Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Epstein Effect

Theo Epstein’s swift departure from the Red Sox not only altered the Red Sox and Cubs front offices, it sparked a chain reaction of movement within the administrative community of Major League Baseball and shed light on the most recent aristocracy of baseball front office minds.  Much has been written about the “Moneyball” revolution that began with Bill James and permeated to the likes of Sandy Alderson, reaching current minds such as Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, and Mark Shapiro.  All of these men embraced the idea that a logical, well-educated, statistical approach to the acquisition, sale, and general movement of baseball players provided more merit than the system traditionally implemented.  Just as the baby boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s led to boomlets, so too did the “moneyball” revolution lead to an aftershock of its own. 
Enter Theo Epstein.  Epstein, a graduate of Yale, became the first of many young, well-educated, general managers with a sabermetric mind.  Epstein’s first job in baseball was in the public-relations department for the San Diego Padres.  It was there that he developed a relationship with then Padres President and CEO Larry Lucchino.  Lucchino, a lawyer by training, convinced Epstein to attend and graduate from law school.  Lucchino understood that a Juris Doctor would teach Epstein to think rationally and logically when solving baseball problems.  Epstein already exemplified the characteristics Lucchino thought necessary to achieve high status in a team’s front office.  Lucchino, who had achieved success with Baltimore and San Diego, was grooming a protégé.  Lucchino eventually left the sunny California coast for snowy Boston and the historic Fenway Park.  Not surprisingly, Lucchino brought Epstein along with him to Boston where he eventually ascended to the position of general manager. 
Once Epstein established himself in the Red Sox’s front office, he began to evaluate his staff and assemble his version of the Knights of the Round Table.  Epstein knew that the sole way to create a winning team on the field was to create a winning team in the front office.  His army of minds included Bill James, Jed Hoyer, Ben Cherington, Josh Byrnes, Craig Shipley, Dan Lejoie, and Jason McLeod.  Epstein’s fraternity of young baseball minds made the Red Sox best known not for breaking the curse of the bambino, but instead a powerhouse club that is the only team to win multiple World Series between 2000 and 2010.  Although the on-the-field success fueled the media, fans, and players, Epstein’s front office showed the baseball world a new formula for success.  Almost every member of Epstein’s crew is young, attended top-tier universities, and embraced the “moneyball” method towards running a baseball franchise.  The major difference between Beane’s implementation of sabermetrics in Oakland and Epstein’s usage of it in Boston was that the Red Sox were willing to spend money. 
With an open wallet and a clear plan, Epstein began building a winning team with the capability to shock the world and end the curse of the bambino.  Epstein accomplished this goal within 2 years of taking the job with the Red Sox.  Then, in 2007, he replicated that result by winning a second World Series and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest general managers of all time.  He accomplished this all at only 33 years old. 
Recently Epstein decided to leave Boston, taking his talents to the “Windy City,” to become president of baseball operations for the Cubs.  Epstein, once instructed to lift the curse in Boston, is now charged with reversing 103 years of losing in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, Epstein began reassembling parts of his dream team from his Boston days.  He hired Jed Hoyer as his general manager and Hoyer’s right hand man Jason McLeod as Senior Vice President for Scouting and Player Development.  If Epstein is to turn the Cubs into World Champions he needs to draw on similar principles as those he used in Boston while simultaneously utilizing Avant-garde methods of analyzing the game.
When Theo Epstein became the President of the Cubs he caused movement amongst the front offices in baseball.  His departure opened up a vacancy in Boston.  The Red Sox recently fired manager Terry Francona after an historic collapse that left them out of the playoffs and searching for answers.  Soon after these events unfolded, Epstein bolted for Chicago, which left the Red Sox with a number of gaps in their front office and in need of a new direction.  Instead of using their considerable clout to attract big name general manager candidates, the Sox focused on recent success and the need for stability.  The Sox hired from within, propelling Ben Cherington, an Epstein disciple, to become the Red Sox General Manager at age 37.  Cherington attended Amherst College and received a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts.  He broke into baseball with the Cleveland Indians as a scout and was hired by Dan Duquette, the General Manager of the Red Sox before Theo Epstein, in 1997.  He and Jed Hoyer served as co-general managers during Epstein’s leave of absence in 2005 and facilitated the trade for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. 
Cherington’s Co-General Manager during Epstein’s short resignation from the Red Sox was Jed Hoyer.  Hoyer, like Cherington, attended an excellent small liberal arts university and broke into baseball at a young age with no major league experience.  Hoyer attended Wesleyan University graduating with a degree in history joining the Red Sox in 2002 at the same time as Epstein.  Hoyer is most famously known for traveling with Epstein during Thanksgiving to convince Curt Schilling to accept a trade to the Red Sox.  Hoyer quickly moved up in the Red Sox organization becoming Assistant General Manager.  Not long after, his name began to appear on lists of the top ten next General Managers. 
Hoyer has been at Theo Epstein's right hand since the start of the Red Sox revival. Taking over as Assistant GM after Josh Byrnes left to head up the rebuilding of the Diamondbacks, Hoyer was mentioned by nearly everyone asked as "the next big thing."”[1]
Hoyer was rewarded for his success in Boston when the San Diego Padres hired him as their new General Manager in 2009.  He turned a 75-win team in 2009 into a 90-win team in 2010.  Following early success in San Diego, Hoyer made the transition from small market team to the big times when his former boss, Epstein, hired him to be the general manager of the Chicago Cubs. 
Jed Hoyer’s story is very similar to that of Josh Byrnes.  Byrnes went to Haverford College, graduating with a degree in English.  Byrnes began his career with the Cleveland Indians, before Dan O’Dowd hired him as an Assistant General Manager of the Colorado Rockies.  Epstein recognized Byrnes as an asset to his squad and hired him as an Assistant GM of the Red Sox.  That same year, 2005, Byrnes was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to become their GM at the age of 35.  In 2 years Byrnes took a 77-win team to the 2007 NLCS.  His immediate success was followed by some difficult years that led to his firing in 2010.  Although his time in Arizona had ended, the Padres quickly hired Byrnes as their Vice President of Baseball Operations.  Then, following Hoyer’s departure for the windy city Byrnes became the next Padres General Manager. 
The Theo Epstein boomlet has finally sprouted wings and begun to fly on its own.  Epstein took a new style of thinking about baseball, money, and ambition and changed the position of General Manager forever.  General Managers had commonly been older former players, managers, and executives—not young, educated, enthusiasts with sharp minds and full of confidence.  Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  Meade could easily have been describing Theo Epstein and his disciples.  Epstein may still wear the crown in the GM world, but he has created a new crop of forward thinking baseball administrators pent on using the Epstein principles of management to turn losers into winners.  Change the philosophy of scouting, drafting, and evaluating talent, while simultaneously trading for and signing players who fit their defensive, offensive, and pitching metrics.  The Epstein effect has and will continue to spread, changing the position of General Manager and the game forever. 

[1] The Next Ten Top GM Candidates by Will Carroll

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