Quantifying Hope: Theo Epstein Explains How Cubs Identify and Foster Elite Baseball IQ

Once the season actually gets underway, Quantifying Hope (which typically runs on Friday) will focus on various measurements of the Cubs’ success, primarily their real-time playoff odds. Absent any new or trustworthy data on that front for the time being, I will be turning my attention to other items that catch my fancy. Lately that means the team’s process of scouting and evaluating talent, a topic with which I’ve grown quite enamored over the last few years.

Many of you are probably in the same boat, desperate as we were to escape the horrors of the sinking ship the Cubs were piloting for a few years there. Despite an understanding that things were indeed being corrected, paying attention to the minor league prospects was far more rewarding for a while there.

Anyone who’s been a Cubs fan more more than the last five years or so can recite a litany of next big things who never quite panned out (you’re reciting them in your head right now, aren’t you?). Hell, most of us take pride in it. But as the current regime took over and rebuilt the system from the ground up, we began to see rookie after rookie come up and have both immediate and sustained success. Has that been the result of pure dumb luck or maybe just long-awaited karmic compensation for decades of deflated dreams?

Hell to the no, it’s the result of carefully calculated plans being executed by a group of super-smart baseball minds. Even the most casual baseball fans recognize the success Theo Epstein and Company have achieved, and that’s just from what’s writ large in headlines. Those who’ve followed this braintrust’s methodology from their work in Boston and/or San Diego know that the achievement is highly nuanced.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that even the most hardcore fans out there were unaware of exactly how finely-tuned a machine the Cubs front office has been operating. We looked a few days ago at Theo Epstein’s leadership philosophy, as described to David Axelrod on his podcast, The Axe Files. But there was sooooo much more in the nearly 74-minute conversation. While you’d do well to listen to the whole episode, my focus for today is the nine or so minutes (from 36:20 to about 45:00) Epstein spends addressing the topic of talent evaluation and development.

“I think fans would be shocked if they could sit in a draft room,” Epstein told Axelrod. “And this is not just us, I think this is most teams — when you’re assessing an amateur player for the draft, whether it’s a high school senior or a college junior, if you spend in the draft room an hour talking about the player I would say 40 minutes of the conversation is about off-the-field issues, what makes them tick as a person.”

“Our scouts have to get to know the player off the field really well and they need to write a case for why we should bring this player into the organization, why he’s going to be an asset for us beyond just his talent, why he’s going to fit into a group, why he’s going to be a contributing member of a championship team. And so they get to know a player over several years and they chronicle their interactions with him and they list multiple examples of how the player faced adversity in his personal life and how he responded; how he faced adversity in his baseball life and how he responded; how he treats his teammates; how he treats the clubhouse guys; what his girlfriend says about him; what his ex-girlfriends say about him.”

As an aside, this reminds me of the time my own ex-girlfriend was applying for a job with the Department of Defense and had to undergo an intense background check. The DoD called some of her sorority sisters who were still back at our alma mater, they reached out to both of my then-roommates. These weren’t, by the way, people she had listed on her reference sheet. I was honestly a little miffed that I was never contacted. Anyway, back to the interview.

“We really do focus on how the individual responds to adversity,” Epstein continued. “Because baseball is a game in which…[Axelrod: “You fail all the time”]. Failure is inherent in the game. If you don’t respond well to adversity, you’re probably not going to have any kind of a long career in baseball.”

The axiom that baseball is a game of failure is worn as thin as the seat of my old jeans (seriously, my wallet has a metal Cubs logo in it and it eats through my pants like a mug), but the methods the Cubs are employing to mitigate the inherent risk of that failure makes the concept seem more novel. Whether it’s the processes they use to find those players who are most likely to succeed or the concerted effort throughout the farm system to develop both physical and mental skills, they’re on the leading edge of the sport.

I learned a lot about what the organization does once players are in the system when I spoke with Jason McLeod, Cubs VP of scouting and development, but Epstein revealed a very interesting aspect of the team’s evaluatory process when he sat down with Axelrod. While their scouts’ character assessments factor heavily, the Cubs have also turned to neuroscience — yes, the study of the structure and function of the brain — to identify and foster potentially great hitters (kudos to Bleacher Nation’s Luis Medina on his excellent work on this topic).

“These days, 10 years-plus past Moneyball and deep into the information age, there’s so much data out there that’s publicly available that the landscape is really flat now. And you can get a small advantage by finding new streams of data and maybe analyzing it in a little more sophisticated way. But 10 years ago you’d get a huge competitive advantage by finding an insight, let’s say for example in the draft, finding some metric that you can use in assessing college players and their performance and projecting it going forward into professional ball.

“But these days it’s so hard to find any competitive advantage based exclusively on statistics that you have to get incredibly creative. So you have to look to other areas. Years ago with the Red Sox, we met these neuroscientists who were interested in what the brains of really great hitters looked like and if they could learn anything from them. So we developed a partnership with them where we gave them access to all of our professional players, from David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia down through the lowest levels of the minor leagues.”

I will not make a Ted Williams‘ frozen head joke. I will not make a Ted Williams frozen head joke. I will not…wait, did I inadvertently make a Ted Williams frozen head joke? Shoot. Oh c’mon, I know I wasn’t the only one thinking it.

“And they would test these players on pretty simple baseball simulations on a computer, little software,” the Cubs’ baseball boss recalled. “They looked like computer games, video games, essentially. And in exchange we got some exclusivity for whatever insights they were able to derive from all this testing. And so after many years they were able to develop some tests that properly and accurately assessed the different neural pathways that a great hitter might have. These tests would identify the David Ortizes and Dustin Pedroias and rank them much higher than some of the lesser hitters.

“We’d take our laptops with us when we’d meet with high school players or college players we were thinking about drafting and we’d give them the test so we could learn…we’d ask them to play and we’d learn a little bit about how their brain worked. Did they have the type of neural pathways that were the markers of maybe a future great hitter or were they just more ordinary?

“And then we also used it to help develop some of the skills that hitters need to thrive in major league baseball, ’cause the games are based on these algorithms that you can program them to make the game more and more difficult the better that you do. So let’s just say, a simple one is reaction time — and it tests all kinds of things: reaction time; dynamic hand-eye coordination; inhibitory control, which is the ability…when you see a pitch that starts to be a strike and you recognize it’s gonna be a ball, can you check your swing? Can you recognize spin on a ball, recognize it’s not a fastball, it’s a breaking ball, and then change your mind about swinging?”

All three people reading this are probably wondering right now whether all those hours spend playing The Show could actually pay off. I’m sitting here conjuring images of Mark Grace, king of the check swing. He’d drop that top hand and have you like, “No way could he have gone around with just the one hand.” Although, yeah, his swinging in other areas kinda stands in direct conflict with the notion of inhibitory control. Pobody’s nerfect, I guess.

“And so we use it in the minor leagues to train our hitters because you can’t go out there and face live pitching day after day, except in a game,” Epstein revealed. “You might get four or five at-bats in a game, but you can sit there on your laptop and take hours and hours of this sort of simulated baseball training. What we found is you can actually improve the quality of the neural pathways in a hitter’s brain a little bit and push them to new heights.”

This is flat-out fascinating to me, the idea that you can establish a template for what a great player’s mind — not his contact rate or power or speed or arm — needs to look like. This is, quite literally, a quantifiable manifestation of baseball IQ. I’d love to see what Javy Baez, a guy who seems to play like baseball’s version of Pistol Pete Maravich, would score on these games. And what about Tony Gwynn? I bet it’d be slightly better than Vince Young’s Wonderlic result. Wait, did he just pack basketball and football comps into the same paragraph? Yes, yes he did.

Getting back to the topic at hand, Mookie Betts was brought up as a shining example of the way the Red Sox used the information they generated from the results of their software. Not very highly rated coming out of high school, Betts “pinned the test at an elite level,” which led to Boston selecting him much higher than his original grade. Given that he just finished second to Mike Trout in the AL MVP race, I’d say that worked out pretty well for them.

As for players the Cubs have unearthed, Epstein mentioned that Kyle Schwarber‘s results were a factor in the team’s decision to reach for him at No. 4 in the draft. But there’s a pretty significant difference between taking a guy like Betts in the 5th round — he was projected to go in the low double-digit rounds — and taking Schwarber with fourth overall pick. That’s where this regime’s holistic approach truly reveals itself.

It’s about more than just metrics and projection models with these guys. The human element still matters a great deal. The late Stan Zielinski, a well-respected and beloved area scout and the man responsible for signing Schwarber, had to put on quite a sell job to convince his bosses that the slugging catcher was worth the lofty draft spot. Because they trust both the numbers and the intuition, the metrics and the men, they went for it.

When you combine that kind of knowledge and faith in your people, not to mention the unyielding desire to keep getting better, with the deep pockets of a major-market juggernaut you get…well, you get a World Series title. Maybe more.

Wow, I just realized how long this is running. Sorry to have taken so much of your time here, it’s just that I was totally enthralled by the content of that podcast and really wanted to share more about it. And after hearing Epstein talk about it, I can’t help but wonder about the further applications of this software. Like, the whole conversation here was about developing hitters, and it’s clear that’s been the organization’s primary focus, but what about identifying elite pitchers? Is that possible with a modified version of the same program? Are the Cubs already doing it and don’t want to tip their hand?

Knowing Epstein’s propensity for saying exactly what he means without saying everything he means, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find that there’s a lot more to this than we’re aware of. I mean, it’d be downright irresponsible to not at least try to test the applications of the tech to other aspects of the sport, right? It would also line up perfectly with his comments regarding strategic advantages. So. Many. Options.

And that, my friends, is pretty effing cool.

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