When avid baseball fanatic and data-driven statistician Bill James published his 1,008-page “Historical Baseball Abstract” in 1985, he initiated a cascade of events that would one day change the very landscape of professional baseball. The father of today’s “sabermetrics” movement- a movement defined by a numerical approach to assessing players’ worth- James planted seeds destined to define the philosophies of today’s front offices. While small market teams were the first to adopt the newfangled approach to organization development in an effort to combat the sheer monetary resources of big budget ballclubs, teams across every tier of annual revenue have now more or less incorporated the practices highlighted during Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Oakland Athletics’ GM Billy Beane in Sony Pictures’ 2011 “Moneyball.” After the first clubs to embrace the change saw instant success (see Beane’s 2002 Athletics or Theo Epstein’s 2004 Red Sox), front office bigwigs across the league ameliorated their old-fashioned paradigms. Nowadays, sabermetrics is at the core of every organization.
In the baseball world, however, this transition into the new era was no Glorious Revolution; rather, it was a crude, begrudging and often hostile passing of the torch. Former players, now wizened scouts and player developers, had an infrastructure of sorts dating back to the earliest days of baseball. Triple crown statistics were the golden standard (RBI, batting average, home runs) and suggesting the antiquating of said standard seemed ludicrous. As baseball management began to transition from former jocks to Ivy League-educated minds with no professional playing experience, the remnants of the once-proud infrastructure only became blockades to future success.
Impediments excised, most forward-thinking ballclubs took Epstein’s success with the Boston Red Sox as evidence of the new mold of MLB general manager; in fact, the office of the general manager became antediluvian in its very title. Epstein is not the current GM of the Chicago Cubs. Instead, he is the President of Baseball Operations. That being said, over a decade after Epstein’s first World Series ring, how was he able to lead the MLB’s historically worst team to a championship for the first time in 108 years if dozens of other ballclubs were ardently following his prototype? It’s very simple: in a league characterized solely by numbers, Epstein has struck a balance between today’s metrics and yesterday’s intangibles. Intangibles, according to him, range from character to make-up, from upbringing to sincerity. While the rest of the league is hard-pressed on crunching digits, Epstein does so while keeping one eye locked onto the qualitative aspects that matter most in baseball.
Though today’s scouts scramble to find the next hidden gem talent, Epstein employs careful analysis of prospects to maximize the likelihood of draftees and free agents alike panning out within Chicago’s scheme. Teams like the Washington Nationals are great examples of finding the next most talented option without necessarily considering the team chemistry within the clubhouse- just take a look at then-recently acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon (a notorious hothead) choking out franchise slugger Bryce Harper in a 2015 game against the Philadelphia Phillies. In Epstein’s mind, clubhouse fissures are bound to reveal themselves and affect a team’s performance. Instead of acquiring questionable characters, Epstein sought out slept-on talents like Anthony Rizzo, a once-hot prospect first baseman from a great family who had batted a mere .141 with the Padres following his diagnosis of and later, remission from, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Alongside Rizzo came Indiana Hoosier Kyle Schwarber, a catcher with a baseball rat personality who many teams passed on in the draft due to concerns about his defensive ability. Epstein also nabbed collegiate slugger Kris Bryant, using subterfuge by feigning disinterest to steal him away from the Rockies in the 2013 draft. While many of Epstein’s acquisitions were unexpected, they all contributed heavily in what would eventually become Chicago’s 2016 ring-winning, curse-breaking roster. All talented athletes, the common thread throughout was their unyielding competitiveness and phenomenal character. Following the belief that the true clubhouse leaders are the position players contributing every day, Epstein’s philosophy and intuition is exemplified by Bryant’s successful young career. So far, Bryant has a World Series title and all-star status on his resume, as well as a National League MVP award under his belt. In his draft, the Cubs passed on top-pick projected pitchers Mark Appel and Kohl Stewart- Appel has a minor league career 5.00 ERA, Stewart is 23-25 within the Twins farm system, and neither have yet made their big league debuts.