Speak Easy: Lonnie Wheeler on the Intangible Qualities of Playing Ball

”Sabermetrics cannot encompass everything that matters in evaluating a ballplayer.”

Author Lonnie Wheeler is a man of faith—at least when it comes to baseball. In his new book, Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games, the New Richmond resident and former sports columnist for The Cincinnati Post makes his case for the unquantifiable aspects so often overlooked in today’s Moneyball culture of advanced statistics.

You make clear early on that this book is not an indictment of sabermetrics or advanced stats.
I appreciate sabermetrics very much. What I’m trying to cover is that sabermetrics cannot encompass everything that matters in evaluating a ballplayer. It can encompass a heck of a lot, but no matter how exhaustive that study becomes, there are still things that can’t be quantified: character, wisdom, chemistry.

“A trust in science needn’t preclude a faith in spirit,” as you put it.
Right. What I’m trying to demonstrate can’t be done with numbers. It has to be done with narrative and anecdote, so there is a leap of faith involved.

You’ve ghostwritten autobiographies for players such as Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron, and it seems that athletes are often the loudest trumpeters of these intangible qualities. Did that impact your feelings on the subject?
Players amplify the subject quite a bit, and I think that has to be part of the testimony. If you amass enough of that anecdotal evidence, and it comes from people living the experience, I think it’s worth paying attention to.

Can such a nebulous idea be effective as a formula for success?
The word “formula” has to be applied loosely, but yes. In constructing the optimum team, I think it has to be part of the equation. Major League organizations are increasingly recognizing this. The Reds certainly do.

You cover the Reds a lot in this book. Aside from your obvious connections, what drew you to the team as a test case?
I wanted to study a team I could watch on a daily basis. I covered 2008–2012, and that’s when [general manager] Walt Jocketty took over and affected a very stark and conspicuous culture change. They became a team to watch.

More important: What’s wrong with the Reds right now?
[Laughs] Well, a number of things…

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