Photo: Jake Boss is in his eighth season with the Spartans
Sportswriters constantly look for a fresh angle to explain a team’s newfound success. One fashionable way is breaking down hard, cold analytics.
That’s how Michael Lewis turned a baseball story into a book that became a movie: Moneyball.Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, once explained Lewis showed up early in the season to write a story on the A’s and their new methods of analyzing talent -- and never left.
Analytics matter, but don’t forget intangibles. They always have and always will make a good story.
I found one a couple years ago in an unlikely way – at a Michigan State football tailgate with old college friends from Wonders Hall. This story still applies to Michigan State’s baseball program in 2016, as the Spartans opened play in the Big Ten Tournament with a 5-1 win over Nebraska on Wednesday in Omaha.
Meet Jake Boss, the head coach of the Spartans. He earned the trust of his players and laid a foundation that has carried on year to year.
When Boss took over in 2009, the Spartans were coming off a fourth straight losing season under the second of two head coaches – both with overall losing records. Normally, a rebuilding coach starts by establishing his program’s culture. This is most often achieved by running off returning seniors.
One returning 2009 senior was Johnny Lee, the son of one of my old college friends, Mark Lee, a Michigan State wrestler. Johnny’s situation as a returning senior under a new coach was compounded by rehab from elbow surgery for bone spurs.
To the relief of Lee — an outfielder/infielder — and the other seniors on the roster, Boss didn’t take a hard line. When Boss called them together for a meeting, he not only promised them a chance, he said he counted on them for leadership. He needed his seniors to help him learn what the younger players on the roster could achieve.
“I think Jake Boss set a precedent that he was not going to be a coach that runs people out of the program,” Lee said. “He showed us and players below us he was willing to work with what he had. He gave you a chance to play until you proved you didn’t belong on the field.”
Lee responded with his best college season, starting 51 games mostly as a left-fielder. He batted .287 with three home runs and 28 RBIs. He was fifth on the team in most offensive categories.
The 2009 Spartans finished below .500 at 23-31, but the sign of progress was a 13-11 record in Big Ten play. That earned a berth in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2004.
“We wish we would have won more games,” Lee said, “but I think we got the most out of the talent we had that year.”
Before Boss, Lee’s experience with Michigan State’s coaches had not been what he had signed up for. He was recruited out of Naperville (Ill.) Central by Ted Mahan in 2006, but he never played for him. David Grewe was named the head coach before he arrived as a freshman.
Despite a promising freshman year in 2006, batting .293 in 25 games, Lee’s playing time dwindled as a sophomore and junior. He felt Grewe misled him entering his junior year. He had considered having surgery for bone spurs and sitting out a redshirt season, but he said Grewe encouraged him to put off the surgery until after the season.
“He made it seem if I had the surgery I would slide too far down the depth chart when I came back,” Lee said.
Lee ended up playing in only eight games behind Grewe’s younger players, but eight games were just enough to prevent him from applying for a medical redshirt.
Beginning with Boss’s promise to Lee and other seniors returning in 2009, the eighth-year head coach has cultivated trust between the coaches and players. That trust, once established, has never faded. Boss’s teams have won more games in the past eight years than any Michigan State coach over the same time period.
His first NCAA Tournament team was the 2012 group, but his 2011 Spartans that tied Illinois for the Big Ten regular-season title arguably deserved a bid. However, that year the NCAA took Illinois as the lone Big Ten representative.
The 2015 Spartans were on the bubble for an NCAA bid. Despite being left out, the team accounted for a school record eight Major League Baseball draft picks. Michigan State (35-18, 13-11 Big Ten) is again on the bubble this year, although D1Basetball.com projects the Spartans to earn an NCAA berth.
Lee and his fellow 2009 seniors might have finished their playing days embittered if not for Boss. Instead they follow the Spartans as proud alums.
“That 2009 season really put the stamp on some great memories for me at Michigan State,” he said. “My parents have always been supportive and were thankful for the opportunity coach Boss gave me. With the way it turned out, it made everything worth it. I don’t think I would do it anything different.