. Some people thought I was totally bonkers or an idiot or whatever, and some people were like, 'Oh, that's kind of interesting.' But nothing came of it and I went about my business and I started writing more about baseball.

"So almost a decade later, like in 2007, I got an e-mail from this guy. He said, 'You don't know me, but I was username AZbullpen coach on the same Expos board as you.' He said, 'I love what you did, kept tabs on you, and now I'm editor at Random House. We should totally work together.' I was like, 'Cmon.' I thought it was one of my buddies or something. But no, it turned out the be for real. The next summer, when the Rays started doing well, I got a call from that guy [Paul Taunton] along with Steve Wulf, who is part of the ESPN book venture, and they both said, 'Hey, we want to do a sports and business book, and we feel like you would be a good fit.' I went to New York, met with them, and it was a great fit as far as my curiosity for sports and business is concerned. Michael Lewis was not available is my guess."

maddonjoe.jpgWe talked a couple of times about the project as you were working on it in various phases, and it seemed there was always some new discovery or piece of information that you were fired up about discovering, whether it was the tragicomic tyranny of the Vince Naimoli ownership era or Joe Maddon's background that almost destined him to become a manager or the remarkable business acumen of Sternberg, Silverman, and Friedman, and the current regime. Was there one thing that stood out to you as the most interesting?

Keri: "No, it was a lot of things, really. One of the things about 'Moneyball' -- and there are going to be some comparisons to 'Moneyball' -- Michael Lewis is a fantastic storyteller, but he has a specific narrative and he's going to go with it. That's not a criticism, that's just the way it is.

"I did not go out and say the scouts are fat and lazy. That's just not my style. I'm not saying I'm right and he's wrong, it's just a different approach. So I really dug in and found out kind of the opposite, that the Rays were really built on scouting and player development. I wanted to get into that they drafted, whoever, David Price first overall, that's all good, but tell me a little more behind that. Tell me a little something more about player development. I wanted to know how it is they kept their pitchers' mechanics consistent throughout the minors. I wanted to know how they created fully-formed prospects who come up to the majors and contribute immediately, and call them up at the right time so they weren't wasting service time. A lot of teams will bring guys up and for the first two or three years [they're terrible] and don't mature until later. That's terrible for the Rays, they need rookies to be good.

"I learned about that, I learned about Joe Maddon after spending a day with his family and friends and everybody that he ever knew in his hometown, I learned about stadium economics, I learned about Vince Naimoli. Good god, Vince Naimoli. There's definitely a narrative that flows throughout the book, but you can also read it as 12 different entities or 12 different messages as far as the chapters go. I really tried to give something to the reader that they could learn from, hopefully, and I was learning a lot with them."

The aspect that is going to be eye-opening to my audience is not only the collective intelligence of the Rays front office, but their desire to seek every possible advantage and the progressive ways in which they do so . Entering the project, how aware were you of the depths of the Rays' quest for information and how they got the organization to this point?

Keri: "It occurred to me as I'm researching the book, I'm thinking 'Well, wait a minute.' Maybe this whole extra two percent idea, I came in thinking they just scout well and they draft well.' But there's a whole chapter about marketing, and that's not something I set out to do when I started the book.

"It became obvious as I went that that was very important to them because of all of the damage Naimoli and his cronies had caused. So to send all the ushers and everybody to Disney World basically for reorientation . . . you know, some people aren't going to find that all that interesting, they're going to want to talk about batting average. But I thought it was fascinating, and I thought it was part and parcel for how they turned this organization around. So that's what I found with the extra two percent. It's two percent of anything you can absolutely think of -- what their parking attendants are like, that they upgraded the quality of their food. They still don't draw all that well, and they've got some financial issues, 13 percent unemployment in Tampa Bay doesn't help. But listen, but they are much better off, on the field , but even off the field, they really, really are much better off than they used to be."

Speaking of the original ownership, Vince Naimoli comes across as the right man to get a franchise in Tampa/St. Pete after MLB jerked them around for so many years, and the absolute wrong man for just about every other aspect of ownership. To call him temperamental and thrifty is probably generous on both counts. Hypothetical question, playing off his most infamous moment as the owner. If you were a Tampa/St. Pete cop, you pulled over Naimoli, and he pulled the "Do you know who I am card," what would your answer be?

Keri: (Laughs): "Uh, not good, not good . . . do-you-know-who-I-am doesn't usually play well, and Vince Naimoli's tenure is encapsulated perfectly well by do-you-know-who-I-am. There's a story about that he lobbied the city of Tampa complaining that he didn't have a parking spot reserved just for him at the airport. When a raccoon lurks around his property, he writes these letters to the city about the quote "pesky raccoon who's terrorizing his family." And then there's the stuff just within the day to day operations. One of the great stories -- and this is something that I found out that I'm not sure has ever been reported before -- he didn't have e-mail until 2003. That's really weird. Every company had e-mail by then unless you're talking about some mom-and-pop shop or something. You can't run a major league organization that way, but he did. And it's not just that he hadn't heard of e-mail. He knew what it was. He just didn't feel like it was useful. He wanted people to write memos, he wanted people to write on both sides of memos [to save paper] for that matter. And it had to be his way. Just to have a micro-manager of that degree, and someone who kind of ruled with an iron fist, sometimes that can be a positive thing. This was not a positive way. People were scared for their jobs. Ushers threw an old lady out of the park because she brought in a Ziploc bag full of 15 cashew nuts. And manifested itself all the way down from the top.

"It's the opposite with Stu -- and with Stu, I don't even mean Stu. I mean Matt Silverman, because it's not just that Stu delegates. He lives in New York and gets criticism from people in Tampa. But he hands off. He talks to Matt every single day. But Matt's the guy who is in charge of the team. And from that, Matt is going to delegate. The guy in charger of stadium operations, he is going to do his thing. The guy who is in charge of public relations is going to do his thing. And on and on it goes. And that's a very Wall Street mentality. When you're at Goldman Sachs and you're the CEO, you do not get your hands duty. You're down like seven levels before there are people trading. From that respect, I don't think Stu thought it was below him to do that kind of stuff. The culture was always, hire good people, and then trust them to do a good job."

franconaterryfinn2.jpgJoe Maddon, then Mike Scioscia's bench coach with the Angels, was a candidate for the Red Sox managerial opening that went to Terry Francona after the 2003 season. He got the Rays job in November 2005, and it's fair to suggest both franchises ended up with their ideal manager. You posed the question in the book: What would have happened had Maddon gotten the Boston job and, hypothetically, Francona ended up running the Rays? New England demands an answer!

Keri: "You know, in my mind, Joe Maddon is probably the best manager in baseball. Nobody does tactically . . . I love the fact that he's open-minded. He will try things. I talked about it in the book, the Danks Theory, but there was a point where they were getting slaughtered by Mike Mussina every single time. A couple of their stats guys said, hey, look, maybe we should start righthanded hitters against [the righthanded-throwing] Mussina because he kills lefties, and they smoked the guy. They did the same against John Danks and Shaun Marcum and it kept working. It's two or three games per season, but in the AL East, if you can find a way to win 2-3 games by turning your bats around, that's gigantic. He was willing to do that.

"I think Francona has some of that, I don't think he goes quite as far as Joe, but he is somewhat intellectually curious, and he still has good player management values. Both of those guys do that very well. Dustin Pedroia is his own character. I think that Francona has a way with him. Manny Ramirez is his own character. I think Manny Ramirez is going to do fine under Joe Maddon. All these things play out well because they are good managers of men and they are open-minded. So I think it's possible that the two teams would have ended up with pretty similar results. Maddon's my No. 1 manager in baseball, but you could make a case that Francona is No. 2."

I'd have them flipped. Francona has to deal with more ancillary stuff because of the demands and magnitude of the market, for one thing. But we all have our biases.

Keri: "Well, it's exposure, and you see how he is all the time. Forget about the subjective things with Francona. He's an old-time Expo, so I've been a Terry Francona fan for 30 years. He was a great singles hitter. He wrecked his knees, but until then he was a real good hitter. Underrated player. And you wouldn't know it now, but he had great hair." (Laughs.)

Talking to Red Sox fans and hearing from readers, I get the sense that the majority of fans around here think the Rays have peaked. A big part of that perception is because of all of the departures in the offseason -- Carl Crawford switching allegiances, trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, basically having to rebuild their entire bullpen. But given the depth of their farm system and that they have may have internal upgrades in a couple of spots, it strikes me as dangerous to presume that they will be going away anytime soon.

Keri: "Yeah, I think that predicting them to be as good as last year is probably pushing it, even for the biggest Rays optimist or cheerleader. But they do do a good job of plugging holes, and someone like Garza for instance, and Bartlett, too, they got those guys in an unbelievably good trade that was considered very [gutsy] at the time. They gave up Delmon Young, who was coming off what seemed like a very good rookie season, very good young guy, No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America, 96 RBIs as a rookie. And they traded him for Garza and Bartlett, who became linchpins of the 2008 AL champs. So to flip them just three years later, that was interesting.

"But they have replacements, just like they did with Delmon Young. And in this case, the replacements are great. Jeremy Hellickson might be as good as Matt Garza or even better than Matt Garza right now. He's a frontrunner for AL rookie of the year. And I like Reid Brignac at shortstop. Bartlett was a serviceable player but not great. Brignac is younger, certainly a better fielder, and he has upside. He's hit some big home runs at Yankee Stadium, done some things over his short career.

"With the bullpen, had they kept all those guys [Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour were among the departures], they would not have been as good as last year -- every single guy had a career year. Benoit, I don't know if many people realize, that was almost Eckersley-esque what he did last year. Forget about Soriano. Benoit was un-freaking-hittable. He had something like an 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was dominant, just a killer. Obviously Soriano was great, Balfour was great, so they just had the 7th, 8th, and 9th locked down. If you were trailing in those innings, you were going to lose automatic.

"But had they kept them, they wouldn't have been as good. Major League baseball teams pay for whatever happened most recently, and because these guys had career years, the got monster contracts. Soriano got $35 million to be a setup man. That's crazy. Benoit, who was coming off major surgery a year ago and was signed by the Rays on a minor-league contract, ends up making $750,000 last year. He got what, $18 million from the Tigers? Just unbelievable. They were not going to be in the running then even if they had a $90 million to $100 million payroll.

"Now, it is a question mark. You don't know what young guys like Jake McGee will do. I really like Adam Russell, think he's the guy to watch in that bullpen. But we don't know if they're going to succeed. [Kyle] Farnsworth has a bad reputation, but he's actually been pretty good the last two years. But we don't know. It's one thing to say we're going to save money, and it's another thing to find the right guys. We don't know if they've found the right guys. But there's a process. They get guys with good strikeout rates who keep the ball in the ballpark who on paper at least have a chance to succeed."

crawfordcardfinn2.jpgThe one guy who is the most challenging to replace is now here in Boston. While Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon were intriguing signings and Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings have promise, there's no way around the fact that Carl Crawford leaves a tremendous void, is there?

Keri: "Yeah, the one thing that is going to be hardest to replace is Crawford. Manny Ramirez, there's a chance he's the best hitter on the whole team, including Evan Longoria. If you talk about advanced metrics wOBA, things like that, he's better than Longoria even at this point in his career. So if he's healthy he'll be fantastic. But Manny's value is hitting, and that's it. Crawford brought everything, of course. Sox fans are going to love that -- he can run, obviously, he can catch the ball, he has become quite a dangerous hitter. That's going to be tough to replace. Carlos Pena [the longtime Rays first baseman who signed with the Cubs over the winter] hit .196 last year, so a lot of the losses aren't a terribly big deal and made a lot of sense. But Crawford is the double-whammy in going over to the Red Sox."

It's been fun this spring to learn about Crawford as more than just Mr. Tampa Bay Ray, the guy who tormented Jason Varitek for nine years. His work ethic, his leadership skills, his personality away from the field. What are the Sox getting in him away from the field, and how is he evolving as a player from your perspective?

Keri: "The No. 1 characteristic of Carl Crawford is that he works like a lunatic. The guy's running up mountains, squatting 800 pounds, and it's not for show. He doesn't do it because there's a reporter there, he does it all the time. And you know what's so funny about Crawford? In the 2008 season, which is kind of the reason the book took place, he was hurt, he had a hamstring problem, even when he was in the lineup he was clearly playing hurt. It's hard to know how much that affected him that season, especially when he had hamstring problems, because to a player of his skills, hamstrings are everything. But he really just kept getting better from there. In 2009 he got better, and 2010 he got even better than that, adding power, too. [A career-high 19 home runs.]

"It's unfortunate that Fenway doesn't play well for lefthanded pull-hitters, really. It takes a bomb to get it out of there in right-center. Adrian Gonzalez is going to be awesome because he sprays the ball around the field with power. Crawford's not going to hit it 360 feet to left-center, because that's not really his skill-set. But tons of double and triples are in play. He might be on a home-run trajectory -- had he signed with the Yankees, he might have hit 25 or so home runs this year. He will show an incredibly broad set of skills, though I do think it's a quasi-waste to have him playing in such a shallow left field as Fenway's. His instincts are amazing. If you've ever watched him play left field at Fenway, he fields the Monster as well as Yaz, Jim Rice, anyone whose played out there for 10 years and knows all the nooks and crannies. Crawford gets that. He'll go up the wall when he needs to, he'll play the carom, he'll hold guys to singles, and that's as a visitor. Forget about the fact that now you've got him for seven years.

"This is a guy who works extremely hard, he's supremely talented, has very good baseball instincts . . . and I reject the notion, by the way, that this is a lot of money for a speed guy. What often happens with speed guys, and Bill James has talked about this, is that they tend to develop other skills. If you have five tools to start, even if speed is your most prominent, those other skills will develop. Like Bobby Abreu was super-crazy fast when he was a young player and a great fielder, and OK, those skills kind of went away, but he kept the on-base ability, throwing, started hitting for more power and other things came on. I think you could see that with Crawford as his career goes on. Right now, he's kind of a hacker and has moderate power. Maybe he just notches it up a little bit, a few more walks, a few more bombs, as the stolen bases and baserunning goes down just a check, and we're still talking about one of the three or four fastest guys in baseball as we sit here right now."

brazeltonfinn.jpgThe Bobby Abreu reference reminds me of how many great what-if stories there are in this book. What if Chuck LaMar hadn't traded him for Kevin Stocker? What if the Rays had drafted Mark Teixeira instead of easy-sign Dewon Brazelton with the third pick in the 2001 draft? And the greatest one of all, and one Red Sox fans can relate to since they have a similar story with this player: What if the Rays had listened to the scout who desperately wanted to draft Albert Pujols?

Keri: "You know, I think if you talked to somebody within a lot of teams, the story may be apocryphal or maybe not, but they'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, we were in on Albert Pujols too,' because you have 29 teams who don't want to have egg on their face, they want to make you believe they were in on him. But this particular scout [who coveted Pujols for the Rays], Fernando Arongo has a great reputation in the game, scouted and signed a ton of guys, Jason Bay and a ton of others.

"This story about Pujols had been reported before, but I don't think it was quite teased out as much as I did. I really talked to Arongo for a while, about driving down to meet Pujols for breakfast at Denny's and all of this and how much he got to know Albert and how much he believed in him. It was really fascinating how it went down.

"And yeah, the what-if, you can talk about that with any franchise, you can talk about the Sox and all that, but for the Rays, especially when they were the Devil Rays, it was much more painful. It was such a vicious cycle. If they had Pujols, then maybe they don't go out and spend for the [Hit] Show [when they signed fading sluggers such as Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn], dumping all of this money on them, losing a guy like Abreu. . . they didn't do a good enough job with homegrown guys at first, and because they created a spiral situation, things kept getting worse on top of worse. They could just never recover. One of the things I talk about in the book is what is [then-GM] Chuck LaMar's role in all of this. Some of the blame goes on the scouting directors and player development and all of that. But LaMar is a good scout, a very good baseball man, and the nicest guy you could ever meet. He took two hours of his time to tell me how he went wrong. Who does that? But he even said, 'I was not cut out to whip a domineering boss into shape.' And that's what they needed because of Naimoli. And because they didn't have that, they got screwed, and because stuff like missing out on Pujols went down and Teixeira and all of that, LaMar didn't lobby enough, and then he didn't lobby harder to prevent further damage.

"So there was a vicious cycle going on with the Rays that, frankly, can happen with any team. You look at the bad years of the Red Sox, there's things compounded on top of each other, in the latter Yawkey years and before the current regime. It wasn't just one thing that was bad, it was a lot of things. A losing climate, dot-dot-dot. That was the story of the Red Sox at those times, and it was the story of the Devil Rays for sure."

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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