In this post, I am going to duplicate a typical argument that attributes baseball success to analytics and prove why it is false. In fact, cash, combined with the application of analytics is what creates a championship team in 2017.
First a fallacy ridden argument:
In baseball, if you’re “high performing,” you’re winning. But, are analytics the cause of the success? Throughout this post, I’m going to use the example of the Chicago Cubs, to argue that yes, analytics is the leading cause of the high performance, and proof can be found in the transparency of their operations.
For organizations like the Chicago Cubs, this means the acquisition and retention of players (human resources) to win baseball games.
Since Theo Epstein took over as President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs in 2011, the Cubs have been clear about the type of players they are looking to acquire and develop to form the core of their roster - young, cost-controlled hitters. These hitters were scouted in a very transparent manner using data readily available to all teams. Offensively speaking, the Cubs scouted and developed players with a high OBP (on-base percentage) and power (slugging percentage). Defensively, the Cubs used increasingly popular defensive metrics to form the best defense in baseball in 2016 per Fangraph’s Defensive Runs Saved statistic. This should not come as a surprise, as the Cubs were vocal in the offseason leading up to the 2016 season that they signed outfielder Jason Heyward for his defense.
In The Ringer’s “The Cubs Just Ended Baseball’s Analytics War,” Rany Jazayerli proves claims that “the most remarkable thing about the Cubs ending the longest championship drought in American pro sports history might be just how straightforward it was.” Theo Epstein, with the trust and support of ownership, laid out his analytically driven plan for everyone to see and executed it flawlessly. The result was the highest level of success than can be achieved in baseball a World Series victory
Do you see the fallacy? By making the Cubs seem unique in their use of popular sabermetric statistics to influence decisions, analytics are given too much credit for their World Series championship.
With the rise of applied analytics to baseball operations since the Oakland Athletics’ success in the early 2000’s and the Red Sox’s drought breaking World Series championship in 2004, all teams in Major League Baseball now utilize a designated analyst. Because of this, I would say it is hard to argue that analytics is the cause of the Cubs’ recent success. Instead, I would claim it was the application of their analytics combined with their massive cash allocation to payroll which provided a successful competitive advantage over the other teams.
Instead of being innovative by the fact they were using any data centric analysis, I agree with the following, yet dramatic, metaphor in the same Ringer article that attributes success more to their unique application of sabermetrics:
“The Red Sox winning under Epstein in 2004, and again in 2007, was like Genghis Khan sweeping across the steppes to conquer Asia, using military tactics that his enemies had never seen before — particularly a huge edge in intelligence operations, what we might now call “data” — and had no idea how to defend against. The Cubs winning in 2016, on the other hand, is more like Napoleon’s Grande Armée conquering Europe, using the same basic military theories as everyone else, but with more discipline and more skill.”
Another factor that lead to the Cubs’ success this year, unfortunate in the reason that this still exists as an unfair decider, was the amount of cash they were able to spend on payroll. The Cubs had the sixth highest payroll last season, which FiveThirtyEight, as well as other sabermetric blogs, has showed had a high correlation with wins. Scarily, only ONE major league team spending below that season’s’ payroll average, has won the World Series since the 90’s. Ironically, that team was the 2003 Florida Marlins who we all remember from the infamous Bartman game.
Saying this as an impartial Texas Rangers fan, perhaps the Cleveland Indians should be the more glorified team of 2016. By employing a similar analytical strategy as the Cubs, but with a total payroll of almost 42% less, they made it to the same thrilling Game 7 of last year’s World Series, against almost all popular opinions.
The SaberSmart Team