The Chicago Cubs rebuilding strategy explained

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs and Theo Epstein went against the grain when they started building this team. Instead of pitching, they focused on getting the best pure hitters from each draft. And so far, that strategy is working.

The world is full of really cool things and nothing beats discovering them for the first time.  The webcomic xkcd calculates that for every amazing thing that “everybody knows” by age 30, about 10,000 people are discovering that thing every day.  Xkcd author, Randall Munroe, calls these people the day’s “lucky 10,000.” Rather than mocking people for their ignorance, he celebrates in facilitating their moments of discovery. I love this message and I try to incorporate Munroe’s advice into my everyday life. With that in mind, I would like to share one of my moments of discovery about the Cubs, with you.

I follow baseball closely. As the Cubs rebuilt between 2011 and 2014, I thought I understood Theo Epstein’s plan. I accepted losing records as the price of obtaining top draft picks.  I understood the value in trading away older major league talent, who would be too old to contribute when the rebuild was complete, for younger players and yet more prospects. I thought I understood everything the Cubs were doing.

I was wrong.

My entire perception of the Cubs, and baseball in general, was completely changed after reading a single article in August of 2014.  The article is entitled “Hitting Wins Championships: Why the Chicago Cubs’ Inverted Rebuilding Strategy is Starting to Look Brilliant.” If you have never read this article, congratulations…you are one of today’s lucky 10,000.

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The article was written by Rany Jazayerli. Jazayerli was one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus and was at the forefront of the analytics movement. The man knows baseball. Jazayerli explains the two strategies the Cubs used in the rebuilding process (and continue to use today).  Below I have summarized these strategies.  Not because I can explain them better than Jazayerli…I can’t. Rather, Jazayerli’s article appeared on the now defunct Grantland website.  As such, ESPN could cut off the link above at any time, without warning.

Jazayerli explains that the core of the Cubs’ strategy was to ignore

"a century of conventional baseball wisdom, which states that (1) pitching wins championships, and (2) a team can never have too much pitching…[because] the sport’s pitching obsession has one fatal flaw: Pitchers aren’t reliable. Young pitchers get hurt, and fail to develop, and lose the strike zone overnight. Trying to build around young pitching is like trying to hold water in your hands: It’s impossible to keep some of it from leaking out over time. The more resources a team invests in it, the more resources the team will squander."

That one paragraph blew my mind.  Kerry Wood & Mark Prior taught me the fragility of pitching. Yet until Jazayerli’s article, I had not internalized — on a macro level — the number of draft picks that are squandered on pitching by every franchise.

Jazayerli explained that the Cubs instead spent all their top draft picks on positional talent, because “truly elite collegiate hitters…almost always turn into at least average major league players, usually becoming stars.”  Further research backed up Jazayerli’s claims.  For example, this table (source) demonstrates the drastic disparity in average WAR earned by top pitching and position prospects from 1990-2003, during the players’ first six years.

The Cubs saw there was a 14% difference in the failure rate between pitching and position prospects, and that far more position prospects became star-caliber players.  Accordingly, the Cubs used every first round draft pick from 2011-2015 on position players, many collegiate:

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sportsllegiate:
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sportsllegiate: /

The Cubs did not limit this strategy to the draft.  The Cubs also committed $30m to international outfield prospect Jorge Soler, the team’s biggest international signing.  Finally, the Cubs traded away veteran pitching talent to acquire even more positional talent on several occasions, most notably trading Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell & top outfield prospect Billy McKinney.

Jazayerli then went on to explain the other half of the Cubs’ strategy; using defense-independent pitching statistics, like FIP, to acquire quality major league pitchers cheaply.  Jazayerli explained that

"pitchers really only have control over three things: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. By extension, they have a minimal ability to control what happens on balls in play, which is the province of their defense. The obvious inference from this is that it’s better to evaluate pitchers based on the three things they control than on the number of runs they allow. Hence the stat FIP (fielding independent pitching), which estimates a pitcher’s ERA based on the number of walks, strikeouts, and home runs he allows….[FIP] predict[s] what a pitcher’s ERA will be next year far better than his actual ERA does. If a team is considering two pitchers, one of whom has a 3.00 ERA but a 4.50 FIP, and one of whom has a 4.50 ERA and a 3.00 FIP, it should bet on the latter pitcher every time.  The Cubs have been betting on the latter pitcher for the last three years, which is wise for two reasons: Not only is that pitcher more likely to succeed in the future, he’s also usually available for next to nothing."


Jazayerli pointed out several of the signings and trades the Cubs made between 2012-2014 using FIP.  Signing Scott Feldman before 2013 (5.09 ERA v. 3.81 FIP in 2012);  trading Feldman (now with a 3.46 ERA in 2013) for Jake Arrieta (6.20 ERA v. 4.05 FIP in 2012) and Pedro Strop; and acquiring Travis Wood & Jason Hammel, who both had lower career FIP than ERA prior to joining the Cubs.  Jazayerli explained the Cubs believed a lower FIP suggested these pitchers were the victims of bad luck, or bad defenses, but could thrive in a different environment.  The Cubs also got to acquire these pitchers after they had passed the injury gauntlet faced by every prospect.

Next: A look atthe Cubs top 30 prospects

Jazayerli’s article so re-shaped my thinking on baseball, I now view every personnel move the Cubs make through its lens.  For example, consider the Starlin CastroAdam Warren trade from this offseason.  On the surface, the trade appears relatively even in terms of major league talent.  Yet the Cubs got a hidden advantage.  By trading Castro (an infielder) for Warren (a pitcher) the Cubs obtained a successful young pitcher, while having made the Yankees bear the extra risk of drafting him.  The Cubs effectively figured out how to arbitrage risk.  Every time they draft a successful major league batter (at a 37% success rate) and trade him for a successful major league pitcher (23% rate) they will have made another team pay a 14% risk tax for them.  If that pitcher had a negative FIP/ERA split before being acquired and blossoms in Chicago, all the better.