Imagine a Durham Bulls game this summer. Say, a Tuesday in July, the seventh inning of a slack game—the score 6-1, perhaps. Doesn't matter who's winning, or even who the Bulls' opponent is. The beery, funnel-caked crowd, which thinned out after the "sumo wrestling" sideshow an inning or two earlier, half drowses in the sticky midsummer night.
Pitching for the Bulls is Dirk Hayhurst. A handful of fans recognize Hayhurst as the author of The Bullpen Gospels (Citadel Press, 340 pp.), a mostly comic memoir of minor-league life that debuted on The New York Times best-seller list in 2010 and has been called a cross between Ball Four and Bull Durham. Tonight Hayhurst is throwing a lot of off-speed pitches. Maybe he's trying to hone them, or perhaps they're just easier on his shoulder, which underwent major surgery that caused him to miss all of 2010.
Hardly anyone knows any of this: Hayhurst's book, his breaking balls, his shoulder injury. But up on the top level of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Hayhurst's exertions are under deep and serious scrutiny. One door down from the radio broadcast booth, in its own little room, is something called Pitchf/x. This powerful piece of technology, invented about five years ago, tracks the arc, spin, change in velocity and just about everything else about any given pitch—it even estimates the strain on the arm throwing it. On the Pitchf/x screen, the video image of the pitcher is blanketed with numerical and other data, sort of like the view through Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes in Terminator.
Every ballpark in the major leagues uses Pitchf/x, but only 14 of the nearly 200 minor-league affiliates in America have it, and one of them is the Durham Bulls. The data from our hypothetical game goes to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls' parent club, who analyze Hayhurst's pitching. Meanwhile, after the game, Hayhurst performs his own very different analysis, updating his lively Twitter feed (@thegarfoose) and making notes for his third book—he's already given his editor the manuscript to the sequel to The Bullpen Gospels.
There's another book Bulls fans might be interested in. The Extra 2% (ESPN Books, 272 pp.) shows how the Rays' cash-poor but Wall Street-trained management team maintains a small but essential competitive edge in baseball's toughest division, which they've improbably won two of the last three seasons. Author Jonah Keri tosses around words like "arbitrage" and "incentivize" as he explores the Rays' savvy financial operations, sophisticated player-development methods and innovative on-field tactics.
The Extra 2% is perhaps most compelling for what it's missing. In a chapter titled "Mystery Men," Keri writes about a Rays analyst named Josh Kalk, who specializes in parsing Pitchf/x data. When he was hired, Kalk was "barred from revealing the identity of his new employer [and] the Rays took the added step of leaving his name off their front-office directory ... Kalk was The Man Who Wasn't There."
Keri pans back from that detail to show the almost military-level secrecy of the Rays' modus operandi. That's true for most big-league clubs, of course; the rub, though, is that Keri himself was granted only limited access to the team and its leaders while writing his ostensible Rays Confidential—much less access than Michael Lewis seems to have had when he wrote his seminal Moneyball about the innovations of the Oakland A's. Although The Extra 2% is an anecdotally satisfying book, it leaves you wondering if the Rays gave Keri only what they wanted him to have—Josh Kalk, for example—but kept their extra 2 percent to themselves.
On the other hand, maybe that 2 percent is actually hidden in plain sight—in Durham, N.C. When you can't afford high-dollar free agents—the Rays deeply slashed their already small payroll this season, spending parsimoniously on free agents—you must draft and develop prospects smartly, trade shrewdly and unsentimentally, and take inexpensive and calculated gambles on fringe role players. Some of these are classic "four-A" types, not-quite-major-league talents in search of their own extra 2 percent. The Rays get them cheap, like underperforming stocks, and hope for the best while their own blue-chips mature. Last year, Bulls fans saw both types in action, as homegrown hurler Jeremy Hellickson and free agent Dan Johnson, back from a year toiling in Japan, earned big-league shots. The Bulls are Tampa's extra 2 percent, the Rays Who Weren't There.
Not for nothing have the Bulls made the playoffs four straight years under returning manager Charlie Montoyo. Can they make it five? The young Bulls prospects will, as usual, grab the headlines on the way to September. Outfielder Desmond Jennings, 24, is still knocking on the big-league door after an underachieving 2010 season hampered by nagging injuries, from which he says he is fully recovered. Most of the rest is pitching, led by a pair of Alexes—starting pitchers Cobb and Torres, both 23—joined in the starting rotation by Richard De Los Santos, who at age 26 had a breakout 2010 season for the Bulls. Right behind them in Class AA Montgomery, another extra 2 percent, are right-hander—and Raleigh native—22-year-old Chris Archer, acquired in the off-season trade that sent Rays starter Matt Garza (and Fernando Perez) to the Cubs, and 21-year-old Matt Moore, the lefty who led the minor leagues in strikeouts last season. If they pitch their way to the DBAP, the Bulls' starters could get very young come August.
As a curious counter to that youth, after spring training the Rays assigned the 30-year-old Dirk Hayhurst to the Bulls' starting rotation. Hayhurst has been primarily a reliever since 2007 (good for his literary career: The Starting Rotation Gospels is an infelicitous title), and even that workload ravaged his shoulder. Why would the Rays, who could have chosen from dozens of other candidates to fill Hayhurst's role—right-handed pitcher is the commonest job description in baseball—not only purchase damaged merchandise but decide to make heavier use of it? Moreover, why would this cagey, furtive club sign a ballplayer who will spend 2011 jotting down clubhouse secrets for future publication?
One persuasive answer reveals another extra 2 percent, part of the margin that frames the Rays' art of unlikely success. Hayhurst, like the Rays, has embraced self-reinvention, and not just by moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He has repurposed his right arm for writing as much as pitching nowadays; a good percentage of his baseball appeal is, contradictorily, his nonbaseball appeal.
That's true of the Rays, too, who eschew conventional baseball wisdom wherever they find it, on the field or off. They bat catchers leadoff, they intentionally walk a batter with the bases loaded. And, trapped in St. Petersburg's gloomy Tropicana Field, they boost the mood and ticket sales with a postgame ... Vanilla Ice concert?
In that light, Dirk Hayhurst is precisely the Rays' kind of player: not just smarter than the competition but also—maybe more important—wackier. (Manny Ramirez would have been a perfect fit, too, had he not retired this week after testing positive for banned substances: an intelligent, inexpensive player with the potential to outperform his small salary and to attract more fans—and, also, a total screwball.) Consider Rays manager Joe Maddon, who colors his gray-matter approach with disarmingly broad interests and goofy comedy. He recently created a "batting order" of nine of his favorite wines. Last season, during the September pennant drive, he led his team on silly themed-dress road trips. And The Bullpen Gospels is no cerebral trip: It's a shaggy, loose collection of often juvenile clubhouse tales and profane hijinks; probably less than 2 percent of Hayhurst's book recounts baseball actually being played.
The Rays are an appealing combination of a tight ship and loose lips, with great lightness of spirit animating the Rays' weighty thought: Look no farther than the DBAP—half Pitchf/x, half Bullpen Gospels—where the clubhouse always seems to be inhabited by a ringer or two. There was the swift Fernando Perez, the poetry-loving Columbia grad who was as likely to hand you the verses of Stephen Dunn as he was to talk about stolen bases. There was Matt DeSalvo, salvaged from the independent leagues in 2009, who read Camus and Confucius and had written a novel. Last season brought the Bulls the New-Agey Virgil Vasquez and class clown Omar Luna (who reprises the role in 2011). The Rays—and their Bulls—seem to have a firm grasp on what the great catcher Roy Campanella meant when he famously said, "You have to be a man to play this game, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too."
It can't be an accident that the baseball season gets going just as the school year is winding down. No more teachers, no more books—but if you really want to get bullish this season, go out and get The Bullpen Gospels and The Extra 2%. They're quick and easy reads, suitable for the beach—or for the DBAP, say, during a midsummer rain delay, while Dirk Hayhurst sits in the clubhouse making notes for his next book and, in an office in Tampa, the Man Who Wasn't There pores over Pitchf/x data, trying to make the numbers that crowd Hayhurst's image add up to an extra 2 percent.