If there’s something Jonathan Mayo knows, it’s baseball prospects and the MLB Draft. This makes sense given that Mayo has been an expert on the topic with MLB.com since 1999.
In his recent book “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky: The Origin Stories of Baseball’s Unexpected Stars” (Triumph Books), Mayo focuses that knowledge on the origin stories of eight MLB oddities who went onto be stars of the game. Specifically, he describes a series of “sliding door moments” that, combined with hard work, led to the MLB careers of
- Joey Votto
- Shane Bieber
- Jacob deGrom
- Mookie Betts
- Charlie Blackmon
- Ian Kinsler
- Lorenzo Cain
- Albert Pujols
The book itself provides an interesting twist on the traditional scouting story. That is, Mayo found his subjects by asking scouts who, in turn, provided insight and guidance and additional players for Mayo to consider.
You will learn a lot when reading “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky.” Cain really didn’t play an inning of baseball until his sophomore year of high school? DeGrom was truly insistent that he was a shortstop? Betts’ third sport at Overton High School was bowling?
“Smart, Wrong, and Lucky” is a compelling book that merits your time. Here are seven reasons you should read it — and some behind-the-scenes details that explain how the project came together.
7. The idea for the book came from a conversation with Charlie Blackmon
During the pandemic, Mayo was asked by MLB.com to write an oral history of Charlie Blackmon.
As Mayo explained, “It was in the process of working on that story one of the scouts I talked to for that started saying, ‘Well, you know, there’s this guy who this happened to, and you should talk to this guy about how they got this guy,’ and it kind of went from there.”
Then Mayo understood he was onto something.
“I realized that there are countless numbers of stories, like these of guys who were undervalued or underappreciated in the draft, and who went on to far exceed expectations. So I kind of went from there,” he said.
Blackmon remembers the experience.
“I had told him my story, and he told me — and I’m sure he might have said that to, like, 12 other people — that hearing that story, he thought it was super-interesting,” Blackmon said. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. You know, maybe bring some of these stories to light.’ So I think he rounded up a handful of really amazing stories, my history and experience of getting to the big leagues being one of them.”
(It also has the Blackmon seal of approval: “That was a great book,” he said.)
6. This is a book of stories and chance
To narrow his subjects, Mayo began by looking at MLB draft classes, searching for WAR leaders who went undrafted until the third or fourth rounds. Then he began looking for their stories, and, given Mayo’s line of work, he had ready access to the scouts who knew best.
“They are, to me,” Mayo said, “the lifeblood of the game and also, perhaps the game’s best storytellers. And they all have fantastic tales that they love to recount about guys that they missed on — they really love those — guys they should have drafted and didn’t, or guys they did draft, and it didn’t work out.”
He continued: “But they also have stories of guys that they saw something in. Often they like to tell those stories of their colleagues rather than themselves. But, nonetheless, they like to tell those stories.”
Mayo understood the role that chance played in these players’ careers.
“One of the things I love about a lot of these stories is that there’s all these moments that if they had gone differently, then we may never have heard from these players again,” Mayo said.
“If Jacob deGrom hadn’t agreed to pitch in relief, even the one time or two times — whatever it was — as a sophomore when the Mets’ area scout saw him, if he had insisted that he was only a shortstop, we may never have seen the greatest pitcher in the National League for the amount of years that he did it. No one knew that he was going to throw 100 miles an hour or anything like that, but there are all those kinds of moments in a lot of these chapters that if those things hadn’t happened, the world may never have known.”
5. In the analytics era, the book is also a defense of scouting and the need for balance
“I see that there is value in the data and the analytics and the video and all those advancements,” Mayo said before adding, “I will say that it is definitely a love letter to the scouting industry.”
At a time when MLB front offices are contracting their scouting staff, Mayo was clear that from his perspective, the best evaluation involves both the objective and the personal. For Mayo, what scouts bring to the game should not be overlooked.
“I have such great admiration and respect for the work that they do, and I think that without it, baseball would shrivel up and die,” he said.
“I think it is a mistake of those organizations who have contracted their scouting departments and replaced them with, like video scouting and analytics and all those things,” Mayo said. “I think those two things need to work hand-in-hand with each other. I don’t think you can have one without the other anymore. But I think it is a shortsighted view to think that you could somehow figure out how to evaluate players without seeing them in person.”
4. The players tell their own stories
Never undervalue someone being allowed to tell their own story.
Mayo was able to interview five of the eight players profiled in “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky.”
As it did so many things, the pandemic got in the way given that MLB’s pandemic rules bled into 2021.
“Had it been normal times,” Mayo said, “I would have gone and spent an extra day trying to stake out Mookie Betts at Dodgers camp and to get him for 10-15 minutes.”
And some players were simply more private and less comfortable with talking about themselves. For their stories, Mayo turned to interviews they’d given to other media outlets along with scouts and general managers.
3. He takes community colleges seriously
If there’s a thread running through “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky,” it’s the role that community colleges played in helping some players get where they need to be.
The list is notable: Blackmon’s Young Harris Jr. College, Kinsler’s Central Arizona College, Cain’s Tallahassee Junior College, and Pujols’ Metropolitan Community College — plus all the other prospects and coaches from the community colleges that Mayo mentions in passing.
I write that as someone who’s spent a career teaching at a community college and has grown weary of the conventional wisdom that some community colleges are “less than” rather than “another pathway” for some students.
There’s a reason that Mayo picked up on this, too.
“My mother was a community college professor for 27 years, so I come by that honestly,” he said.
2. The Pujols chapter is very good
If there’s a great story in “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky,” it’s the final chapter, which focuses on Pujols’ unlikely trip to becoming one of baseball’s biggest stars.
“Everyone knows Albert Pujols because he’s sort of the almost the poster guy for this kind of story. I couldn’t do this book without him in it.”
Pujols’ story is the perfect ending note for this book:
“It’s always appreciation,” Pujols said. “They didn’t have to draft me. And they did. They took a chance; they gave me a chance. I know there were some people who thought I was never going to make it, within the organization, too. I proved them wrong.”
Now that is how to end a book about baseball.
1. There may be a sequel (or two)
If there’s anything Mayo learned in the course of writing “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky,” it is that there are lots of great stories that remain untold.
“It was easy enough to come up with eight subjects for this book,” Mayo said, “and knowing that I very easily if I want to, I could do a Volume 2, 3, 4 — however many I really feel like doing.”
But that’s all future possibilities. For now, Volume 1 is available and well worth your time.