In 2003 Michael Lewis wrote a book that you may have heard of.  It was titled Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game.  Read that title again.  If asked, many baseball fans would be very quick to tell you that Moneyball is about sabermetrics.  Those who actually read the book may provide a bit more thorough analysis along the lines of it being about Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta looking for seasoned college players in the draft (rather than raw high schoolers) and identifying On Base Percentage (OBP) as the key ingredient to building a winning team. 

While none of the above is necessarily wrong per se, your book reviewer will have been missing the point of what Beane, and in turn Lewis were really after. 

Michael Lewis got his start in the working world within the mortgage department of Salomon Brothers.  He’s a money guy.  He understands markets and got his PhD on the trading floors of Wall St. during the booming 80s.  What drew him to the 2002 Oakland Athletics had far more to do with everything after the colon in the book’s title than anything related to baseball. 

Lewis turned his attentions to what was happening in Oakland because a market was being exploited by someone ahead of the curve.  It’s not that OBP is the end-all-be-all silver bullet to success in the Major Leagues, the key is that Beane was paying attention to it when no one else was.  He was able to take Oakland’s limited budget and focus on an entirely different pool of players than the rest of the market.  It was like he was at the same grocery store but he had a different shopping list than all the other GMs.  Because he was the only one prioritizing players who specifically excelled at getting on base, he was able to sign them at the prices that he could afford and voila, the A’s returned to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 even as they lost star players to big market teams at the end of each season. 

Since then major league teams have been seeking similar market inefficiencies to gain a competitive edge and the pickings have been slim.  Moneyball spawned a whole generation of stat nerds who began combing through statistical data in hopes to be the one to unearth the next golden ticket.  While the search continues for the next best way to slice a spreadsheet the game has evolved as well.  The homerun binge of the late 90s and early 2000s has dried up (they suspiciously petered out right as the PED witch hunt hit its stride and Congress got involved).  It’s no accident that the Cubs-Giants games this past weekend ended 3-2, 1-0, and 2-1.  Offense is down league-wide no matter how you crunch it.  Specifically the home run, and the people who hit them have become a bit of an endangered species.  In 2000 there were 5,693 total home runs in Major League Baseball.  In 2011 there 4,552.  For those without a Casio calculator watch that’s a 20% drop in eleven years.  Pitching wins championships but you need to score runs somewhere along the way if you want to win more than you lose.

Enter the Theo Epstein regime at Wrigley in 2011.  Outside of Javier Baez and Dan Vogelbach who they inherited from Jim Hendry (credit where credit is due), they have spent considerable effort bringing as many potent bats to the organization as possible.  While the rest of baseball is running around the world looking for starting pitchers and defense the Cubs have gone the other way and are collecting bats at a startling pace. 

Today the Cubs can boast a top ten positional bat across all of the minor leagues at 1st (Vogelbach), shortstop (Baez), 3rd (Mike Olt), right field (Jorge Soler) and wherever the hell the #2 pick in this year’s draft (Kris Bryant) ends up playing (my money says he’s a left fielder when all is said and done).  With the option of Jonathan Gray, a starting pitcher from Oklahoma armed with a 100mph cannon for a right arm still on the board, the Cubs took what they deemed the rarer and more valuable commodity with their selection.  Did you realize Bryant’s 31 homeruns (in 58 games) were more than 223 of the 298 NCAA baseball teams hit this past season?  You read that right.  Seriously.  That’s how sparse power has become and thus the Cubs have decided to collect as much of it as they can get their hands on. 

Tom Lomax over at Cubs Den wrote a good piece on this subject this weekend and I agree with everything he said.  I also think he stole the idea from my column last week so fair’s fair.  Whether this is the right approach or the best strategy is yet to be determined.  The Cubs are obviously aware of their need for pitching as evident by their using 16 of their last 22 draft picks in the top 10 rounds on hurlers, but they seem to be of the mindset that a sure thing slugger is more valuable than a highly thought of pitcher.  Their mindset is that pitching can be addressed in volume as inevitably some will rise to the top, but there certainly is attrition amongst those paid for their velocity, whereas hitting, particularly for power, is a god given skill that you either have or you don’t. 

What’s important here is that the Cubs are zigging while the rest of the industry zags and they are employing the strategies that set success apart in every other Michael Lewis novel.  Whether it’s the handful of people who bet against the housing bubble in The Big Short, or the tale of the evolution of the left tackle position in The Blind Side, Lewis is drawn to those thinking outside the box as frankly it’s those people about whom stories are often told.  This is the hype that the new brain trust rode into town on.  The fresh faces with even fresher ideas are taking our Wait For Next Year mantra and creating an organization that is going to make the wait worth the while.