Theo Epstein, the 2016 Chicago Cubs, and the New Revolution of Baseball

theo-epstein-feBy: Alec Messino

When most people think of Theo Epstein and his seemingly feasible ability to piece together dynasty-destined teams, they imagine of a group of Paul DePodesta-esque quants, crowding around a conference table lined with supercomputers. They sit there — crunching numbers, running through data analysis, scanning over performance charts. Though he is a Yale Alumnus, Theo Epstein is not just a quantitative genius.

As Chicagoans celebrate their long-awaited and well-deserved World Series Championship today, an interesting story comes to the forefront. How did the team’s architect, Theo Epstein, take a “lovable losers” franchise that had just recently lost a hundred games in a season and turn it into the title-winning juggernaut it’s become?

As the New York Times relays, studying the qualitative attributes of the players themselves was just as important as looking at the numbers. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and the rest of the Cubs home office are interested in things like how the players responded to failure and other “soft skills” that don’t necessarily show up in a quantitative screen. Needless to say, this is a fascinating subject for managers– especially given the data-driven approach that now embodies the zeitgeist of the sport’s management industry.

In an interview with the New York Times, team president Theo Epstein said he specifically wants to know how players handle failure. Even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and the most successful teams may lose 60 games a year. “In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?” says Epstein.

Unlike the grizzled scouts of Moneyball, Epstein doesn’t rely on vague impressions. Investigations into character have become systematized. For players the Cubs may want, Epstein asks his scouts to produce three detailed examples of how players faced adversity on the field, and three examples off the field. Far from merely making touchy-feely decisions based on gut instincts, however, Epstein was able to systematize the way he looked at players’ soft skills into an evidence-based process.

Chicago Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, reiterates: “He really does listen to the human side of all this — it’s not just numbers, by any means,” — “He gets it that there’s a balance between the sabermetric world and the real world. These are human beings and not computers.”

In the book the movie is based on, author Michael Lewis and his subject, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, scoffed at the idea that anything other than results should matter in player evaluation. The A’s were relentlessly analytic, and any player attribute that couldn’t be measured had little value. That approach gave the tightwad A’s a market advantage which they exploited.

The gospel of Moneyball spread throughout baseball during the last decade, and now virtually every team crunches player data to find a statistical edge. Thus, the Chicago Cubs have pivoted again, and built the best team in baseball by screening for those easily mocked qualities like character and personality.

“The only thing I know for sure,” Theo Epstein once said, “is that whatever team wins the World Series, their particular style of play will be completely en vogue and trumpeted from the rooftops by the media all offseason — and in front offices — as the way to win.”

That is absolutely true. This was true before this incredible Cubs season, before the playoffs started, and long before the Chicago Cubs won the World Series this year. The whole league is changing. The New York Yankee’s aren’t able to buy championships, and the players that produce them, any longer. Players are landing outrageous contracts for longer terms than seen before (Heyward, Stanton, etc), limiting the ability to secure players at their peak. Talent is now harvested from within, making scouting and the growth of farm systems more important than ever.

The Cubs’ championship bookending the Red Sox championship 12 years ago suggests we are approaching this end of an era in baseball: a recognition that a front office that melds analytics and scouting information, that sees no contradiction or controversy in using data of all types to inform its decisions, is the inevitable harmonic perfection of what a major league front office should look like, and that every organization in baseball is heading in that direction. It doesn’t mean the game will be less interesting; on the contrary, the competitive urge to find an edge over rivals will spur more innovation (defensive shifts! pitch framing!) over time, introduce previously discarded strategies (use your best reliever to put out a crisis in the middle innings!), and create a game of strategizing cat-and-mouse off the field that’s nearly as compelling as the game on the field.

If you’re a Cubs fan, it’s time to party like you’ve never partied before. You deserve it. But if you’re a baseball fan, and a fan of smart front offices doing incredibly smart things, pushing the envelope, trying new strategies in a never-ending quest to secure a competitive advantage, you should be rejoicing, too. A deeper understanding of the game of baseball not only makes for a better front office, but for a better fan experience. Cubs fans, and Red Sox fans before them, may owe Epstein a particular debt of gratitude, but we’re all indebted to him for helping make the game of baseball more rewarding to follow in 2016 than it’s ever been before.

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