Like many of you, my offseason is not complete until I pick up my number one source for sophisticated baseball analysis and accurate season predictions: Fortune Magazine.
So it was with no small amount of enthusiasm that I received this year’s Fortune Baseball Preview and saw Theo Epstein’s face gracing the cover. I quickly sped past their 2017 MLB Projections (“Rich white owners will get richer! And whiter!”) and moved to the feature story:
Theo Epstein named “World’s Greatest Leader.”
This is the kind of thing that happens when the Catholic Church is in a rebuilding year. And the United States is clearly tanking.
Fortune explained its choice thusly:
“The Cubs owe their success to a concatenation of leadership styles… but the most important of all was the evolution of club president Theo Epstein, the wunderkind executive who realized he would need to grow as a leader in order to replicate in Chicago the success he had with the Boston Red Sox.”
That’s some pretty heady stuff. And there’s an even better reason that Epstein has become the World’s Greatest Leader:
He knows this is bullshit.
And not just because Fortune did everything short of using 72 point font to call attention to its use of “concatenation.” You know a word is pretentious when even Joe Maddon won’t use it in a press conference.
The reason why Epstein sees through all of this is best summed up by the text he sent Buster Olney: “It’s baseball—a pastime involving a lot of chance. If Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan.”
(I’d also like to note that if Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, “bullshit” would be the least vulgar word in this piece.)
Epstein knows that even in the midst of pulling off one of the most well-executed franchise rebuilding plans in baseball history, one of the biggest reasons for his success is luck. That knowledge is why he scoffs at the very idea of wearing the mantle of “World’s Greatest Leader.” Which, paradoxically, is a big part of the reason why he does his job so well.
Now don’t get me wrong. Epstein’s rebuilding plan is the single greatest series of moves in the history of Cubs management (HOT TAKE: Jake Arrieta trade > Mel Rojas signing). But Theo also knows that for so many of his successful transactions, things had to fall into place just right for in order for him to take advantage of it.
Epstein is aware that behind every move for which he is lauded, there is at least one unsung hero of the Cubs rebuild. The most obvious example of this is Mark Appel, the current Lehigh Valley IronPig who is probably unaware that his middle name has been changed within the Cook County registrar’s office to “Sam Bowie.”
There is no way to understate how franchise altering the Kris Bryant draft was in changing the Cubs from punchlines to World Champions. But the biggest reason the Cubs were in position to draft the reigning NL MVP in the first place was because Appel was the most hyped player of the 2013 draft and the Houston Astros considered him a “polished arm who [could] move quickly through the farm system.”
They just didn’t specify that it would eventually be Philadelphia’s.
Furthermore, the only reason Appel was in that position in the first place was that he dominated his senior year at Stanford after refusing to sign with the Pirates in the previous year. While Theo deserves every bit of praise for making the greatest first round draft pick in Cubs history, Appel first had to re-enter the draft to put him in the position to do so.
Another brilliant move for which Epstein rightly receives credit is the 2012 acquisition of Kyle Hendricks. But luck also played a big role in this trade—even beyond the basic good fortune of acquiring several prospects and hoping one of them pans out. In an odd way, a lot of credit for the Kyle Hendricks trade goes to the player he was traded for: Ryan Dempster.
As the trade deadline approached that year, word leaked out that the Cubs had agreed to trade Dempster to the Atlanta Braves for pitching prospect Randall Delgado. Unfortunately, they did this before Dempster gave his approval and he eventually refused to do so, hoping instead to be sent to Los Angeles.
You might remember this as the time where a number of Cub fans got angry with Dempster for exercising the 10-and-5 rights that a player of his stature earned. The Ryan Dempster Foundation’s Twitter probably saw more curse words directed its way that week than any charitable organization outside of whichever poor soul runs the 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS account.
But it turned out that Dempster inadvertently had the Cubs’ best interests in mind. After the Braves walked away from the deal and Epstein called the Canadian right-hander into the front office so that he could listen in on the negotiations, Dempster finally agreed to a deadline deal with Texas.
Again, Epstein rightly gets praised for identifying and acquiring such an unexpected ace—even at the time Rangers GM Jon Daniels admitted “that the Cubs chose wisely and picked up two sleepers that they were hoping [he] wouldn’t have to give up.” But if Dempster hadn’t initially been so dead set on becoming a Dodger, the 2016 Cubs would have been missing an ERA leader and relying on a pitcher who put up a 4.85 DRA and 0.1 WARP.
Although if that had been the case, we would have been begging Joe Maddon to take him out early.
Good luck was even a factor in Epstein’s signature foundation-altering move. When Anthony Rizzo was acquired from San Diego for Andrew Cashner on January 6, 2012, he became the first player Epstein identified as an essential part of the Cubs’ eventual championship core. Since then, Rizzo has exceeded even those lofty expectations to become the heart and soul of the Cubs renaissance.
At the time, much was made of Epstein taking a chance on a prospect who had spit the bit in his first chance at the big leagues, as Rizzo slashed .141/.281/.242 in his 153 plate appearances with the Padres. But that painful experience turned out to be the very reason Epstein was able to acquire Rizzo in the first place.
Rizzo’s -1.0 WARP season in 2011 was enough to convince Padres GM Josh Byrnes that he wasn’t a fit for San Diego. Because a roster that included both Everth Cabrera and Alexi Amarista clearly screamed “GOING FOR IT.” (Although in this case, that sentence should read: GOING FOR [an OPS+ resembling Stephen King’s] IT.)
More to the point, Rizzo’s disappointing first year caused Byrnes to acquire the unsung hero of Epstein’s Rizzo trade: Yonder Alonso. As Byrnes later explained it, “At the time, Petco Park deflated home runs in right-center field and right field more than any other park…Rizzo’s strengths were going to get seriously dampened by the ballpark.” Because of this, Byrnes “believed Alonso’s approach at the plate would translate far better to cavernous Petco Park than Rizzo’s.”
No less an authority than Jed Hoyer admitted “There’s no way we get Anthony if that [Alonso] trade doesn’t happen.” Although to be fair to Byrnes, his instincts were initially proven correct, as Alonso had three more homers in Petco Park than Rizzo did in 2012.
Unfortunately, as that season went on, Byrnes would discover an obscure MLB rule allowing players to hit outside of San Diego. And Rizzo crushed 15 homers in those locations.
In every one of these franchise altering instances, Epstein and his crew did an incredible amount of work to gather data and personal information on the players who would eventually form the core of their championship team. And they used all of that work to make an absurd number of brilliant moves to bring that core together and resurrect the Cubs from decades of front office neglect.
But as every one of these examples shows, forces out of Epstein’s control had to fall into place in order for each of these key players to become available to him in the first place. And Epstein’s knowledge of this fact keeps all of his success and the plaudits he receives from going to his head. Which in turn keeps him grounded enough to continue doing the work necessary to build and maintain this great roster.
There’s a very good reason that the Cubs’ front office motto isn’t “World’s Greatest Leaders.” It’s “We don’t know shit.” And as his track record has proven, as long as Theo Epstein keeps remembering that fact, he won’t have to worry about the fanbase reminding him of it.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports