One of the things that fascinates me outside of baseball is science. Part of that reason is that the more you know about science, the more you find you don’t know.
And so then I wonder about baseball. There is so much more we know about it then we did in 1980, which was a lot more than we knew in 1950, and so on. The amount of information available to even the average fan is staggering. The information available to those in the industry is even greater. Over time, that information has become more equally spread out among the organizations.
Yet, we still fail to accurately predict the rise and fall of teams from season to season. Who could have predicted the collapse of the Nationals? Or the rise of the Royals last year…or the Cubs this year? For all the information at our disposal, there is still so much we don’t know. In the words of baseball guru Bill James,
We haven’t figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won’t have begun to have the game figured out.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment here, I am going to digress a bit into the world of science, but we’ll get back to baseball in a moment.
As Albert Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity, he noticed despite all the information he had, the numbers in his equations seemed to be missing something. The equations were intended to describe the interactions of gravity at a fundamental level. The problem was that the equations just didn’t work. There seemed to be a mysterious, unknown force in play that was throwing the numbers off. In science, theory is more than just a guess, it has to be testable and make consistent, accurate predictions about our world. Einstein’s solution was to fudge the equation with what he called the Cosmological Constant — and suddenly everything worked out just fine. The trouble is, Einstein didn’t really know that constituted that constant. He just knew that it made the equations work. It now stood the scrutiny of tests and made accurate predictions about gravity.
As more information about the nature of our universe came to light, Einstein came to regard this as his biggest blunder. Yet, strangely enough. as even more information became available, it turns out he was on to something after all. You see, for all the known mass in the universe, the billions of stars, planets and other matter within the billions of galaxies — none of it comes close to measuring the amount of gravity in the universe. In fact, that percentage of known matter compared to the mass of the universe is estimated at 4%. The rest of the universe is made of what is called dark matter and dark energy. And yet, nobody fully understands exactly what that is. The Cosmological Constant now represents this unknown part of the universe.
Okay, enough about science. How does this pertain to baseball?
Well, I have sort of a (non-scientific) theory of baseball. Sometimes we get so involved in measuring what we know that we forget to consider what we don’t know. We have a pretty good idea now about statistics and predicting performance to a reasonable degree, we can calculate probabilities based on historical trends and data. We’re pretty good at predicting what will happen given a certain set of parameters — but I wonder if that is only the tip of the iceberg — that 4% of the observable baseball universe. What about that vacuum — the stuff we don’t see or the stuff that doesn’t happen?
What I mean is — how do we know that the Cubs wouldn’t have imploded as the Nationals did without Maddon at the helm? Or, less dramatically, how do we know they wouldn’t have seemingly worn down over the course of the season the way the Astros may have? On August 31st, the Astros had a 96.8% chance of making the playoffs and an 87.8% chance of winning the division. Less than one month later, those odds are now at 44.1% and 3.1%, respectively, and if the season were to end today, the Astros would suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs. Was it a simple regression to the mean or is there something else there that we can’t measure?
What happened in Washington and Houston? Or what didn’t happen to the Cubs?
There’s so much that we can speculate on. We know Joe Maddon is most respected for the atmosphere he creates, not so much the Xs and Os, which most experts agree have a small impact over the course of a season. Did he keep the pressure off the team and take that burden on himself? Did his creative use of match-ups get the most out of players and, perhaps even more importantly, keep the regulars fresh (and possibly healthy) and the bench players involved and in the flow of a long season? Did the clubhouse culture prevent the Cubs from getting too high or too low during the season and prevent extended losing streaks? Does his ability to prepare young players for the rigors of baseball put them in a position to succeed? How do we even begin to factor that into wins and losses over the course of a season?
Maddon seems to seamlessly bring in young players like Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Tommy LaStella and get immediate value from them. He was able to pull of the shortstop switch mid-season — and even more to the point, replaced an in-prime 2014 all-star with a rookie — something that just isn’t done in baseball. And even rarer still is it done with the kind of success we’ve seen. Starlin Castro has not only remained happy but he has also been a big factor down the stretch between the lines. Could Dale Sveum have pulled that off with such aplomb? The questions can go on and on. Did pulling Kyle Hendricks early in the first couple of months save enough in the tank for him to help fuel a late season resurgence? Did temporarily removing Hector Rondon from the closer role after a couple of poor outing give him a chance re-charge his batteries and return to form down the stretch? Conversely, did his patience in sticking with Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan pay off as the season progressed? Are there late season tailspins that didn’t happen because of what Maddon did — or did not do — earlier in the season?
And while we’re at it, how about the front office’s foresight in hiring him in the first place? They saw enough value to fire a one year manager who himself had some success getting the best out of young players. They deemed it important enough to withstand the criticism that it would bring as well as risking the perception of tampering. There was obviously more to their thinking than the game-to-game strategic baseball decisions.
They’ve also handed over some of the reins of control to Maddon when it comes to decision making and roster construction. That is a tacit admission that Joe knows baseball on a level that they do not — in the clubhouse and in the day-to-day grind of a season. Part of being smart is understanding what you don’t know — and recognizing that there are others who can fill that void.
Again, we turn to the Einstein of baseball, Bill James, who admits now that he was skeptical of such off the field stuff — but that it was his mistake, perhaps his “biggest blunder”,
“I have to take my share of responsibility for promoting skepticism about things that I didn’t understand as well as I might have,” he says. “What I would say NOW is that skepticism should be directed at things that are actually untrue rather than things that are difficult to measure.
“Leadership is one player having an effect on his teammates. There is nothing about that that should invite skepticism. People have an effect on one another in every area of life. We all affect another’s work. You just can’t really measure that in an individual-accounting framework.”
James has admitted he made the mistake early on of dismissing the value of those with expertise and experience within the game — and perhaps this is something that Theo Epstein and his staff took to heart. Perhaps that was the biggest part of the motivation of bringing in not just Maddon, but also players like David Ross, Jon Lester and Miguel Montero — all of whom have been lauded for keeping this team focused, prepared, and on an even keel all season.
Did that make a difference? Again, who can really say with any degree of certainty?
How much of the Cubs resurgence has been pure talent and how much has been the intangible — the dark matter/dark energy of baseball– is unknown. There is no Baseballogical Constant that we are yet aware of. We just know it exists and that in some mysterious way, it just makes this team work.
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