Someone Tell the Story

Every World Series-winning team has a story behind it, and the 2016 Cubs are no exception. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Every World Series championship team has a story.

For much of baseball’s history, players were the heroes of those stories. Babe Ruth’s called shot in Game Three of the 1932 World Series or Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 entered into legend. Their exploits led their teams to the pinnacle of the sport.

In recent years, when we tell the story of a championship season, the players don’t matter as much. The men in the executive suites, men with titles like president of baseball operations or director of decision sciences—these are the new heroes. Their foes are not opposing players, but inefficiency. Victory now depends on team executives’ ability to scout and develop players, to game baseball’s self-imposed financial constraints, and to find a way for 25 to 40 men of differing races, classes, and life experiences to work together toward a common goal. The mysticism of the sport reduced to the problems confronted by businesses everywhere.

This is the story of three books written about the last three World Series champions— Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way, Ben Reiter’s Astroball, and Alex Speier’s Homegrown.

The Cubs and Astros followed similar paths back from irrelevance. First, they hired new management with a history of success elsewhere. Theo Epstein had led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles before arriving in Chicago. Jeff Luhnow had revamped the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. After surveying baseball’s economic landscape, both organizations committed to purposely losing games in the short-term in pursuit of long-term success. By bottoming out, they acquired better picks in the amateur draft and had more money to spend on amateur talent. By drafting and developing homegrown talent, the Cubs and Astros would have players in the first six or seven years of their careers, where their on-the-field contributions would far outweigh their salaries, which were limited by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. As their competitive window began to open, they would invest their savings into veteran players to supplement their rosters.

The Boston Red Sox envisioned themselves on a similar path as the Cubs and the Astros, although their ownership and fan base would not allow the team to bottom out, as Chicago and a Houston had done. Beginning with the 2011 draft—the last draft before a new collective bargaining agreement put stricter limitations on amateur spending—the Red Sox, under general manager Ben Cherrington (who replaced Epstein after the 2011 season), sought to remake themselves as a “player development machine.” Cherrington crafted a plan for contention that would see the Red Sox competing for the World Series by 2016.

In 2013, however, the Red Sox won the World Series. Cherrington’s plan to keep the team competitive with shrewd short-term signings of mid-career veterans like Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli paid off better than he ever could have hoped. After that, however, the plan short-circuited. Two losing seasons followed, the prospect core developed unevenly, and Red Sox ownership, perpetually worried about the next World Series title, feared Cherrington had lost sight of the bigger picture. So instead of letting Cherrington see his plan come to fruition, as the Cubs and Astros had done with Epstein and Luhnow, the Red Sox brought in Dave Dombrowski to finish the work of building a contender. In the end, the 2013 World Series victory was the best worst thing that ever happened to Ben Cherrington.

Verducci, Reiter, and Speier are all gifted storytellers and their books benefit from the strength of their prose. Verducci intersperses the story of the 2016 World Series with flashbacks to the hiring Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the gradual construction of the 2016 Cubs. As a reporter for Fox, Verducci had a front seat to the 2016 World Series against the Cleveland Indians. He takes the reader inside Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s office before each game as Maddon explains his decision-making process from the dugout. In Verducci’s book, Maddon, with his endless slogans and motivation techniques, comes off as a larger-than-life figure. He, Epstein, and Hoyer provided extensive interviews outlining the path that brought them all to Chicago and how they remade the Cubs in their own image. As a result, Verducci—gifted with a great story of a moribund franchise finally overcoming years of failure—crafted a wonderfully readable and enjoyable book.

Astroball relies on a straightforward chronological structure, beginning with the creation of the Astros and their eccentric owner, Roy Hofheinz. As Reiter brings the story forward to the present, he narrows his focus to just two people, Astros general manager Luhnow and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, from their beginnings at McKinsey and Company and NASA, respectively. The two met when Luhnow hired Mejdal while working for the St. Louis Cardinals. Their combined efforts resulted in a string of successful drafts that produced a bevy of major league caliber players. Reiter also introduces some of the key players of the 2017 Astros like Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Carlos Beltran, and Justin Verlander. Other participants like Astros owner Jim Crane and manager A.J. Hinch pop in and out of the narrative. Reiter also contextualizes the Astros within the broader sabermetric movement and key moments like the effect of Hurricane Harvey on the Astros and Houston itself. The result, like Verducci’s Cubs Way, is a pleasurable read about a successful baseball team.

Homegrown differs from The Cubs Way and Astroball. First, Speier is not a national baseball reporter like Verducci and Reiter. As a reporter for the Boston Globe who has spent over a decade covering the Red Sox in various capacities, Speier had a front-row seat to the development of the 2018 Red Sox. Homegrown is filled with comments and interviews from Red Sox ownership all the way down to the coaching staffs in the minor leagues. There are no larger-than-life figures in Speier’s story. Instead, Speier introduces myriad people who tried to do their best in a difficult work environment. Some, like Cherrington and former Red Sox manager John Farrell, were fired before the Red Sox could win the 2018 World Series.

As with most 21st-century baseball books, the influence of Moneyball looms large inn these. In the 16 years since its publication, Michael Lewis’ book has become the urtext from which other baseball books have sprung. Gone, however, are the paeans to on-base percentage. Instead, in this second generation of Moneyball, we’re treated to the new market inefficiency—people. The Cubs, as The Cubs Way tells us, “focused on the mental side of the game as much as the physical, emphasizing chemistry and character as well as statistics.” The Astros, meanwhile, “built a system that avoided the stats-versus-scouts divide by giving the human factor a key role in their decision-making.” By paying attention to the intangibles and the tangibles, these books argue, the Cubs and Astros built championship teams capable of remaining competitive for years into the future.

According to the blurbs and reviews of these books, these stories have lessons to teach us beyond how to build a successful baseball team. Roger I. Abrams, who writes about the intersection between business and sports, believes The Cubs Way “deserves a place on the bookshelf of every sports fan and on the reading list at every business school.” The Wall Street Journal notes that Astroball “provides powerful insights into how organizations—not just baseball clubs—work best.” Journalist Seth Mnookin praised Homegrown for its “powerful, nuanced description of why team building is so important—not just in baseball or sports, but life in general.” What business lessons readers are supposed to take away from these books is unclear at best.

When you scratch beneath the surface, the virtues of these books beyond baseball become less clear. Despite the ample time Epstein, Hoyer,  Maddon, Luhnow, and Mejdal gave to Verducci and Reiter, they were not going to reveal the inner workings of their organizations. To do so would be to give away a competitive advantage for nothing. Mejdal was not going to explain to Reiter how exactly Houston’s Ground Control database works. Nor would Epstein or Hoyer allow Verducci access to what precisely went into the Matrix number on Joe Maddon’s lineup cards.

Many of the insights into these organizations are not unique at all. For as important as Mejdal’s databases were to the Cardinals and Astros, they were not solely his idea. Most major league teams have their own internal databases and projection systems like the Astros do with Ground Control. The inputs and outputs vary from system to system, but having a projection system is not unique to the Astros, Cubs, or Red Sox. Such systems are prerequisites necessary for success, not signs of success in and of themselves.

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Verducci explains that after Epstein and Hoyer arrived in Chicago, they held an organizational meeting to create a player development manual titled “The Cubs Way.” “The Cubs Way” outlined the best practices for the entire franchise to meet their goals. These ideals manifested themselves in the short-hand phrase “That’s Cub” to describe players, instructors, or events that epitomized this ideal. Having an organizational philosophy is hardly revolutionary. When Epstein was with the Red Sox, he had produced a 300-page manual called “The Red Sox Way.” The St. Louis Cardinals have had a manual titled “The Cardinals Way” since the 1940s. Howard Megdal published a book about the Cardinals in 2016 by the same name. By focusing on these details, the authors confuse the conditions necessary for success with signs of it.

Homegrown is more nuanced in describing the process of player development. In discussing the 2011 Red Sox draft class that produced Matt Barnes, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts, Speier outlines different designations that talent evaluators assign to players, ranging from A1-Hall of Famer to NP-non-prospect. Throughout the book, he discusses how these evaluations informed the decision making of the Red Sox scouting and player development personnel. Through the simple introduction and use of this scale, Speier offered readers a valuable glimpse into the thought process of baseball executives.

A scene in The Cubs Way exemplifies some of the problems with these books and their brethren in the business world. In describing a meeting among Epstein, Hoyer, Cleveland president Chris Antonetti, Indians GM Michael Chernoff, and MLB executives during Game Seven of the 2016 World Series. Verducci wrote the men “represented the new generation of great minds in the game, a new way of thinking.”

The first problem is survivorship bias. What if Cleveland had won Game Seven? Would Verducci have written a book about their years-long effort to win a World Series? Would they have succeeded because of the “Indians Way”? More importantly, survivorship bias raises important questions about what we are not seeing or studying. In other words, by focusing solely on World Series champions what other important stories are we missing out on? For instance, what did Cleveland do wrong that led the Indians to lose? Did they do anything wrong at all? And if they didn’t or they lost because of factors outside of their control, then what’s the point of studying winners at the expense of losers? Aren’t we constantly told that we learn more through failure than success? And if we study only success, then aren’t we just engaging in business competency porn?

The second problem is this “new generation of great minds.” What does it mean that they are overwhelmingly white and educated at elite educational institutions? Epstein, Hoyer, Antonetti, and Chernoff attended Yale, Wesleyan, Georgetown, and Princeton respectively. What voices are lost when the range of hiring extends from the Ivy League to the Patriot League?

These books also reveal the inequality at the heart of the business of baseball. The premise of building a player development machine rests on maximizing the six to seven years of a player’s career where his yearly salaries are limited by the collective bargaining agreement. When teams preach their devotion to building trust with players, emphasize how important they are to the team, and encourage them to put the team’s interest first, it is clearly a one-way street. Players should sacrifice for the greater good while their teams deliberately delay their arrival to the majors to wrangle an additional year of service time before free agency. What kind of trust does that engender? Even as the Cubs and other teams invest more in their minor-league infrastructure, hiring nutritionists and starting mental health initiatives, they refuse to pay many of their employees a livable wage. While media outlets portray stories of minor leaguers working as Uber drivers and UPS delivery men as fun factoids, they are emblematic of a greater inequity. How can players get better at their jobs if they can’t afford to do their job?

There’s a passage in Astroball that raises questions over baseball as a workplace and the increasing role of biometric data in efforts to improve clubhouse chemistry. Reiter wrote of a future where clubhouse cameras could “analyze every interaction between players, both conversational and nonverbal, and biometric devices to record their stress responses, like their heart rates and cortisol levels.” Setting aside the Orwellian nightmare of having every moment of your day at work being videotaped and analyzed, how might that information be used in evaluating a player’s future? What if a player’s heart rate jumps during an interaction with a teammate? Could that be used to justify releasing or demoting a player? Who owns biometric data and could a player be compelled to hand it over against their will? As we enter a world where data plays an increasingly important role, these questions will soon be more than academic.

These books also reflect sports media’s inability to discuss domestic violence outside of the accused players and the justification behind acquiring their services.

Despite their self-avowed commitment to character, the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 to aid their bullpen after a domestic violence incident. Verducci detailed Chapman’s history and the Cubs initial reticence to trade for him. He also pointed to Chapman’s persistent denials that he had done anything wrong. Verducci noted that some fans were upset by the acquisition, worried that a potential championship would be marred by Chapman’s participation in it. Having pointed out the fans’ unease, Verducci pivoted to Chapman’s prodigious talent throwing a baseball. This awkward shift reflects how these conversations go in the public arena, if a player is talented enough, teams will talk themselves into acquiring his services.

The Astros had a similar situation in 2018 when they acquired Roberto Osuna from the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, as Reiter notes, Luhnow struggled to square his acquisition of Osuna with the Astros’ no-tolerance policy for domestic abusers. Reiter concluded “there was no palatable moral explanation for the move. It was a bet that Osuna wouldn’t repeat his offense, and that time and winning would temper the criticism.” After the charges against Osuna were dropped, Luhnow’s bet paid off. He had acquired a talented player at a below-market rate.

Epstein and Luhnow engaged in a tried-and-true business tactic. They identified assets of value to their organizations and despite their toxic histories, they bet the ends would justify the means. If Chapman or Osuna helped their teams win the World Series, then taking the risk on them was worth it. Nowhere in these discussions, however, was the broader and more important issue—just because a team finds market inefficiency it does not mean it must exploit it.

The stories of men in baseball, whether they be executives or players, are stories about power. Selecting who is worthy of discussion is inherently a political act and the stories we tell, on and off the field, are just as important as those we don’t.

References & Resources

Tom Verducci, The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse (New York: Crown Archetype, 2017).

Ben Reiter, Astroball: The New Way to Win It All (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2018).

Alex Speier, Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion From the Ground Up (New York: William Morrow, 2019).


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia.
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Art Fay
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Art Fay

Lose on purpose and then lay out a half billion in contracts. Which of these does this match?

indianbadger1
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Member
indianbadger1

I like how you emphasized the fact that all of this success of ‘homegrown’ players is rooted in the idea that having cost control over the most productive years of a player is what these ‘systems’ are geared toward. Even if they don’t hit on all prospects; the financial outlay is low; so it doesn’t really affect the bottom line. So … how come this does not translate to free agent signings? If you look at the free agent signings of the Cubs specifically; where is this vaunted edge they are talking about? Most of the free agent signings by… Read more »

Cavarretta
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Cavarretta

I’m glad you discussed these books’ treatment of Chapman and Osuna. I was particularly troubled by Verducci’s framing of Chapman crying after blowing the lead in Game 7 as a sort of redemptive character arc. The sports media needs to get better at talking about domestic violence, and your article at least treats it with the proper gravity.