Theo Epstein recently joined Comcast SportsNet New England’s Sean McAdam on ‘The Baseball Show’ podcast. The Cubs President of Baseball Operations talked about last year, the Cubs upcoming season and the expectations that surround his team.
Epstein also discussed the changes in the game, how defense is now measured and valued and being in charge of a baseball team once again that resides in the toughest division in baseball.
On the Cubs being in position for another strong season, FanGraphs projecting the team to have the best record in baseball and coming off a trip to the NLCS, did the rebuild happen quicker or is it in line with the front office’s timetable?
“Well, first of all every time one of those projections comes out and has us at 95 wins or best record in baseball or whatever, I wince a little bit more. I would more accurately describe us as a defending third place team in the National League Central trying to catch the Pirates or Cardinals. I’m a lot more comfortable with that because that’s where we are. Look, we had a special season last year in that we won 97 games and the Wild Card Game and knocked off the Cardinals in the post-season for the first time ever and it was special because we really exceeded our own expectations. We felt last year would be a year in which we would be talented but real young. We thought we’d have some moments of brilliance with our young players coming up and showing their ability but then over the long haul there’s a chance that we would fade. And that as the league made adjustments to us and our young players adjusted to the length of the long season and the caliber of play at the Major League level, we were prepared to go through some tough times last year especially in the second half of the season. The ironic thing is those young players adjusted so quickly and so well that we just got stronger through the course of the season, caught fire right around the trade deadline and had a pretty dominant second half. It was just special and a lot of fun. As we look forward to next year we added some talented pieces to a core that’s still pretty young and returning almost in full but we recognize that a lot can go wrong. It’s baseball. We recognize there are a lot of areas of vulnerability from potentially the depth of our starting pitching, especially lack of ready solutions at the upper levels of the minors with starting pitching. Our outfield defense will be a question mark that we have to answer collectively. And then the stuff that you don’t anticipate. Looking forward to going out and building off of last year and embracing the challenge of 162 games.”
On tempering expectations before the Cubs have accomplished the goal, what is it like in Chicago with fans looking forward to a season perhaps more than any in recent history given what the team accomplished last year?
“I haven’t been around Chicago long enough to put it in any kind of historical context but I can tell you there really is a great electricity and buzz around the whole city and it’s obviously not even Spring Training yet. You walk down the street and a lot of store fronts have Cubs signage in the windows or hanging the ‘W’ flags already or maybe some of them are left over from last October and they just never took them down. People on the street … You go to a Bulls’ game, you go to a Blackhawks’ game and they’re talking about the Cubs. We just had our annual Cubs Convention. The Opening Ceremonies, it was a standing room only crowd of more than 10,000 people in the ballroom, crammed into the ballroom welcoming the players and many more would have liked to have attended … just tremendous electricity. It’s not a surprise. I remember seeing the old footage of the ’03 NLCS, and we were busy at the time as you were because of the ALCS, but watching the footage of the NLCS against the Marlins there were 40,000 people in Wrigley and there were literally another 30,000 people just outside the ballpark during the game surrounding the ballpark trying to be part of the action hoping to catch a home run, wanting to be there to celebrate. Like Boston, Chicago is an amazing baseball city. It’s just on a little bit of a larger scale, not in terms of intensity, but in terms of the population and the Cubs are very much the talk of the town right now in a good way.”
On the American League East being the premier division in baseball when he ran the Red Sox and now the NL Central clearly being the best division in baseball now with three teams winning 97 or more games and playing in the post-season last year, what does that do to the Cubs process when you realize as good as you are it’s hardly a given you can win a division that also includes the Cardinals and Pirates? How does the NL Central now compare with the way the AL East was last decade?
“It’s a great question. First thing I have to do is ask myself what I’m doing wrong that I’ve been that unlucky to be in the AL East …”
Sean McAdam: “That good divisions always follow you?”
Theo Epstein: “Exactly [Laughs]. Actually remember telling my wife when we were sort of debating the pros and cons of making this move, not that we would ever make the move for this reason, but I tell you what the NL Central is a he … heck of a lot easier that the AL East. Then we show up here and the next thing you know is there are three teams with close to 100 wins. It changes the calculus a little bit. Every organization has to assess the division that they are in both with a snapshot for the year ahead and then over the long haul to see which direction the organizations are trending, what kind of window they are in one way or the other can inform, to a certain extent, a decision to scale back and rebuild a little bit or to be more aggressive and try to prolong the window. We’re actually … we’re obviously at the beginning phase of a window regardless, so it’s not going to impact that. But I think it’s always the goal to change the calculus on how much talent you have to pack on your roster in the off-season because we are now in a contending phase and it’s not good enough to get to the Wild Card Game, which is essentially a coin flip, a 50-50 chance of having a post-season end in one game. It has for the Pirates for the last two years. Obviously if that’s what happens that’s what will happen and we’ll just have to go out and win the game like we did last year. But we really want to try to win the division while we’re in this phase. In order to beat the Cardinals and Pirates we’ll probably have to win 95 or more games in order to make that happen. In some divisions, at some points on the contending arc, you may build a team that you think is an 88-win team and has a chance to win, if everything goes right, win 92 and you say hey we are fairly well-positioned to be in the Wild Card mix and if things go right you can win the division. In the Central that’s not the assumption you would make. It could turn out that way. You could have no team that wins even 90 games next year, but having a division of this caliber right now you really want to try to figure out how you pack those 95 wins onto a roster to give you every fighting chance to win the division.”
On the young talent like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber currently on the roster that enables the Cubs to have a contending team, how did we get here where young players are so valued throughout baseball and relied upon perhaps more so than any time in recent history of the game?
“I think it’s a combination of factors. I think you have to recognize that the testing that we have now. The Commissioner’s office and Union present attempts to clean up the game have contributed. I don’t think it’s impacted young players that much, but maybe players in their 30’s aren’t able to prolong, some players, I’m not speaking in generality. Some players in their 30’s are able to prolong their window of physical tools and performance at a high level as long as they were 15 years ago if they made certain choices. It’s really shifted the balance back to players in their 20’s. Throughout baseball history players’ peak age has really been 27. That shifted a little bit during the steroid era. I think we’re totally clear back to that now. The other thing is the game is played at such a high level now it requires full commitment, physical ability and strong knowledge of the game, a strong mental game. One way to view a player’s evolution, all players’ evolutions, when they are in their early 20’s and they’re breaking in they are at the peak physically. They are never going to be fresher. They are never going to be faster. Once you get to your mid 20s you’re probably never going to be stronger, but as inexperienced as you’ll ever be and maybe haven’t fine-tuned the knowledge of the game, instincts, the mental game. That’s a process that improves with time. So the irony of baseball development is usually right around the time you’re figuring out the game in full and you become a very knowledgeable, heady and mentally strong player that’s when your physical skills start to erode and you see that nexus. The great players will also be able to figure out the game more quickly from a mental standpoint while really strong physically or prolong their physical peak as they become experienced, heady players. I think what you’re see now is that the game is played at such a high level that’s it is just about impossible to keep up unless you have those physical tools too. It’s just harder and harder with the velocity like you see in the game now and how hard it is to hit, how hard it is to get the hitters out on the other side of things. Once your physical tools really start to go, you don’t see too many guys hanging around on craftiness and knowledge of the game and know how quite as much as I think you used to. The game is just being pushed … the caliber of players has been pushed higher and higher and higher and it gets harder for older players to hang on once their physical tools start to go.”
On the greater appreciation and valuing of defensive skills, spending a lot of money on a player considered to be one of the best defenders in the game in Jason Heyward, and since Moneyball began almost 15 years ago where it’s been all about trying to find undervalued variables, it used to be on-base percentage, certainly defense is now highly valued. What’s behind an appreciation and valuation of defense in baseball?
“I think it is human nature when it’s time to make important decisions I think human beings tend to rely a little bit more on things that are measurable, that are proven or quantitative, quantifiable in some way I should say then things that are a little bit more ambiguous and a little bit more difficult to define. Not that you don’t factor, when it comes right down to it you want to be able to, in your own mind, demonstrate some inferences. It’s the reason why certain things have been overvalued in the game too. And you can argue that we’re at a point that all the sudden now that defense is a little bit more quantifiable it’s being overemphasized. There’s certainly an argument to be made in that regard. It’s something that we are aware of. We try not to … just because we can measure something now we try not to overvalue it. I think it’s ironic that sort of the arc of the game. If you go back to this quote unquote old-time baseball, say like pre-Moneyball or pre-information age, defense was extremely valued. If you talk to any old-time baseball guys, huge part of the game … talk defense and run prevention first before you talk about offense. You couldn’t really get on the field, especially before the DH, you couldn’t get on the field unless you could really play defense. And as offense became very quantifiable and all these metrics evolved offensively with emphasis on on-base percentage the industry trended … started to follow a trend of maybe deemphasizing defense just because there wasn’t … it was more ambiguous while offense was very precise. The evaluation of offense was really precise. And the industry, and I’m right there with it in some of the decisions that we made along the way, went too far underemphasizing defense and overvaluing offense just because it could be measured. Now that defense is catching up you see it swing back the other direction. I just think it’s important to be aware of your own sort of vulnerabilities to numbers. Most importantly make sure you see the big picture in that if you are going to rely on numbers, to manage your scouting reports and inform your decisions to make sure they are very accurate. Because a lot of the new generation of comprehensive stats are proven to be really unreliable, so put in a little work to find ones that can help predict performance and go from there.”
Sean McAdam wrapped up his conversation with Theo Epstein by talking about his thoughts on David Price and the moves the Red Sox made this winter.