Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
How to Beat a Broken Game
The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink
By Pedro Moura
Formats and Prices
- Hardcover $29.00 $37.00 CAD
- ebook $17.99 $21.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 29, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
The inside story of how the Dodgers won their first championship in more than thirty years—but helped cripple the sport of baseball in the process
After years of frustrating playoff runs, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally reclaimed the World Series trophy after more than thirty years, led by star pitcher Clayton Kershaw, electric outfielder Mookie Betts, and a bevy of impressive young players assembled by team president Andrew Friedman. No team is better positioned to win now and in the future.
Yet winning at modern baseball is nothing like it was even twenty years ago. In the years since the famous Moneyball revolution, baseball has grown to look less like a sport than a Wall Street firm that traded its boiler room for a field. Teams relentlessly chase every tiny advantage to win games and make money, even as it hurts fans, TV ratings, and players, courting bigger problems in the long run.
This dramatic and insightful book takes you into the clubhouse with the championship players, as well as into the offices where teams constantly seek new ways to win—even when it hurts the game. How to Beat a Broken Game shows not only what it takes to win, but what it will take to save the sport.
THE NIGHT THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS FINALLY won the World Series, nothing happened until Mookie Betts, the smallest, lightest man on the field, wrested control. In the sixth game’s sixth inning, the Tampa Bay Rays removed their thriving ace, Blake Snell, fearful of Betts taking a third look at him. Betts thumped a double on the first strike he saw from a skilled Rays reliever. On the game-tying wild pitch, he scampered to third base. On a routine grounder with Tampa Bay’s infield in, he maximized his secondary lead, accelerated at contact, slid headfirst, and touched home a few tenths of a second before he could be tagged. “If it was anybody but Mookie on third,” said Tampa Bay third baseman Joey Wendle, “we would’ve got him at home.” Betts rose, howled, and pumped his right fist five times. The Dodgers would be winners. All series, Betts proved the most comprehensive contributor, and the most entertaining. He homered. He executed double steals. He secured screaming line drives. He demonstrated modern baseball at its best, superlatively skilled and impossibly instinctual.
Baseball at its worst surrounded him. The decisive game featured almost as many strikeouts as balls in play. After Betts’s sixth-inning romp, no one but him reached second base again in 2020. And no one was watching. The last time fewer Americans watched a World Series, the World Series was not on television. The Dodgers’ thirty-two-year championship drought was over, but their sport’s struggle continued.
The evidence attests that baseball is broken. The games become more of a bore every year, and the league’s early efforts to speed pace of play changed little. It is simpler to explain the problem than it is to suggest a solution. More than our pitiful attention spans, the prime culprit is the advent and spread of data into the consciousness of the executives running the sport and, more recently, the athletes playing it. Once they grasped what earned them money in the modern game, hitters adjusted their swings to pursue it. They started hitting balls harder and launching them into the air more often, accepting a corresponding increase in strikeouts. Pitchers were already throwing harder than ever, so hard they made it halfway through a game just over half the time. They changed their games to negate hitters’ gains, throwing fewer fastballs and throwing them high, where uppercut swings can’t reach. Strangely sticky concoctions enabled them to generate gratuitous spin.
The battle of extremes yields an imbalanced product devoid of action and drained of surprises. Even no-hitters became the norm for a time in 2021. Sacrifice bunting, calculated to be inefficient, is a rare relic. Base stealing is often considered foolhardy. On average, balls in play are now spaced more than four minutes apart, more than twice as slow as a century ago. A typical 2020 game featured 33 percent fewer balls in play than the average 2005 game.
“I’m worried,” said longtime manager Buck Showalter. “Young or old, if you’re not worried, you don’t love the game.” Even on that, there is disagreement. “I definitely don’t worry about it,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler. “Baseball has always gone through ebbs and flows. The game survives through it all.” But more stakeholders side with Showalter, one of fifteen men on commissioner Rob Manfred’s competition committee, a group of baseball lifers reestablished in 2017 to dissect the sport’s struggle attracting new fans. Showalter reports that the league understands the extent of the problem. “We’ve just made the game too predictable,” he said. “And it’s not the players’ fault, because they’re gonna chase what pays the most.”
Showalter indicts the financial incentives and the defensive shift. Most insiders assign blame differently. Fellow former manager Jim Leyland faults hitters for lingering too long outside the batter’s box waiting for their walk-up songs, refocusing their eyes. Marlins manager Don Mattingly sources it to swing changes. “It’s been building,” he said. “Now, we’re at a point where it’s getting so much more attention because it’s a game that, sometimes, is unwatchable.” Speaking to ESPN, Cubs manager David Ross likened the modern game to a nightly derby. “We are not trying to play baseball,” he said. “We are trying to hit home runs.”
Others omit blame in favor of frustration. “It’s disgusting to watch, really,” said recently retired reliever J. P. Howell. “What is this, a barroom brawl? This isn’t our art.” Tigers manager A. J. Hinch said he harbored “great concern” that a game dominated by strikeouts, walks, and home runs would not entertain the masses. “We’re trending in the wrong direction,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we can just snap our fingers and make a rule change or do one simple thing and all of a sudden we’re going to turn into a more balanced sport.”
As it did to many fields, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the inequity. It is far easier for a marooned pitcher to simulate game action than it is for a hitter. Most minor leaguers did not play any actual games in 2020, and the 2021 return laid bare their weaknesses. Strikeouts shot up further.
As a business, baseball is also broken, or, like the game, at least imbalanced. The start of this century brought unprecedented sustained labor peace, but players and owners have grown more and more at odds in recent seasons. Soon after the sport’s COVID shutdown in March 2020, players agreed to be paid on a prorated basis for any games played. Team owners later tried to alter the terms of the deal. When players balked, the disagreement went public, and it stayed that way until Manfred, acting on behalf of the owners, imposed a sixty-game season to begin in July. When coronavirus outbreaks inevitably occurred, the league blamed players for their lack of vigilance, not its insufficient protocols. When a COVID-positive Justin Turner emerged from a Globe Life Field spare room minutes after the Dodgers won, it was he who was condemned, not league officials, who failed to follow protocols that called for him to be sent away from the premises when he tested positive.
Looming over the turmoil was the league’s collective bargaining agreement, expired as of December 1, 2021. The sport’s state cannot be traced to one document, but it was painfully obvious that the players lost the last negotiations. Billionaire owners obtained millions more in annual profits; players secured more buses to travel to spring-training games and earlier start times on travel days. Twenty years ago, the middle class could count on employment into their midthirties, often at the best salaries of their careers. Now, only the game’s stars are paid that way past thirty. Players used to be underpaid before they reached free agency and overpaid thereafter. Now they are underpaid, then unemployed. Predictably, players coalesced around the necessity of negotiating a more equitable deal.
Again, the pandemic rendered that goal more difficult, financially and logistically. Major leaguers are among the few rich people in America who suffered financially from 2020. If owners are to be believed, they, too, lost millions, though their prize assets continued to appreciate. In 2021, it was in both sides’ interest to delay the annual rite of spring training, so as to allow desiring players to be vaccinated before they began crisscrossing the country in April. But the owners did not formally offer such a suspension until hundreds of players had already secured housing, and, in many cases, traveled to their temporary homes. They deemed it too late. Spring training began in mid-February. On February 21, the final few players were trickling into camps across Arizona and Florida, undergoing physicals and COVID-19 tests. It should have been a time of hope, of the season’s requisite renewal. Instead it was a painful period.
Earlier that month, Kevin Mather, the president and CEO of the Seattle Mariners, had addressed the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club over Zoom. Mather, a former accountant who rose through the ranks over thirty years in baseball, began by saying he planned to ramble. Ramble he did. Among other soon-sore subjects, he brazenly revealed the team’s plans to manipulate the service time of two prospects, including prized outfielder Jarred Kelenic. He derided two foreign players’ English fluency. He called franchise cornerstone Kyle Seager overpaid and predicted the season would be his last in Seattle, prompting Seager’s wife to ask if they should sell their house. After the rotary club posted the video to YouTube, a Mariners superfan stumbled on it and tweeted it. Thirty-nine hours later, after players league-wide lambasted him, Mather lost his job.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said he was glad the sentiment had been made public, so “people can see how it is.” Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson offered what he described as his appreciation. “You just said what everyone already knew, but now we have official evidence that is going to help a lot of players,” he wrote. “Again, thank you!! Bravo.” Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said it was evidence that teams operate in “bad faith.” Kelenic himself referenced a desire to put 2020 behind him. “This should be an exciting time for baseball,” he told USA Today. “Now, the day before spring training, this is what I have to deal with.”
The union called it a “highly disturbing yet critically important window into how players are genuinely viewed by management,” promising to confront the issues at the bargaining table. Mather’s Mariners had been part of the problem, tanking through 2018 and 2019 to set themselves up for the future. “The game is heading in the wrong direction,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “You’re rewarding teams for losing.” On another spring day, Lindor evoked the Major League Baseball of his youth. “Back in the day, guys were stealing bases, hitting home runs, making good plays,” he said. “Pitchers were going eight, nine innings, and the relievers were closing like Mariano Rivera. It was just, overall, a better-played game, more rounded. I still think this generation is really good, but right now it seems like it’s a home run, a strikeout or maybe a double.”
Born nine months before the 1994 strike, Lindor pined not for some distant past. His opinion is widespread among current players, who celebrate and decry the influence of data on their game. On both counts, they are correct. The more advanced the information has become, the easier it has been to implement its guidance. “Increased data complexity, almost counter-intuitively, has enabled more intuitive conversations with coaches and players,” said Doug Fearing, the former director of research and development for the Dodgers. To people like Fearing, the evolution is exciting. To vigilant fans, too, there’s ample allure in the modern game. Players’ peak performances are better and more quantifiable than ever. But the economics of professional sports hinge on mass, not specialized, appeal.
Forty years ago, the people pioneering the study of sabermetrics, the use of statistical analysis to pursue truths about baseball, never expected their work would one day be adopted by every one of Major League Baseball’s teams. They believed they were writing for an alternative audience, not the billionaires who own and operate these franchises. For a long time, they were. Then came Moneyball, the book, eventually the movie, and the rapid assimilation of such thought within front offices. Eight months after the book’s 2003 release, the Dodgers hired Paul DePodesta, the prominently featured Oakland Athletics assistant general manager. Within a few years, most major league teams included sabermetric elements in their decision-making processes. Within a decade, it was the most common operating philosophy, rebranded as analytics.
Whatever the measures are called, few, if any, teams use them more than the Dodgers. Through 2020, two dozen employees with multidisciplinary degrees worked out of a converted clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, ideating ways to quantify and predict success. The research and development department produces systems and models designed to answer every possible query about the game and log anything unanswerable for future study. Using the team’s proprietary platform, “42,” named for Jackie Robinson’s retired jersey number, staffers can check on the team’s trove of data wherever they are.
The franchise has come to define this fractured era. Long one of the sport’s model organizations, they fell into disrepair in the aughts when they were purchased by Frank McCourt, a man with little liquid capital but a grandiose vision to use the team to fund his indulgences. He began with DePodesta, who had experience operating a team on the cheap. Five years later, McCourt’s plan sputtered when he and his wife, Jamie, separated and began a protracted court fight over their shares of the team. He fired her as CEO, she filed for divorce, and MLB soon forced Frank to sell the team. Because television rights contracts were skyrocketing, he made the sale price back fivefold. After recruiting Magic Johnson for local goodwill, a consortium of Guggenheim financiers won the bidding. They orchestrated massive, expensive trades to recapture the sullen fan base, then, two years in, hired exalted executive Andrew Friedman to run baseball operations.
Friedman came for a bounty from the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland’s rival for the title of poorest team around. Nine years earlier, Tampa had hired him to run its historically hapless team that was still without a winning season in eight tries. It took three seasons for Friedman to assemble an upstart winner that raced all the way to the World Series. The 2008 Rays’ best players were Carlos Peña, the first baseman the A’s jettisoned amid the 2002 season chronicled in Moneyball, and Evan Longoria, a rookie third baseman. One week after debuting that April, Longoria signed a contract extension that tethered him to the Rays for nine years yet guaranteed him only $17.5 million, not one tenth of what he proved to be worth over that span. “This is obviously fairly unique,” Friedman said at the time. “The economics of the game and us being a low-revenue team, we have to think differently and take chances such as this to keep our nucleus in place as long as we can.”
From 2008 to 2014, the Rays paid Longoria and fellow breakout star Ben Zobrist a total of $45.3 million while the two players logged 76.9 Wins Above Replacement. At the start of that period, each win was commonly estimated to be worth at least $4 million on the open market. By the end of it, the estimate approached $8 million. By those metrics, Friedman’s acquisition and subsequent signing of the two players saved Tampa Bay anywhere from $300 million to $600 million. More accurately, his extending of the two players’ contracts made employing them in the long term feasible for the Rays. In that span, the franchise went 627–508, a .552 winning percentage. They made the playoffs four times and the World Series once, all while carrying one of the sport’s slightest payrolls.
More than a decade after he signed it, Longoria said he did not regret agreeing to his extension. It had given him financial security for life. “Now, things might have been a little different if you had told me, ‘Fast forward 10 years and everybody is viewing the primes of guys’ careers from 21 to 26 or 22 to 27, or whatever it is,’” he said. “That might’ve made me stop and think a little bit.” After rival teams copied Friedman and agents caught on, the going rate for extensions increased. “Not that we didn’t before, but I think players understand their value better now,” Longoria said. “And the age range has changed. Players understand they’re being evaluated based on the prime of their career being younger.” Friedman moved on to a new method: ceding youngish stars just as their salaries were peaking in exchange for unproven but promising prospects. That worked wonderfully, creating a self-sustaining system when timed right.
The man Friedman hired to manage the Rays, Joe Maddon, noted the team also benefited from starting its run just as MLB “was putting the kibosh on steroid use and amphetamine use.” “After that,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “we were ahead of everybody else with the metrics and defensive shifts and data.” That’s right; Friedman was behind the shift Showalter so resents. Theo Epstein, the wunderkind executive who helped two long-troubled big-market teams win the World Series in the post-Moneyball era, told NPR in 2020 that he took some responsibility for the sport’s decline. “Because the executives like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures,” he said, “have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game.” In 2021, Epstein became an MLB consultant tasked with reversing that impact.
One week after Friedman left for Los Angeles, Maddon fled to work under Epstein with the Chicago Cubs. Together they severed a curse. While he worked in Florida, Maddon cultivated a reputation as an analytics savant. After a few seasons in Illinois, it became clear Maddon functioned more as a conduit for Friedman and Epstein to convey their ideas to players. In his next managerial job, with the Angels of Anaheim, Maddon began to reckon with the deleterious impact of the trends he helped accelerate. He did not do so to any acute extent. He surmised that deadening the baseball itself would solve the problem, and he expressed pleasure when the league disclosed plans to do just that. “I think part of the disinterest in the game today is that it’s been reduced to small patterns of striking people out, accepting walks and trying to hit home runs,” Maddon said in February 2021. “When you change the ball, we can go back in time to where we had a better brand of baseball.”
The next month, he again cited his proposal as a cure-all for the sport’s ills. “If the ball doesn’t travel as far, a lot of the things you’re looking for will just occur because hitters will have to adjust,” he said. “Pitchers will adjust. Defenses will adjust. Everything will adjust. Speed will become more prominent. All the things you’re looking for will just happen. The game will just come back, I think, to almost what we had grown up knowing.” By April’s end, it was clear the baseball was not traveling as far and all those things weren’t just happening. “I don’t like legislating hardly anything,” Maddon said then. “I’m much more that things change based on people making adaptations and adjustments based on what they’re seeing.”
Whatever MLB did to its baseballs in 2021 was not exactly a deadening. Firsthand reports indicated the seams rose higher, but it’s possible the league only removed from circulation some lighter, live baseballs that, Sports Illustrated showed, contributed to surplus home runs in 2020. In moves that better reflect the league’s understanding it must modify its product, aggressive and imaginative rule-change experiments continued in the minors, peppered into each level one at a time.
In Triple A, the bases grew from fifteen square inches to eighteen, making stolen bases and infield hits slightly easier to achieve. In Double A, four infielders had to remain positioned on the infield dirt, reducing defensive shift possibilities. Lower, pitchers had to step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff throw. Even lower, they could only step off twice. In one low-A league, an automated ball-strike system replaced home-plate umpires’ primary purpose. In the other low-A league, on-field timers enforced limits during pitching changes and between pitches and innings. Later in the season, that league began testing technology that allowed catchers to electronically communicate signs to pitchers. Two partner independent leagues attempted even wilder changes, one without MLB input: designated pinch-hitters and pinch-runners, a sudden-death home-run format to resolve nine-inning ties, a hook rule that removes the designated hitter when the starting pitcher exits, and, maybe most significantly, a mound one foot farther from home plate.
Craig Wallenbrock detested the changes. “We jumped the gun on trying to correct the game,” he said. Wallenbrock has been involved with high-level baseball for more than a half-century; he long ago grew to respect the game’s cyclical nature. But in assigning blame, or credit, for baseball’s evolution over the last decade, Wallenbrock warrants mention. He sparked the resurfacing of Ted Williams’s age-old ideas on hitting, which then spread from his select few pupils throughout the sport. To match the plane of the approaching, downward-trending pitch, Wallenbrock advocated a controlled swing with a slight uppercut. Such a stroke, the thinking went, would allow a hitter to attack fastballs and breaking balls just the same.
It worked for Williams, who publicized the concept in his 1970 book The Science of Hitting, and it worked for many of the hitters Wallenbrock advised, mostly privately, outside of professional teams’ purviews. It worked so well that thousands of others tried to replicate it, to sometimes destructive effect. His slight uppercut became a sizable uppercut in the popular imagination. His emphasis on an on-plane swing that netted hard contact, often in the air, became the public’s obsession with those outputs.
The more success his famous pupils had, the less control Wallenbrock had over how others heard him. He coached preteen boys his way, then heard back from their excited fathers that they had hit a baseball off a tee at a league-average exit velocity. “I’m sorry, but that’s all bullshit, and that’s what I’m against, that type of crap,” Wallenbrock said. “I was misinterpreted on launch angle and exit velocity.” Still, Wallenbrock had it on good authority that corrections were about to come from within the game when the league chose to act.
For decades, Wallenbrock operated either in the background of Major League Baseball or outside it, always calling Southern California home. He coached in junior college, he scouted, and he taught hitting on his own. But since 2016, Wallenbrock has been a hitting consultant for the Dodgers, working at first with mostly major leaguers and transitioning over time to minor leaguers. Minor league camp was just ramping up when the sport’s 2020 shutdown began. Coaches were starting to reemphasize the value of moving runners over, of fouling off tough pitches, of making contact with runners on third and fewer than two outs.
“It’s old stuff, but we feel it’s very important in the game today. We were gonna move in that direction and make strong emphasis on it in our minor-league system,” he said. “And we were gonna be the leaders in that. Once a winner starts doing that, then everybody else wants to copy it. The Dodgers start winning a few more pennants, and other teams start going back to playing small ball, some of the old varieties of the game.” He is right that others will follow whatever the Dodgers do, or at least try. Especially offensively, the Dodgers are their sport’s pacesetters. “They are so far ahead of the industry on hitting,” said one person who worked in a rival front office. “It’s wild.”
The Dodgers’ February 2020 trade for Betts will not be remembered as a return to fundamentals. The deal will be cited as a fleecing, a misguided salary dump on behalf of the Boston Red Sox. It was made possible because Friedman wielded the Dodgers’ financial advantage differently than the Red Sox ever had. During his first five years on the job in Los Angeles, Friedman promised only seven players more money than the $35 million the Dodgers pledged him.
Every decision he made was governed by the guiding principle of optionality, a term co-opted from Wall Street, where he had his professional start. The idea is to render no decision absolutely necessary, to preserve as many possible choices as long as possible. It manifests in many ways, most notably in the Dodgers’ relative lack of desperation. Desperate teams make decisions they will regret. Because of Friedman’s patience and ownership’s resources, the Dodgers stand perpetually ready to seize on opportunities created by another team’s desperation.
“That’s the benefit the Dodgers had with the Guggenheim hedge fund. It’s nice having money,” said Trey Magnuson, a Dodgers scout who has worked for the franchise since 2000, spanning three ownerships. “We were able to fill our roster with some bigger names while we allowed our player development to grow our kids. Now we’re getting into the fruit of the labor of all that. Our minor leaguers that we didn’t have to give up in trades to make us competitive those years are now producing.”
What differentiates the Dodgers from this era’s other titans is the balance they have maintained. Their most successful area scout doesn’t even glance at advanced statistics or biomechanical data for the prospects he recommends the Dodgers draft. Some of their top R&D employees arrived in the organization glaringly unaware of time-honored baseball concepts. Yet they leave room for insight from all comers and employ people who specialize in integrating it. Players respect Friedman in spite of his spending history because he and his staff often make them better.
“We’ve taken guys like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor that were somehow not developed properly or even ruined in other organizations that represented bad thinking processes,” Wallenbrock said. “All of the sudden, they are really good players in the Dodger organization. But I think more and more, we won’t get guys like that, because teams are gonna realize that they have a good player in a Muncy or a Taylor and they’re gonna be able to develop them themselves.”
Even if teams cannot develop those prospects themselves, they have become reticent to deal them to the Dodgers. In making his annual rounds calling executives to ask about their prospects, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel noticed in 2021 that teams have become especially eager to mention when the Dodgers or Rays are interested in a player. “We aren’t sure why,” he quoted one staffer saying, “but they asked for him.” McDaniel described a scenario in which the Dodgers or Rays asked for a “mediocre player” in trade talks, and his team balked because they suspected the team knew something they didn’t. The player soon improved.
- “Today, baseball is deciding who it will serve in—and for—the coming generations. Soaked in greed and in the hands of Ivy League numbers crunchers, the game teeters between sport and thesis paper. Better it is in the hands of Pedro Moura, who, in How to Beat a Broken Game, has captured the science, the economics, and the soul of a pastime laboring to rediscover its most authentic self. It’s a brilliant book about the championship Dodgers. It’s a book about so much more.”—Tim Brown, bestselling coauthor of The Phenomenon and Imperfect
- “Pedro Moura has written a clear-eyed, absorbing account of the Dodgers’ rise—and baseball’s decline. It lays out everything broken about Major League Baseball while simultaneously reminding us exactly why we love the sport so much. How to Beat a Broken Game is a book with heart to match its brains. If only the league itself could say the same thing.”—Eric Nusbaum, author of Stealing Home
- “The scope of this book is just extraordinary. It’s supposedly about a single championship team, but it’s really about everything: technology and culture, insiders and outsiders, the young and the old, and all that’s right and wrong and now and next in the sport today. Moura is such a great reporter that he does what every writer wishes they could do: He comes to know even more about his subject than his sources do. I loved this book, even if it did make me feel old.”—Sam Miller, bestselling coauthor of The Only Rule is It Has to Work
- “Moura has written an insightful read for baseball fans who want to understand the inside workings of a remarkably successful franchise.”—The National Review
- “[S]pectacular.”—Dodgers Way (Fansided)
- On Sale
- Mar 29, 2022
- Page Count
- 272 pages