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

Mar 14, 2011, 9:00 AM EDT

Extra 2%

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.

  1. yankeesfanlen - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    Great review, Craig. One of the inherent problems with non-fiction is getting mired in minutae. I had no idea that Mark Twain’s biography would be so boring until I got through (or skipped) the ponderous notes of the compiler, only to find Twain, in all this glory, once he was directly doing the storytelling.

  2. woodenulykteneau - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    “Turning the Rays around wasn’t a matter of some simple, Billy Beanian observation about the value of a handful of sabermetric concepts”

    And the revival of the A’s wasn’t, either. It was actually rather similar; finding commodities that were either over- or undervalued and exploiting the biases. Lewis knows more than a little about stocks and thus it was part of what drew him to the subject.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:46 AM

      I agree with you. In this I was trying to address what has come to be the wrongheaded — yet widely accepted — shorthand of Beane and Moneyball. Trying to express that Keri’s book is not that.

      The real difference, I think, is that Keri was not looking for some overarching narrative the way Lewis was. And it’s for the better, mostly because not everyone is Michael Lewis and in someone else’s hands, that could be disastrous.

      I think that Lewis’ narrative gave Moneyball a greater mass appeal than it otherwise would have had given the topic. I think Keri’s book is much more straightforward and informative for baseball fans who simply want to know what makes an organization tick.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:51 AM

        Of course that’s what Moneyball is about, haven’t you seen that article on frumforum from Hirsch and his wonderful book tackling all the problems of Moneyball and how it’s wrong?

        [note everything above is sarcasm, except the book part].

      • woodenulykteneau - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:58 AM

        I knew you knew, but I think too many people forget that Lewis has written not one, but two seminal books (“Liar’s Poker”, “The Big Short”) about the financial industry and it’s so often overlooked, if not ignored because of the success of his sports books.

  3. williamnyy23 - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    One reason I haven’t considered buying the book, and perhaps you can dispel this notion, is because the early vibe has seemed to imply that the Rays’ success is somehow unique, when in fact, the structure of baseball is as much responsible for their ascension (in particular, the draft format that rewarded them for a decade of futility).

    If the book is simply a tale of how the Rays worked within this framework to have a few seasons, that’s fine, but if it is really trying to suggest that the Rays “worked harder”, well, then I can do without the latest tale of some team reinventing the wheel. Based on the title (i.e., it’s use of extra 2% and WS strategies), it seems as if the book is trying to sell a bigger story than it really is telling.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:44 AM

      I have a Q&A with Jonah Keri going live in about 45 minutes, and I asked him that question directly. I think his view is that this is not some unique thing that only the Rays could do. Or even that other teams hadn’t in some respects, done so already. It is something, however, that in its rigor is unique with the Rays.

      • obsessivegiantscompulsive - Mar 14, 2011 at 10:49 AM

        I am with William on this one. I think their success is related more to their drafts than these other +2% management changes. Based on reviews I’ve seen, I applaud that the new owners get it better than Namoli, in a lot of different ways, but from what I understand, this has not paid off yet in terms of attendance, which I consider a key thing for them to stay competitive long-term, as these young players will start costing a lot of money.

        And frankly, losing Carl Crawford for two draft picks is not +2% efficient, there is too much loss of talent through that free agency loss, plus huge time lag on the return of that talent as well. They should have been more worried about that huge deficit from that loss, that is, working on a trade once they knew they were not going to re-sign him, than trying to squeeze an extra 2% from their other moves. The Giants are going to have to face this issue with their rotation, so that is of great interest to me, but I think the Rays blew it with that one. They are lucky they have so much talent in the farm system that they will probably not miss him much in 2011, but that loss will show up later when winning saps them of that talent in the farm system.

        That said, I will probably read this book while I never got around to reading Moneyball. Craig made this book look more appealing than other reviews have so far. I am not convinced that they have figured out how to gain +2% on every move, but if the book is about the inner workings of a team, then that I would find very interesting.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:50 AM

      Granted I’m only about 50% through the book, but it’s not some heroic saga about how these three fine gentlemen tackled the problem of the evil Yanks/Sox and toppled them while saving the Princess. It’s how they tried to do a bunch of little things just that much better, when adding up they helped the team go from perennial cellardwellar to AL E champs [Keri uses the term arbitrage a lot in the book].

      The contrast from Naimoli to the new Owners was a huge shocker, as Craig mentioned Naimoli didn’t let his employees use email/internet. He once asked a local high school band to play, and demanded they pay for tickets. All this stuff the new owners had to fix when they took over.

      The story about the scout and Albert Pujols was touching. Reminded me of the former Astros scout who was pushing them to draft Jeter and then retired when they passed.

  4. noneofyourbusiness95 - Mar 14, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Thanks Craig. I’ll read this as soon as I can. I believe competitive advantage is one of the most important subjects in baseball and it will be very interesting to see what component Keri believes luck plays in the “equality playing field”.
    I’ll add one personal note. When I read non-fiction I generally don’t do so for the “brand” stamp of the writer – even if it’s you. I rely on the brand for the quality of thinking behind the words. “Cutesy”ness is the realm of pundits who opine mostly to sell copy. I have little use for that.

  5. Old Gator - Mar 14, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Now all the team needs to do is figure out a way to put asses in the seats of the Tropicana Dump. Best of luck.

    • florida76 - Mar 14, 2011 at 12:19 PM

      The Rays deserve a ton of credit for the 2008 AL pennant year, it was a miracle season, and the product of great timing as well. 2010 was a terrific year, winning the division, even though they failed to win a home playoff game, and never made it past the first round. 2011 will be like 2009, mediocre, as reality will kick in.

      2% and MoneyBall will only get you so far, because money is so crucial to long term serious contention in MLB. Only Charlie Sheen thinks Manny and Damon can equal the output of Crawford.

      With a weak fanbase, and no tradition, the Rays could relocate by the end of this decade. They can wiggle out of their lease, the franchise is definitely not bound to St. Pete to 2027, contrary to perception.

      • Old Gator - Mar 14, 2011 at 12:25 PM

        They’d be fine in the Bay area in a facility that didn’t look like a huge wart turning malignant from too much sun, wasn’t located waaaaay west of the center of the team’s fan base (ie, that was located on the Tampa side, preferably near I-4 where they could build up and pull in more of the Orlando area fans). As long as they stay in that extruded gunite Morlock dome, half the very few fans who do go to their games will really just be taking them in as a side trip on the way to the Dali museum.

  6. marshmallowsnake - Mar 14, 2011 at 12:05 PM

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

    Well…for starters…the Rays got a top 5 pick for what, ten+ years straight? Eventually, that first round talent reaches the pros at very little cost…and eventually they play well…and you would expect them to be a good team. Then throw in some great later round picks and signings…and you have the Rays.

    • tomemos - Mar 14, 2011 at 1:26 PM

      If all it takes to win is top 5 picks, I’d like to offer you very reasonable odds on the Pirates winning the pennant this year.

      I love how you say “Then throw in some great later round picks and signings” as if it was no thing. It’s equivalent to saying about Steve Jobs, “Look, anyone can run a successful company if they just design wildly successful products.”

    • paperlions - Mar 14, 2011 at 2:40 PM

      That was my first thought when I saw the title of the book. Having that many top picks is really what turned the Rays around. If the book doesn’t successfully dismiss the notion that it was all of those top 5 picks that turned them around (either through trade value or performance), then there is no reason for the rest of the book.

      • tomemos - Mar 14, 2011 at 3:06 PM

        The Royals and Mariners have had top 5 picks for the better part of the decade, and they still haven’t arrived. You don’t have to deny that the picks were helpful in order to find that the Rays did a lot of other stuff well too, stuff that other teams haven’t been able to pull off yet.

  7. tomemos - Mar 14, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    “Those who rooted for the Rays between 1998 and 2005 may get sick to their stomaches reliving Naimoli’s follies…”

    I hope those fourteen individuals have some antacid handy.

  8. buddaley - Mar 14, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    In 2008, there were 2 first round picks (of the Rays) who played a significant role during the season: Longoria and Upton. Late in the year, Price did help, but he was not there for most of the year. On the other hand, other major factors in the season were Pena (scrapheap pickup), Iwamura, Floyd and Hinske (free agent signings), Navarro, Bartlett, Zobrist Gross, Aybar, Jackson, Howell, Wheeler, Garza* and Balfour (trades) and Crawford, Shields and Sonnanstine (later round draft picks)

    In 2010, the Rays had two more first round picks, Price & Niemann, on their roster. Again, it was later round picks, trades and reclamation projects such as Benoit, Soriano, Sean Rodriguez, Zobrist, Jaso and Davis who were responsible for their success. Of course, you cannot ignore the importance of Longoria, Upton, Niemann and Price, but to say the Rays success was because they had top 10 draft picks every year is clearly wrong. As a matter of fact, Boston had 3 first round picks on its roster in 2010 (Buccholz, Ellsbury and Bard) and the Yankees also had three (Jeter, Hughes and Joba). That does not include the first round picks, such as Teixeira, each signed as free agents, of course.

    *I know that Garza came over due to a trade of Delmon Young, a high first round pick. But perhaps equally important as Garza in 2008 was Bartlett, also part of that deal, one that probably would not have happened had the Rays not earlier picked up Brendan Harris they could then include in the trade.

  9. cur68 - Mar 15, 2011 at 12:59 AM

    Reading all of this, I can’t help but think; where then are the Royals and Mariners (as tomemos also asks)? If it was mainly up to high draft choices then those two teams would contend. Yet they do not and they have sucked as long as the Rays did (till ownership changed). In spring training Craig indicated that the Royals were stacked with young talent (and old poopy pants; George Brett). If so, then we should see something from them this season. I’m betting not, nor next year either. I’ll give this here book thing a looksee. I’m curious to see what the author has to say about that 2%.

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