Cubs Know There’s More to Winning Than Just Stockpiling Superstars

Theo Epstein pulled no punches during his postmortem press conference, admitting that the Cubs’ offense “broke somewhere along the lines” and vowing to fix it moving forward. And while we can all point to the very tangible statistics — 40 games of one or zero runs — to back up Epstein’s assertion, there was something else about the team that is harder to pin down despite being no less real.

We can’t quantify the amorphous concept of team chemistry with even the most advanced metrics, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fan who’d say the Cubs seemed to have had more of it 2017 or ’18 than they did during either of the previous two seasons. They just lacked a certain je ne sais quoi as they played with an observable lack of joie de vivre. Or maybe there are other French terms we could apply.

One of those is laissez faire, which you could use to describe a managerial approach that may have fed the lack of urgency Epstein lamented. Fair or not, questions about the Cubs’ effort level at times during getaway games or those in which they’d already taken the first two of a three-game series weren’t just thrown out there to disappear like farts in the wind.

That falls at least as much to the front office as it does Joe Maddon, since the executives are responsible for fielding a team and fostering an environment in which players can reach their full potential. To that end, it was clear the Cubs fell short of several goals last season.

“It has to be more about production than talent going forward,” Epstein admitted. “And beyond that, it’s also trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players.

“It’s our job not just to assemble a talented group, but to unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Are we doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys?”

The key lies in the human part, since no amount of money or fame renders someone an emotionless automaton. In order for people to work best, they need to surround themselves with the right supporting cast.

An affirmative answer to that last question is the brass ring for leaders in any industry, whether they’re pushing lawnmowers and raking leaves or trading commodities and swapping millions of dollars with a flicka da wrist. But how does one go about creating the right situation and getting the highest possible yield out of the human capital they’ve assembled?

Well, the key lies in the human part, since no amount of money or fame renders someone an emotionless automaton (though it can certainly alter their perception of the world and vice-versa). In order for people to work best, they need to surround themselves with the right supporting cast, something happiness researcher and GoodThink founder Shawn Achor refers to as a “star system.”

I know, I know, some of you are probably wondering what the hell a “happiness researcher” even is. As strange as that description might seem to some, the Harvard-educated Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. He has devoted his life to studying how mindset impacts not only individual performance, but that of a team or workplace. His latest book, Big Potential, features concepts that directly mirror Epstein’s comments above.

So let’s get really real about winning. One of the most successful coaches in basketball, and perhaps in any sport, is Geno Auriemma, head coach of the UConn women’s basketball team. As of the time of writing, Geno’s team had not lost a game in two years, and his team had won the national championship four of the last five years. How does he do it? He cultivates a culture whereby players are judged by their contributions to the team rather than by their individual successes. Players who become stars by helping the whole team play better will get in the game, while those who try to be “superstars” by upstaging their teammates will sit on the bench.

Think of…the cocky athlete who wins his team the trophy one year, then is benched in year two for not playing well with others. All too often, we get so focused on showing off our individual strengths that we underestimate the greater strength that comes from the people we surround ourselves with.

In a fascinating study, Harvard researchers looked at a sample of 1,052 investment analysts who were competing at the top of their game. Things were going great for them. They had found a way to succeed in a tough and competitive job. They felt like superstars. Then the researchers looked at what happened when those analysts were moved to a new team at a new bank, or left for higher pay elsewhere. If success is all about the individual — individual grit, hard work, intelligence, and so forth — then those star analysts should have been able to perform equally well in their new environments and continue achieving unabated success. But that is not what happened. A whopping 46 percent of the these stars collapsed. They simply were unable to replicate their successes at the new bank. And not just in the short term; the researchers found that FIVE years later, the analysts still could not perform at the level they once had. They stopped being superstars the minute they left behind the constellation of people who had allowed them to shine.

Even if you bring a ton of stars together, you have not necessarily created a winning team. One of the best examples is highlighted by Mark de Rond in an article for Forbes, who describes how the soccer team Real Madrid spent 400 million euros (think about that for a moment) for the most incredible star cluster: Ronaldo, Beckham, Zindane, and the like. And then, from 2004 to 2006, one of the most expensive teams in soccer history had its worst seasons in team history. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2006, the Oakland A’s baseball team spent the least money of all the MLB teams in the draft, not splurging on superstar players, and yet won more games than almost any other team during that period. They might not have had the most star players, but they did have the best star system.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d had Big Potential sitting on my desk for months and hadn’t taken the time to open it. But upon hearing Achor present on the topic again, I made the connection to what Epstein had said and cracked the book. Wouldn’t you know it, I ended up on the exact page I needed. Serendipity’s wild, huh?

Lest you think this kind of power-of-positive-thinking psycho-babble is reserved strictly for TED talks and self-help manuals, there are real-world applications (wow, lots of hyphens). And I don’t mean just finding new ways to create corporate synergy, either. While elite talent is at the core of any winning team, the mental side is impossible to ignore.

As much as the concept has been washed out by overuse and outright dismissal, chemistry plays an undeniable role in athletic success. Perhaps no one is more aware of that than Josh Lifrak, director of the Cubs’ mental skills program.

Was [chemistry] 1 percent, was it 50 percent? Doesn’t matter. It was an edge, and the edges matter in baseball. Chemistry matters; not many teams win without the guys pulling for each other.

“It’s tough to put a number on [chemistry’s impact], but it can definitely be a factor,” Lifrak told Cubs Insider. “We won the World Series in Game 7 in extra innings; was it 1 percent, was it 50 percent? Doesn’t matter. It was an edge, and the edges matter in baseball. Chemistry matters; not many teams win without the guys pulling for each other. This game is difficult enough, [but] without support it is nearly impossible.

“I feel chemistry is important in every sport, even in tennis or MMA, where it seems like an individual sport but really there are teams of people working to help get that athlete ready for competition. It is tough to overcome a lack of chemistry; it is possible, but it makes it more difficult.”

There is no such thing as having too much talent, though Lifrak said it’s possible to be over-reliant on talent. And while that sounds similar to what we read from Epstein above, there are differences. One pitfall involves allowing talent to blind you to the reality of disappointing production. The other comes from allowing superior athletic skills to override inferior mental skills.

When you’re able to put elite athletic ability together with good chemistry, however, amazing things can happen.

“I have seen it over and over again: Those that lift others up and make those around them better, either through example or through vocal encouragement and accountability, often maximize their own talents,” Lifrak said.

“This is what we have written on our internal documents: The mission of the Chicago Cubs Mental Skills Program (MSP) is to assist every player in the organization to maximize his potential with respect to the mental side of baseball. Through education and training, MSP staff will help Cubs players to learn how to take control of their thoughts, emotions and actions to gain a competitive advantage and further their development as players and as people.”

This is exactly what the book excerpt above was talking about, though Lifrak and the Cubs are being intentional about creating star systems rather than just acquiring superstars. I mean, sure, they’ve got two or three of the latter and may bring in more. But the idea is that cultivating a culture of respect, encouragement, and accountability will improve the function of the team beyond what talent alone will yield.

Any new addition to the team will bring his own personality and approach and will thus impact the chemistry in some way, but the MSP helps to ensure that it’s not in a negative manner. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Cubs are seeking to gain and leverage a greater awareness of how the mental side impacts the physical, whether that’s with a new free agent or a member of the coaching staff.

This isn’t just about how players celebrate after wins or how they vibe while filming a commercial for a fake souvenir company. It’s about how they’re able to mesh with coaches and lift each other up out of hitting slumps. It’s being on-point and on-mission from Game 1 through Game 162, something Epstein said was not the case throughout the 2018 season. That’s where the accountability aspect of comes into play for everyone from the front office to the training staff.

There’s also the matter of incorporating new players into the system in a way that enables them to best utilize their own talents. The Cubs have had noted difficulties with “onboarding” pitchers, who seem to have roughly the same success rate as the investment analysts from the study above. Jon Lester shines brightly enough to obscure some of the others, but there’s a veritable galaxy of less-successful examples over just the last two seasons.

Justin Wilson fell apart following his trade from Detroit at the 2017 deadline and Tyler Chatwood collapsed on himself in the first season of his three-year deal. And while Yu Darvish’s biggest issues were physical in nature, it appeared from the outside as though the Cubs were not fully prepared to accommodate or assimilate him into their culture. Beat writers and radio guys even described eye-rolls from teammates who were asked about Darvish’s slogging rehab, though most of that was probably because those teammates were tired of being asked about Darvish’s slogging rehab.

Things seemed to have turned a corner in the wake of Alex Rodriguez’s ill-fated comments on Sunday Night Baseball, with the clubhouse galvanizing to defend against a papier-mâché boogeyman. The real specter, however, was lingering just out of sight in Darvish’s elbow until finally being diagnosed as a stress reaction. But even then, questions lingered as to how real the injury was.

So where do we lay the blame for these shortcomings? It’s easy to direct it toward the front office, the coaching staff, and the players themselves, but the extent to which that helps anything is highly questionable. Sometimes the guilt can be assigned to nothing more than a wrong turn at the crossroads of serendipity and circumstance, which reminds me of something a pilot once told his passengers after a particularly rough landing.

“My apologies, ladies and gentleman,” he announced. “That was not my fault, that was not the co-pilot’s fault. That was the asphalt.”

But just as a pilot’s job is to avoid the need for such memorable dad jokes, it’s the front office’s job to learn from mistakes in order to mitigate the need to explain what the hell went wrong. Whether that’s the health and performance of new pitchers or fostering the continual development of young hitters, the Cubs have fallen short of that over the last two seasons.

Which brings us around to the idea of potentially landing a monster free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, both of whom already possess their own personal galaxies. Is it possible that adding one or the other would create an irreparable gravitational disturbance in what the Cubs have built? Or that their stars would shine much less brightly in a new system?

But just as a pilot’s job is to avoid the need for such memorable dad jokes, it’s a front office’s job to learn from mistakes in order to mitigate the need to explain what the hell went wrong.

Apples to oranges and whatnot, but Jason Heyward hasn’t lived up to the tacit expectations of his big deal. Which he signed at roughly the same age as the two men in question here. Then again, Heyward is universally lauded as a phenomenal teammate and his presence contributed to the 2016 World Series title in more ways than one. So, hey, it’s almost like there are different ways to measure success.

If the Cubs were to bring in Harper or Machado — and I’m thinking they won’t — there’ll be no such room for moral victories and no obsessing over how another swing change will finally unlock their potential. Whether it’s the star fitting the system or the other way around, nothing short of high-level production from player and team will be acceptable.

So wait, am I saying the Cubs should just avoid either star and the resultant possibility of a major disruption to their system? Not at all, though the risks of any move must be weighed just like the rewards. And I do feel the Cubs can maintain, and maybe even improve upon, their recent results without adding either Machado or Harper. Better health and a slight bump in production from one or two players would have made a significant difference this past season.

That’s a big part of the reason for the ouster of Chili Davis, who openly admitted to having difficulties communicating with younger players, after just one season. Enter Anthony Iapoce, whose affable nature and win-every-pitch mentality signal a return to the John Mallee days and seem more suited to the current roster. A hitting coach isn’t going to suddenly transform the offense, but perhaps he can be responsible for that slight edge Lifrak talked about.

Ah, but when things really work out with a big addition like they did with JD Martinez and the Red Sox…supernova. Martinez didn’t simply add his stats to those of his teammates, he worked with them and added his fire to their own, helping them all to burn brighter collectively than they could have apart. You don’t need Bill Nye to explain how chemistry played a role there.

Nor do you need a science guy to explain that scoring just one or two more runs in one of their last few games would have seen the Cubs playing deeper into October. Maybe that’s a matter of adding another big bat and maybe it’s just finding an extra fraction of emotional leverage, or some combination of both. Given what I understand of the matter, the balance may have to shift further toward the latter.

However they choose to address it from a personnel standpoint, Epstein and Co. know their No. 1 task is to bust out their whetstones and get sharpening.

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