Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Epstein's formula: Blend stats with scouts
By Sahadev Sharma
Jim Hendry was always quite fond of the small front office he had created in his decade-plus as general manager of the Chicago Cubs. While other major league organizations were treating their teams like well-oiled 21st-century mega-corporations, Hendry preferred to stick to his old-school ways. That meant Ari Kaplan -- the sole occupant of the statistical analysis department and a recent hire of chairman Tom Ricketts -- and his new-wave approach to statistics often took a back seat when it came to important baseball decisions.
Enter Theo Epstein, formerly GM in the Boston Red Sox front office that housed at least 14 people in their statistical analysis department. Epstein, who was formally introduced as the Cubs new president of baseball operations on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, stressed that there would be a new philosophy and culture in place now that he was running things.
“The easiest way to start to change the culture is in the front office,” Epstein said. “That essentially involves a lot of hard work. It involves setting high standards. It involves coming together around a common vision for the organization and getting everyone to buy in that it’s the most important thing in the world to us. Essentially working so hard that it creates a culture of responsibility, a culture of achievement, a culture of high standards. If you’re not ready to buy into that, you’re probably not going to be along for the ride.”
Epstein will begin that process by bringing in San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod to hold the same titles with the Cubs. Both Hoyer and McLeod were major parts of Epstein’s large front office in Boston. While Epstein seems quite confident in his abilities, he’s well aware that building a team that will continually compete for a playoff spot is something he can’t do on his own.
Theo Epstein considers statistics a key tool to building a team, but not the only one.
“That does not happen overnight and that certainly does not happen because of any one person,” Epstein said. “Over time and together we will build a solid foundation that delivers sustained success for the Cubs.”
That solid foundation began to be laid out this past summer, when Epstein said the Cubs caught his eye, as well as many around baseball, during the June amateur draft. Their aggressive strategy and willingness to draft players who would cost well above slot price was one of the first steps in a new direction for the organization.
“We were looking at each other in our draft room and we said, ‘Hey, they get it, they’re going for it,’” Epstein said of what the Cubs did on draft day. “I think that the dollars that we spend in the draft and the dollars we spend internationally are some of the best dollars that we spend in the industry. It was a clear philosophical change in my opinion and a new direction that they’ve taken over the past six months. I think that got my attention and it got everyone’s attention in the game. It certainly aligns well with my vision for how to run a baseball operation, so I’d say it was a significant moment.”
Part of Epstein’s vision is developing a stronger statistical analysis department for the organization. Teams like the Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, and Oakland Athletics have been at the forefront of building forward-thinking front offices. Over the past decade, while those teams led the way in that area, the Cubs seemingly stagnated.
While stats will invariably be a larger part of this new Cubs era, Epstein was adamant that the old-school shall not be left behind, saying that scouts are an essential part of building a winning organization.
“You can look at each of those paradigms as a lens to view the players,” Epstein said about mixing scouting and stats. “If you hire the best scouts, put them in a position to see the player at the right time and get good solid accurate scouting reports, you see the player through a strong traditional scouting lens. If you hire the best analysts, get the most accurate data, make the best adjustments, do the most thorough analysis and you come out with the best available statistical information, that’s another lens to which to view the player. The way to see the player most accurately, to get the truest picture of the player, is to put both those lenses together and look through them simultaneously and you get a pretty darn accurate picture of the player. That’s the approach we used with the Red Sox and I’d like to do that same here with the Cubs.”
Much had been made of the computer named ‘Carmine’ that Epstein and his Red Sox cronies used in Boston. Many made it seem as though all of Epstein’s decisions were coming down to what Carmine had to say and that the Red Sox front office was a slave to a computer. Epstein, however, strongly disagreed with that notion.
“Way too much has been made of that,” Epstein said of his rumored reliance on Carmine. “We developed in Boston a program that was essentially an information management system. Every team in baseball has an information management system of some form or another. Every business of a certain size has an information management system that they use to gather their information, consolidate it, analyze it, dig deep and use it as a resource to balance certain variables and not make decisions, but inform decisions that the company eventually has to make.”
In his ten years with the Red Sox, Epstein not only proved himself to the traditional baseball lifer, but he has clearly become a darling in the sabermetric community. After meeting the media in Chicago Tuesday morning, it was easy to see why. A common misconception is that sabermetricians only care about the numbers, but the smart ones know that intelligently applying statistics is only one aspect of analyzing the game and building a strong organization. Epstein undoubtedly falls into the ‘smart ones’ category.
Along with espousing statistics, Epstein also insisted that the Cubs ‘build the best scouting department in the game' and continue last summer's trend of investing in the draft. He pledged to 'dig deep' as the team searched for the next great competitive advantage that would move the Cubs in a direction to join the elite. He pointed out the Cubs’ lack of fundamentals last season and their atrocious defense as things that must improve immediately if they plan on winning in the near future.
“Run prevention as a whole, pitching and defense is essential if you’re going to have a winning club,” Epstein said, before going on to describe a new system that he referred to as the 'Cubs Way'. “(It) touches on all aspects of the game. There will be a player development manual with the appropriate way to play defense at every position and expectations we have, not just offensively, but defensively. Once we build this foundation, that ‘Cubs’ Way’ will be integrated vertically so we’ll be playing the same way at the Dominican Summer League (all the way up to) the big league level.”
Another lesson Epstein has learned along the way is that when paying for free agents, it’s essential that the money is spent on future performance, not past. It was something that Hendry often failed to do and likely led to his ultimate demise. Epstein is hardly immune to getting burned in the free-agent market, doling out large, bad deals to the likes of John Lackey, Edgar Renteria, and Julio Lugo. However, Epstein clearly has acknowledged the issue and seems to have pinpointed a simple plan of action to avoid such deals in the future.
“I think baseball players have a prime age, there’s an age range, starting somewhere around 26-27 and ending somewhere around 31-32 in which you get the best bang for your buck with the player,” Epstein pointed out. “If we do our jobs the right way, we’ll have as many players in their primes, hopefully home-grown, impact-type players who are moving into and still in their prime years. That’s the best formula to building a winning baseball club.”
None of these statements assures that Epstein will avoid any pitfalls along the way. He’s likely to make mistakes as he attempts to build the North Siders back to respectability. But one thing is clear, Cubs’ fans have to be excited about the brain trust that Epstein is already putting together.
No, a World Series victory isn’t going to fall into this team’s lap. Nothing is guaranteed, except that the process towards putting a quality team on the field will be more efficient, progressive, and well-thought-out than it was under previous regimes.