Baseball is a game of chance. There are thousands of scenarios and hundreds of moving parts. It can be won on an unpredictable fluke play or lost on a single pitch. Despite following the “how-to” blueprints laid out over hundreds of years of baseball, anything can happen.
Nobody understands that statement more than the Chicago Cubs. Over the last 108 years, the Cubbies have experienced multiple years where on paper the team should have excelled. Yet in each of those seasons, something didn’t function correctly and Chicago was left without a ring.
Last year, Chi-town had seen enough. Their 2016 journey to the World Series Championship was as deliberate and calculated as any season in recent history. In the offseason, following their tough playoff loss to the New York Mets, the Cubs signed Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Cahill, at a collective cost of more than $289 million.
They were all in. But this wasn’t exactly a “purchased championship” in the way the Yankees have done in the past. The real heart of the win came from the mind of Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. The Cubs had committed to playing small-market ball with a major-market payroll. Epstein is the master of manipulating the underutilized advantages in baseball. If there is a path to success that someone hasn’t thought of, he’ll discover it, spreadsheet it, overanalyze it, dominate it and blaze down it with the top down and his speakers blaring. The man is a genius for his unapologetic, groundbreaking approach to a game that is often too stuffy and preoccupied with convention and tradition to adapt to innovative and progressive manners of winning. Yet, disregarding the institution essentially punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame for beating not one, but two historic curses.
A perfect example of this comes in the form of his coaching hires. Epstein has no problem surrounding himself with nontraditional thinkers. Take a looks at his handling of Joe Maddon. While there is no room to ponder whether or not Maddon is a Cooperstown-caliber coach (he is), there are some gray areas when it comes to his approach to coaching. He’s been roasted in the media for his eccentric moves. You don’t have to rewind any farther than his handing of his 2016 World Series bullpen as an example. He took heat for using his closer, Aroldis Chapman, erratically during the series. Chapman saw 7.6 innings of service, racking up 173 total pitches in three nonsave situations. He once put Jon Lester (one of the worst hitters in MLB history) in to pinch hit, with the game on the line in the bottom of the 12th inning. For those wondering, Lester put down a squeeze bunt and the Cubs took the walk-off win.
Maddon is undeniably unconventional, but he gets the job done his way.
Despite his dry, sometimes solemn personality, his methods bring a unique life to the game. He installed “American Legion Week” where his players are expected to do nothing but show up and play the game, as they did in rec leagues growing up. Because of their endless travel and constant schedule needs, like batting practice and workouts, he also stresses that his players take time to “do nothing.”
In the end, his attention to “self-care” creates an intangible that can’t be taught or purchased: chemistry. That bond between players and relaxed, fun approach to the game could be seen in the 2016 Cubs, who won a league best 103 wins.
Of course, some of those wins come directly from the talent on their roster. The 2016 Cubs featured the best starting pitching in baseball. With a team ERA .36 points better than the second-place Washington Nationals, the squad’s arms were a force to be dealt with. Led by Jake Arrieta (18-8; 3.10 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks (16-8; 2.13 ERA), their pitching staff, also featuring veterans like Lester, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, also led the league in shutouts, quality starts and boasted four starting pitchers with 15 wins for the first time since 1935.
Despite having the 14th-best team batting average at .256, the Cubs managed to capitalize on their quality pitching through run support, with 808 total runs (third in league) 767 RBIs (third in league) and on-base percentage, at .343 (second in the league). Kris Bryant broke the Top 5 in runs, sitting in fourth behind Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson and Mookie Betts, with 121. His 39 home runs and 102 RBIs also ranked in the Top 10 in baseball. Additionally, four of the Cubs’ players cracked the Top 25 in on-base percentage, with Dexter Fowler (.393), Ben Zobrist (.386), Kris Bryant (.385) and Anthony Rizzo (.385) being on base nearly 40% of their at bats.
Regardless of having a team full of all-stars, the Cubs’ secret weapon was the experience they possessed. Epstein, with Lester and Lackey, had already broken the curse in Boston, so there was nothing intimidating about the drought in Chicago. Maddon saw a World Series in Tampa Bay with Hammel. Zobrist had just come off a World Series victory in Kansas City. Those experiences would ultimately influence and guide the youth of Chicago into a mindset to accompany the talent in the locker room.
So, with all of the elements in place, planning, talent and experience, Chicago’s carefully constructed blueprint would unlock the secret to its first World Series in 108 years.
– Joshua Hammond