The Theo Epstein Effect

Part 24 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Perhaps Theo Epstein saved Moneyball. Because the book claimed mainstream front offices and traditional scouts were either unaware of or ignoring important realities—and did so in a highly polemic manner–many within baseball were dismissive and hoped the surprisingly popular reception and ensuing public debate would just fade away. And in fact it could have. The A’s under GM Billy Beane, the central character of the book, won over 100 games in each of the two years before the book’s release in 2003. But in 2004 and 2005, though still moderately successful, Oakland failed to make the playoffs. The traditionalists could have pointed to this backsliding as evidence that Oakland’s success was simply an aberration due to a trio of top starting pitchers and had nothing to do with Beane’s innovative approach.

theo-epsteinAnother team, however, was about to become the new face of analytics. Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry made a fortune as a commodities trader by taking the emotional element out of trading decisions, and he recognized a similar opportunity to bring a more data-driven approach to baseball. Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino initially tried to hire Beane, but the GM eventually decided to remain in Oakland. After this rebuff, the two promoted 28-year-old Theo Epstein, a young Yale graduate who had come with Lucchino from San Diego, to general manager. For good measure they engaged Bill James, the godfather of the sabermetrics movement, as a consultant.

Epstein’s hire was extremely risky. If the team backslid the owners would be ridiculed both for their new-fangled embrace of analytics and the hiring of a 28-year-old to run this storied franchise. Epstein and the Red Sox, however, were not only successful, but succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected. Not only did the team win the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918, they repeated three years later. The Red Sox victories validated to nearly all observers the value of incorporating analytics into baseball operations. The dichotomy was never as stark as Moneyball author Michael Lewis drew it, but clearly there were valuable insights into team building that could be learned by delving into over 100 years of baseball data.

But the Moneyball approach was not the only lesson teams seemed to have learned. Everyone now wanted their own Theo Epstein, and the leadership of major league front offices has changed dramatically over the 15 years since his hiring. Acknowledging that all front offices in 2003 were run by men, and nearly all white men at that, within that group there was a surprising diversity of experience and background. A number had played major league baseball, others peaked in the minors, some only played in college, and a couple not at all. Some broke in through scouting, others through coaching, a few though other departments, and some after starting out in other professions. As to schooling, the GMs of 2002 came from a widely diverse group of colleges, many of which would not have been categorized as exclusive. Beane was a thoughtful ex-player who had gone to UC – San Diego during his offseasons; Epstein was a talented, energetic young man from an Ivy League school. As it turned out, Epstein became the ideal for the future of front offices, not Beane.

In 2003 only two other teams were led by Ivy League graduates. The Cleveland Indians, perhaps the other most analytically inclined team at the time, and the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore’s case is a little misleading, however, as they had a bizarre dual-headed structure of two ex-major league pitchers, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, running the front office; Beattie had gone to Dartmouth. Regardless of background, men generally had an opportunity prove their worth and move up the ladder—often jumping back and forth between organizations. For example, Gerry Hunsicker, the Astros GM who won the division four times and finished second four times from 1996 to 2004, starred at St. Joseph’s University and then went to Florida International University for a master’s in education where he was an assistant coach for the baseball team. He didn’t get into professional baseball until 1978, six years after graduating from St. Joes, when he joined the Astros, before moving to the Mets. He was 46 when named Houston’s GM.

2016-11-03T052932Z_1003068188_NOCID_RTRMADP_3_MLB-WORLD-SERIES-CHICAGO-CUBS-AT-CLEVELAND-INDIANSToday, of the 30 top baseball operations executives (identified somewhat subjectively), 13 now have degrees from Ivy League schools, while several others are from elite colleges like Amherst and Georgetown. Only two, Beane (a leftover from the pre-Epstein revolution) and Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto, played major league baseball.  Plus, several of the GMs that serve in organizations where they are not the senior baseball executive are themselves Ivy League grads. In another mirroring of the Epstein hire, 17 of the 30 were named to their position at age 40 or under. The past two seasons have only reinforced this model, as teams run by Epstein and other youngish front office execs have captured the four pennants. Baseball organizations are currently mainly run by very smart young men from elite schools with little professional baseball playing experience. This trend will likely continue for many years—until someone tries a new route, is successful, and another model for leading front offices emerges.

 

 

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