The Cubs and Indians have shown the surest formula to success is building with math and winning with heart.
When is the last time you went to church?
Was it last year? Christmas maybe? Perhaps when your grandmother was still around? Or maybe for your grandmother’s funeral?
When you were there did it all seem strange? People trapped in a stuffy room wearing itchy clothes that don’t quite fit right. The smell of church, a mostly pleasant combination of showers and baby shampoo and dad cologne and sweater from the back of the closet.
Did you forget how clammy the priest’s hands were, as if they’d just been removed from fish wrap? Were you a little surprised to see Jesus himself, nailed up there for all to see, barely clothed, a doe-eyed hippy bleeding from at least five holes? Did you wonder, maybe for the first time, whether he really did exist and if so who was he? Because you know by now it’s physically impossible to be born to a woman who has never had sex. You also know that some kind of omnipotent being could hardly inseminate said girl—it goes against the very laws he made up. So, who, indeed was that bearded hipster martyr? And wouldn’t it be nice if we had 23 and Me back in the day.
^ If this is you—even not exactly you, but elements of you, you are not alone.
As a nation, we all used to attend church, upwards of 95 percent less than a half-century ago. Now we don’t, especially those of us who are under 30. We don’t buy into Santa as much either—or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or ghosts or even double coupons. Goats and black cats and Bartmans—simple symbols used for decades to explain away the statistical woes of the Cubs’ front office’s improbable inability to field the best team in baseball for more than a century—are now moot.
The one-at-a-time shedding these tiny faiths and superstitions is to some a signal that we have become more skeptical not simply analytical. Though one could argue increased cynicism has been a byproduct of gained knowledge, the reality is we have also grown up a little bit.
It all started a couple hundred years back when Western intellectuals began questioning the existence of God or an omnipresent supernatural being or Vin Diesel as the source of life. Enter science, which has become the accepted way we think about understanding and explaining the physical world. Science and its first cousin math indeed tell you everything you need to know if you just learn to accept it into your heart: Why you got sick. How to get better. A way to make beer taste good. The right way to fix your car. A faster way to get there.
And, most importantly, the best method to build a winning baseball team.
You all read or saw Moneyball, where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane smirks a lot and talks about shit layers en route to building an Oakland team does what Oakland teams do about once a decade: Win enough games to get its players noticed by other teams, then fold in the playoffs.
Moneyball author Michael Lewis portrayed Oakland’s use of sabermetrics—the application of statistical analysis to baseball records, especially in-game stats, to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players—as a one-club anomaly. The reality is the practice of using numbers and statistics to evaluate performance in baseball is more than a half-century old. Number-cruncher Earnshaw Cook’s 1964 book, Percentage Baseball got the attention of a lot of franchises, though most decried this voodoo magic and scouts still continued to check players’ teeth and ankles as if they were race horses and sized up the attractiveness of their girlfriends and wives as the ultimate indicator of whether they’d be successful on the field.
Of course, were this at all true, then Evan Longoria would have five MVPs and the Rays at least a trio of Commissioners trophies by now.
But what started out as a fringe movement in the early 80s, using big data to maximize baseball operations, is a downright necessity to succeed now. It has been baseball’s great equalizer, helping give rise to small-market teams (think Kansas City, Houston and Pittsburgh) and putting a pair of legendary perennial losers—Cleveland and Chicago—in this year’s fall classic.
Whether it’s Pittsburgh’s use of data to show when to integrate defensive shifts, Houston’s notorious biggest player database in baseball, Cleveland’s noteworthy build out of its strategy and business analytics department, Milwaukee’s use of predictive analytics to turn one-off fans into season ticket holders or Boston’s integration of concession heatmaps to track fans’ buying behavior once in the confines of Fenway, every front office tracks every move of every player, each clubhouse support staff member and, most importantly, you the fan.
And sometimes that fan is fortunate enough to see the number crunching manifest on the field in dramatic worst-to-first fashion. In Chicago, the Cubs faithful skeptical of Theo Epstein’s curse-breaking methods in Boston were validated during his first three years as president of baseball operations there. From 2011-2013 Epstein’s Cubs finished dead-ass last in the NL Central. During that time he home brewed the most talent-laden young middle infield in baseball, traded for Anthony Rizzo and drafted Kris Bryant. He assembled one of the league’s best starting rotations and even managed to steal closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees for a trio of players to be named later.
What both critics and apologists say makes Epstein special is his ability to sort through all types of information, numerical and empirical. Chapman allegedly shot at his girlfriend with a pistol. Rizzo’s durability was questioned after he beat cancer. Bryant, well, he just may have been too good to be true. Though Epstein, the former sports editor of the Yale Daily News, can chop it up about simulation methodology with the back-office nerds, he prefers to pore through player personal profiles and discuss them like a geeky kid who has memorized the back of every baseball card. A man with a mind that leans toward letters says he divines as much about potential performance and character from what he calls “Russian novel”-sized dossiers than a spreadsheet.
Back to religion for a moment. Only forty percent of Americans now say they pray daily or weekly, yet if you look in the stands during the late innings of any game this World Series, you’d think that number ticks up near 100.
We have shifted, indeed. And while the numbers can take us all the way to the promised land, we still squint our eyes and ask some benevolent God or Great Pumpkin or Clark the Cub or Chief Wahoo (really?) to deliver us from another year of being known as the world’s most lovable losers, this time on the sport’s biggest stage.
Because we’ve learned it’s not just about statistics and it’s never about blind faith or guessing. It’s striking the right balance between logic and reason and zeros and ones. Improbable as it may seem that one losing franchise gets to exorcise their demons for good within a week, statistically speaking, now is exactly the right time for it to happen.