Theo Epstein is not a quant

“He really does listen to the human side of all this — it’s not just numbers, by any means,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “He gets it that there’s a balance between the sabermetric world and the real world. These are human beings and not computers.”

As Chicagoans celebrate their long-awaited and well-deserved World Series Championship today, an interesting story comes to the fore. How did the team’s architect, Theo Epstein, take a “lovable losers” franchise that had just recently lost a hundred games in a season and turn it into the title-winning juggernaut it’s become?

It wasn’t by hewing slavishly to the de rigeur practice of mining Big Data, a la Moneyball.

As the New York Times and Quartz relay, studying the qualitative attributes of the players themselves was at least as important as looking at the numbers. The Cubs home office was interested in things like how the players responded to failure and other “soft skills” that don’t necessarily show up in a quantitative screen. Needless to say, this is a fascinating subject for investors – especially given the data-driven approach that now embodies the zeitgeist of the money management industry.

Here’s Quartz on the Cubs pivot away from pure Moneyball…

In the book the movie is based on, author Michael Lewis and his subject, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, scoffed at the idea that anything other than results should matter in player evaluation. The A’s were relentlessly analytic, and any player attribute that couldn’t be measured had little value. That approach gave the tight-wad A’s a market advantage which they exploited.

The gospel of Moneyball spread throughout baseball during the last decade, and now virtually every team crunches player data to find a statistical edge. Thus the Chicago Cubs have pivoted again, and built the best team in baseball by screening for those easily mocked qualities like character and personality.

Far from merely making touchy-feely decisions based on gut instincts, however, Epstein was able to systematize the way he looked at players’ soft skills into an evidence-based process. Read both stories to get an idea of how this worked and think about how you might incorporate it into your own process.


The Cubs built the best team in baseball by scouting for soft skills (Quartz)

Cubs’ Theo Epstein Is Making Lightning Strike Twice (New York Times)

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