Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane received national acclaim in Michael Lewis’s 2003 best-selling book (and eventual movie) Moneyball. Lewis presented Beane as a modern-day David slaying Goliath, defeating financially advantaged teams with his creativity and a “cache of numbers” as his slingshot. However, Beane’s overachieving A’s never got over the hump: they never won a World Series, they lost seven of eight post-season series (and a wild card game), and they recently took a turn for the worse with consecutive last place division finishes in 2015 and 2016.
Into that void in the young-genius-winning-it-all genre stepped Yale graduate Theo Epstein. Epstein won the World Series as general manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2004 (ending an 86-year Boston drought) and 2007, and again this year as president of operations for the Chicago Cubs (the team’s first in 108 years). Epstein’s no David; quite the opposite, as his Red Sox and Cubs teams had deep pockets — haves rather than have-nots — and he exploited their wealth to good use. But those titles, particularly the Cubs’ win this season, do not happen without creative thinking on the executive level.
To begin with, Epstein (and others) recognized major errors of Beane and the earlier sabermetricians, specifically their de-emphasis of baserunning and defense. The Cubs were probably the best defensive team in baseball this season, shining in the infield, in right field with Jason Heyward, and (later in the season) with athletic, cannon-armed Willson Contreras behind the plate. Furthermore, manager Joe Maddon often chose his lineup based on the hitting distribution charts of both the opposition and his starting pitcher; for example, he moved super-defender Javier Baez around the infield depending on where the data suggested most grounders would be hit.
The Cubs also ran aggressively throughout the postseason, stealing 11 bases and winning game seven in the World Series with three outstanding running plays: Kris Bryant brazenly tagged up and scored on a short fly to center; later on he scored from first on a double, and in the tenth inning, Alfred Almora advanced to second on a long fly to center.
But the most creative thing Epstein did was to invert the historical thinking about constructing a baseball team. For more than 100 years, baseball has been governed by mantras like “pitching is 90 per cent of the game” or “good pitching stops good hitting.” Yet when Epstein took over a 91-game losing Cubs team in October 2011, he concentrated on acquiring field players rather than pitchers. He used his first round draft picks on outfielder Almora (2012), likely MVP third baseman Bryant (2013), slugging catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber (2014), and promising minor leaguer Ian Happ (2015). He signed outfielder Jorge Soler and shortstop Gleyber Torres as free agents. He even traded away pitchers for hitters: the promising Andrew Cashner for eventual all-star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and two solid starters (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammels) for a minor league shortstop prospect, Addison Russell (another 2016 all-star).
One reason for Epstein’s emphasis on field players in the early stages of rebuilding is the epidemic of arm injuries — particularly elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery — that plagues modern day pitchers. Their fragile health makes them, in Moneyball parlance, overvalued as high draftees. Field players less commonly suffer career-ending or career-diminishing injuries, and therefore, relative to pitchers, are undervalued as youngsters.
Of course, Epstein knew that he’d eventually need a good pitching staff to win the World Series; here, two factors came into play. First, good luck: in two trades of seemingly zero distinction he acquired Jake Arrieta, a sub-.500 pitcher over three seasons with an ERA of almost 5.50, and minor-leaguer Kyle Hendricks, an unrenowned 39th round draft pick. Both became superstars with the Cubs; Arrieta won the 2015 Cy Young Award and Hendricks led the national league in ERA in 2016.
Second, after acquiring most of his promising young field players he unleashed the Cubs’ wealth, bolstering his starting rotation with highly rated free agent pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey. That required a Steinbrennian-level investment of 187 million dollars for the two of them (plus another 240 million dollars for free agent position players Ben Zobrist and Heyward), but those acquisitions also owed to the solid foundation Epstein had built on the field. Lester and Lackey (and others) would not have joined the Cubs if they did not see a good chance at a World Series ring. Epstein sold them on the alluring idea that they’d be among the final pieces in the puzzle.
Finally, the depth Epstein had built on the field allowed him to complete his staff by trading prospects Torres and Billy McKinney (and in a roundabout way, Starlin Castro) for stud closer Aroldis Chapman.
Best of all, Epstein has the Cubs set to compete at a high level for perhaps the next ten years. Remarkably, they have six young players already near or at all-star level: the entire infield, Schwarber, and possibly Contreras. Among the starting pitchers, only Lackey (38 years old) and possibly Lester (32) will need to be replaced in the near future. And Epstein can probably do that easily on the free agent market: just as he attracted Lester and Lackey, he has “built it. . . . and they will come.”
Sheldon Hirsch is the author of the forthcoming Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio's Streak: Debunking America's Favorite Sports Myths (April 2017)