Moneyball and the Cubs


I am notoriously late when it comes to watching movies that I want to see. Despite my love for baseball and the Cubs, “Moneyball” is one of the films that was on the must see list until the other night, thanks to cable tv channel Encore. It has been almost 10 years since I read the book when it first published, so I will not be able to comment on how well the film adapted from the book. But what I can comment on is how the movie left me feeling about our beloved Cubs.

Spoiler alert! Although if you follow baseball even just a little bit outside of Wrigley Field, you will know that Billy Beane is still the GM of Oakland and turned down the big money overtures from Boston. That paves the way for Theo Epstein to be a part of the history that was the Red Sox finally winning a World Series in 2004. Epstein is in year two of laying the foundation for the Cubs, but the dominoes have fallen in such a way that the now President Epstein has a chance to repeat glory through another franchise with a storied history of losing when it comes to the ultimate prize in Major League baseball.

September 18, 2011; Oakland, CA, USA; Movie actors Stephen Bishop (far left), Casey Bond (second from left), and Jonah Hill (second from right) pose for a photo with Oakland Athletics former player Scott Hatteberg (far right) before the game against the Detroit Tigers at Coliseum. All were promoting the new movie about the Athletics called Moneyball. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What if Beane had taken the Boston job? Would the Red Sox still have won the elusive Series title? Where would Epstein have landed? Would Epstein have become the front office prodigy he is now had he landed anywhere but Boston?

I digress. Epstein is here in the now leading the Cubs front office. Spoiler alert! The theme of the book and the movie was the implementation of a mathematical and statistical way of thinking in a sport that was built on the old school work ethic and trained eyes of scouts in the good ol’ boys network. The use of this new age thinking was to dig up efficient and productive players that were otherwise overlooked by the rest of the League. The driving force behind this approach by Beane was mainly due to the payroll limitations of the small market Athletics. Oakland saw immediate success with the approach following a second half turnaround in 2002 that led to back to back AL West titles.

Since then, the A’s success has been limited to an ALCS appearance in 2006 and another Game 5 ALDS loss in 2012. So begs the question, does the moneyball approach really work?

Again, I must return my attention to Epstein. The Red Sox also included moneyball with scouting in their analysis of players to build a roster with. With playoff appearances in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009, what were they doing better than Beane in Oakland?

Ironically, money. While sabermetrics certainly broadened the scope with which to examine players, at the end of the day, the money available to big market teams is what helps provide a wider margin of error for a front office. A handful of bad draftees and budget signings can set back the likes of an Oakland a couple seasons. The same mistake by the Red Sox would just be a bump in the road.

Thankfully for Cubs fans, the North Siders have more in common with the Red Sox than they do with the A’s. However, if you are not aware already, that does not mean the Cubs will be making the playoffs in 2013. As many of you are aware by now, Epstein has been busy building the organization from the ground up, including the expansion of front office staff that had been a fraction of that found in Boston and the Bronx prior to Epstein’s arrival.

But the ability to spend money to help cushion the blow of draft, development, and free agent signing errors is a reality. That is something that we are already seeing proof of, as evidenced by the earnest pursuit of Anibal Sanchez and the eventual long term signing of Edwin Jackson. The former National figures to be a middle of the rotation starter at worst and provides a veteran presence on the starting staff that figures to have Jeff Samardzija as the only other retainee come 2014. While Jackson’s career .500 win loss record, ERA, and walks per nine innings may make fans wonder about the $13 million per year price tag, one stat that is being overlooked is that Jackson has made 30+ starts every season going all the way back to 2007. Considering the MASH unit Cubs starters have become over the last decade (Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior), the consistency in starts and innings pitched should be a welcome change.

What errors then do I speak of? A fair assessment of Epstein’s first year in control of the Cubs would have to include a pair of ill advised trades. The dealing away of Tyler Colvin to Colorado for Ian Stewart can be graded as incomplete at best, but 2012 definitely deserves a failing grade. Then there is the remaining question mark of what exactly we got back for Sean Marshall. Even Epstein labeled Marshall as the best left handed reliever in the game. Yet as it stands, we are waiting to see if Dave Sappelt can crack the fourth outfielder job and it appears Travis Wood as already lost his place in the rotation (based on the free agent pitcher signings) barring a break out Spring or an injury to one or more of the other candidates.

You can bet the spending will continue as the front office determines which young players and prospects will actually begin to fulfill their potential, filling the remaining holes on the free agent market. In the mean time, sit back and watch Cubs players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, and Welington Castillo continue to develop before our eyes.

The bottom line is that money plus moneyball will net succesful returns for the Cubs and their fans, including the elusive World Series title.