When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series this past fall, they ended a 108-year championship draught for one of baseball’s oldest franchises.
They also may have ended the debate about the usefulness of analytics in making personnel and game decisions.
Analytics first took hold in baseball in Oakland, where Athletics General Manager Billy Beane used advanced metrics to put together a winning club on a shoestring budget. All of this is well documented in the book and movie, “Moneyball.”
It also led to the development of realistic baseball simulation games, such as Diamond Mind from Imagine Sports that can be played both on a PC and online. The same metrics that drive the simulation games also drove teams like the Boston Red Sox to three world championships.
But with the Cubs, a new era may have dawned in baseball.
Theo Epstein represents the common denominator with the Red Sox and the Cubs. The president of baseball operations for the Cubs advocates an objective, data-driven approach to putting together baseball teams. His success as general manager in Boston proved he had a sound approach, but the success with the Cubs – where failure had become expected – may end any remaining debate.
“If it wasn’t clear enough when Epstein ended Boston’s title drought 12 years ago, it should be abundantly clear today: An objective, data-driven view can change the world,” Rany Jazayerli wrote for The Ringer.
Epstein got the job in Chicago five years ago for the express purpose of bringing an analytical approach to the long-suffering Cubs. While his success in Boston helped get analytics out of theory and into practice, it’s taken many teams long to actually use data to drive decisions.
Part of the success of a data-driven approach revolves around having a field manager who believes in it. With Joe Maddon, Epstein could not have asked for a manager more sympathetic to his cause.
Maddon, who managed the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series, has become considered by most experts to rank among the best managers in baseball. He’s also a fan of statistical models. That’s one of the reasons he highly values a player like Ben Zobrist, who played for him in Tampa and again with the Cubs.
While not a superstar, his solid play ranks him high among analytics buffs. He won MVP honors in the World Series.
Of course, the Cubs also invested heavily in cutting-edge technology. The KinaTrax motion capture system ranks high among their tools. The software allows teams to capture motion in pitchers, helping them improve tiny imperfections in delivery that can lead to big gains.
How good has the Cubs approach been to both rebuilding the team with new management and players? Chicago businessman Andrew Berlin, who owns the Berlin Packaging company, recently divested his interest in the rival Chicago White Sox and invested in the Cubs.
While he grew up a Cubs fan, he told Forbes that he did not make the investment choice out of vanity. Rather, he saw that the team had taken a data-driven approach at all levels, and felt it would pay off. Which, of course, it has.
“The Cubs are very data-driven and have a great deal of metrics around performance and analyzing the past to try to understand the future,” he said. “I would say that in the use of data and analytics, the Cubs are probably among the best in the business. We’ve had more success with it than most.”
Look for other teams to continue to make analytics a consideration at every level of the organization. And for fans to continue building their own teams through baseball simulation games that allow them to put the same principles in play as those used by Epstein and Maddon.