Theo Epstein Talks About Taking Risks, Reveals ‘Ultimate Competitive Advantage’
One of my favorite parts of spring training broadcasts is the announcers’ ability to get a little more tangential or to go more in-depth on a particular topic without worrying as much about getting into the action of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not tuning in for a monologue punctuated by the sound of bat on ball with no description of what happened. But I don’t mind when a great conversation isn’t interrupted by the call of a foul ball or a nice take from a non-roster invitee.
Which is why it was so great when Theo Epstein dropped by the booth to chat with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies during Tuesday afternoon’s game against the White Sox. The Cubs baseball boss spoke candidly about everything from spring training philosophy to the next frontier of the information age, and he was able to go a little deeper than he might have in a regular game setting.
…just being open to talking about it and really getting locked in the last week of camp I think is important.
“I’m not sure there is a formula [for getting off to a good start],” Epstein admitted. “I’m not supposed to speak well of our division rivals, but for years the Cardinals were great at it. They really put a lot of emphasis on playing the last week to 10 days of camp like it was the regular season. [La Russa] had his regulars in there, they played nine innings a lot, threw the starters late in camp and really ramped up the intensity.
“Joe’s got his own unique take on that, with some similarities, just being open to talking about it and really getting locked in the last week of camp I think is important.”
But while spring training is often about taking precautions and easing players back into a groove, we’ve seen from their actions over the last few years that the Cubs are more than willing to set convention aside. As much as tanking has become common practice at this point, that’s really only because the Cubs did it so well. And it was far from a sure thing when they began a journey that led to a World Series title.
“[Taking risks is] a byproduct of the information age,” Epstein explained. “The more information you have out there, the more collective common knowledge there is, the harder you have to dig for some competitive advantage. So if you’re gonna do the research, you’re gonna do the work, you gotta have a fresh perspective on things.
“And then that is completely irrelevant if you’re not willing to take some risks and experiment a little bit. You have to embrace change.”
If you want an omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs. You might also end up getting some on your face, which is actually something Epstein understands and welcomes. There’s a sense, at least among some fans of other teams, that Epstein is some sort of elitist or that he thinks as highly of himself as others do. The truth of the matter is that he’s fully aware of his own shortcomings, which is exactly why he’s so good at what he does.
So if you’re in a field where you know you’re gonna be wrong then you should embrace it…enough to give you an advantage that might manifest once or twice over the course of a season.
“I think it’s a sign of a good organization, being really comfortable being really publicly wrong about a few things and not caring how you might look or how it might come off or trying to be safe and perfect all the time,” the Cubs president admitted. “I think in order to have any sort of breakthrough or advantage, you need to be comfortable being wrong.
“Baseball is an exercise in which we know we don’t have anywhere close to all the answers. We only understand a fraction of what goes on on the field in enough detail to be able to quantify it or predict it. So if you’re in a field where you know you’re gonna be wrong then you should embrace it and work really hard to chip away at finding a few things that you might better understand just a little bit, enough to give you an advantage that might manifest once or twice over the course of a season.”
When it comes to advantages, perhaps none has been greater for the Cubs than keeping their starting pitchers in the rotation every fifth day throughout the whole season. That will be of supreme importance given the dropoff after the starting five and the need to develop the cadre of talented arms working their way through the low levels of the minors.
Keeping players healthy is the ultimate goal, the uncharted frontier of baseball’s information age. The advances in wearable tech have built inroads into that virgin territory that the Cubs have taken full advantage of, but there’s still much to be learned.
“There’s always a lot of work on injury prevention,” Epstein said. “You lose so many valuable man-games to injury, especially to pitching, so if you can keep your pitchers just a hair bit healthier that’s incredibly valuable. I’ll speak in broad terms, but there’s taking all this detailed manual information that we have — the real-time feedback that we have through the numbers and studying the game now — and getting that onto the field.”
At the end of the day, though, all the information in the world means nothing if not properly interpreted and applied. And that’s where the Cubs have really made hay.
“It’s not so much the information you get these days, although that can be an advantage if you find some unique data stream. But the real advantage is how you apply it, how it gets onto the field.
“And of course the ultimate competitive advantage is just understanding people and knowing when to ignore the numbers or when to combine an understanding of data with an understanding of the person. Putting your players, human beings, in a position to succeed and understanding that they’re more than just numbers on back of their card.
And of course the ultimate competitive advantage is just understanding people and knowing when to ignore the numbers or when to combine and understanding of data with an understanding of the person.
“With amateur scouting too, that’s a real point of emphasis, on makeup,” Epstein continued. “And then we’ve had a lot of discussions on ‘What does that mean?’ You’re not necessarily looking for the best possible person, you’re not looking for someone for your daughter to marry, per se, you’re looking for — although that matters — you’re looking for great baseball makeup.”
All in all, not a bad little conversation for the middle of a meaningless game in February. I always enjoy listening to Epstein talk about his and the team’s thought processes when it comes to player evaluation and development, particularly the idea of integrating scouting, data, and psychology.
It’s clear that Epstein and the other members of the front office view themselves the same way they view the team and players. Which is to say that they’re constantly trying to improve and to better understand and apply the tools of their craft. And when you’re talking about a group that has been responsible for titles in both Boston and Chicago, the idea that they can still get better at what they do should be scary af to other teams.