Growing up in the 1970’s and being a sports fan was like a paradise. It was before big money took over both the players and the owners. Television was falling over itself to bring relatively cheap programming that were virtual cash cows, remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports? Being an All-American boy, I dutifully partook in every sport I could while growing up in the middle of a city. Street hockey, touch football, HORSE, and the modified baseball games of fast pitching, running bases, and “pinners” (what the game of throwing a rubber ball against a set of stairs was called in our neighborhood) filled my summer days. But another sport grabbed me, and ended up being the one I played all through high school; what we call soccer in America, Football everywhere else.
I could get into the “whys” and “wherefores” about how soccer became important to me, but by now, you are probably wondering, what does this have to do with baseball and the Cubs? If you bear with me a little while longer, it should become clear.
In the late 1960’s Dutch national coach Rinus Michels had a big problem. The world of international soccer was dominated by large countries such as Brazil and West Germany. He had to find a way for tiny Netherlands to compete. His idea was the ingenious “Total Football” approach. In Total Football, there was only one set position, the goalkeeper. All the other players could be moved in and out of the other positions, from forward to midfielder to defender. This kept opponents off-balance, with opposing coaches wondering how to both defend and attack when they couldn’t predict where the players would be on the field. With players such as Wim van Hanegem, Johan Neeskens, and Johan Cruyff, the idea helped bring the Dutch to the World Cup finals in 1974, losing to West Germany.
Fast forward to the year 2006 and the sport of baseball. At that time, the Cubs hired Tim Wilken away from the Toronto Blue Jays in order to improve their scouting and drafts. Wilken was given free rein in the drafts, and it appears that he had the idea of a baseball version of the Total Football approach. Wilken drafted speedy, athletic, and versatile position players along with pitchers that could either start or relieve, staring with Tyler Colvin. Some other notables were Jeff Samardzija, Steve Clevenger, Josh Vitters, Josh Donaldson, Darwin Barney, Andrew Cashner, Ryan Flaherty, and Chris Carpenter. It was the 2009 draft that really stood out, as Brett Jackson, D.J. LeMahieu, Austin Kirk, Chris Rusin, Wes Darvill, Brooks Raley, and Robert Whitenack were selected in the first ten rounds. After the 2011 draft which yielded Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, Zeke DeVoss, Tony Zych, Dillon Maples, and Rock Shoulders, Wilken ceded control to the new regime under Theo Epstein, moving into the role of Special Consultant.
The idea of using the whole roster and moving ballplayers in and out of the lineup, creating match-up advantages was bold for a tradition-bound sport like baseball. Baseball players are jealously protective of their playing time and sometimes bow to superstition, so selling the concept of voluntarily coming out of the lineup was difficult. Besides keeping opponents off guard, the advantages were that players had to be mentally prepared every day, they were being placed in situations where they could be successful, and that periodic rest could help to avoid injuries. From a pitching standpoint, asking your pitchers to forget about roles and concentrate on throwing strikes and letting the athletic team behind you make plays was also bold.
Would it have worked? There is some evidence that the idea had merit, beginning with the 2011 Tennessee Smokies. With ten players hitting over .300 in the first half, the Smokies ran roughshod over the Southern League to start the season. The Smokies won the first half crown and came within three games of taking both halves. Tennessee ended up leading the Southern League in hitting and was third in ERA, despite not having one starter with a winning record.
The last vestiges of this approach can be seen on the 2013 Daytona Cubs squad. After floundering a bit in the first half, the D-Cubs lost Jorge Soler and Javier Baez to injury and promotion. Since then, they have migrated back to the concept, which has them leading their division in the Florida State League. This is to spite the fact that Daytona is only in the middle of the pack as far as hitting, ERA, and fielding. Although the shape-shifting lineups have been toned down, the idea of not relying on a handful of players and playing team baseball remains. Daytona has gotten production out of less visible players such as Ben Carhart, Pin-Chieh Chen, Wes Darvill, Dustin Geiger, Elliot Soto, and Yao-Lin Wang.
For those still intrigued by this idea, keep your eye on Daytona for the rest of the season, before it is swallowed whole by Theoball.