This is the first of a series of features on innovators who work behind the scenes in the sports world, leading up to our coverage of the 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday, March 6, in Boston. Later this week we’ll be speaking with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and next week we’ll talk to FootballOutsiders.com creator Aaron Schatz. This interview with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein previews an upcoming panel on Next Generation Sports Management and Ownership.
WBRU Sports: You were one of the first guys of the new wave of general managers who entered into the field. It seemed like before it was kind of an exclusive club of scouts and people who had previously been in baseball. Were there people in particular who set the stage for you?
Epstein: Yeah, definitely. There were younger GMs before me and a lot of younger GMs after me. [Former Cincinatti Reds GM] Jim Bowden I think was the youngest before I was named general manager and [Yankees GM] Brian Cashman has done great things obviously at an early age. I think back then the age issue was more of a novelty issue more than anything else and now, in hindsight, maybe it’s come to be one marker of a slight philosophical shift.
WBRU Sports: In terms of that philosophical shift, what do you think allowed stats guys like Bill James to have a voice in front offices?
Epstein: I think objective analysts have had a voice for a long time. In certain organizations it was more common for it to be behind the scenes. Branch Rickey was doing Bill James stuff before there was a Bill James, so obviously it’s been around for a long time. Sandy Alderson was applying a lot of Bill James stuff when he ran the A’s. A lot of teams- like when I was with the Orioles in the early 90s- we had [statistical analyst] Eddie Epstein- no relation- working in the front office, it just wasn’t mainstream. It didn’t really reach the attention of the media at the time. There was just a shift over time as the information age hit just about every industry in the country and the world for it to become more acceptable. The proliferation of certain information through the internet made its way to front offices, caught the attention of owners and hence it became more respected to have an analyst patently working in a front office. So it was just a gradual thing.
WBRU Sports: When were you first introduced to advanced statistics?
Epstein: Well I read James’ Baseball Abstracts growing up in the mid-80’s.
WBRU Sports: So you were with it from the start, then.
Epstein: Yeah, well I read it, and I think I understood it theoretically, but it didn’t really impact the way I watched games and the way I thought about the game that much because they were just sort of two different concepts, you know, watching the players and the numbers. The math behind the game was almost separate to me. And then I started to think more about it when I got to San Diego and Eddie Epstein was there and my office was literally in a space where the scouting director was on my right and he would teach me to use tools to break players down and Eddie Epstein’s office was on my left and he would study the objective side of the game, and those two didn’t really talk to one another. So I became a liaison and a sponge and kind of soaked it all up. That helped, metaphorically, and allowed me to see the sides of the game and use both lenses.
WBRU Sports: How do you go about doing that, being a liaison? Are there certain things you listen to and certain things you don’t?
Epstein: No, at the time it was all about personal relationships. Dogma can get in the way of either side. There are no absolutes in this game and usually when someone thinks they have all the answers, they’re wrong. So I think just through time, through trial and error, through reading through a lot of scouting reports and looking at a lot of prospects’ career progressions, you can start to see what tends to be real and what tends not to be and kind of take the best of both worlds.
WBRU Sports: When you became the general manager of the Red Sox, was it clear to you what your job would be and what the owners expected you to do with the team?
Epstein: More or less. I mean, we’d spent a lot of time talking about directions we could potentially go, where competitive advantages existed, where inefficiencies lay and the direction you can go to build an organization that will have sustained success. I think that the ownership bought into some of that vision, so it was just a matter of building an organization that reflected the vision.
WBRU Sports: Did you feel like you were doing something new at the time?
Epstein: No, I think elements of it exist in every organization. I think if there was anything new about it at the time, it was that a large market team was taking an approach that was traditionally in the realm of small markets, like focusing on the draft and player development and focusing on values and efficiencies that heretofore have been mainly the province of small market teams out of necessity. We were trying to take a small market approach and apply it to a big market situation and we thought good results would come of it.
WBRU Sports: Where do you see the industry moving now, in terms of front offices? Do you see a lot more guys like yourself coming up?
Epstein: Yeah, clearly. I think we’ve either reached or are moving towards an equilibrium point where proper balancing of subjective analysis will always be done best by those with experience and objective analysis which requires a certain amount of independent thought, outsider’s perspective, familiarity with computers, comfort with data, and tends to be done by those who are younger, because of the age of information and because of the internet, tends to be more familiar with that side of the game. They might not have scouted ten thousand baseball games but perhaps they grew up reading about analysis, thinking about it, chatting about it online and applying it in entry-level jobs. There seems to be a good balance in a lot of front offices. The deviation between front offices is getting smaller and smaller. It’s sort of becoming a flatter environment. There’s not a lot of well-kept secrets, everyone seems to be on a level field. Not in every team, but maybe 20 out of the 30, 25 out of the 30 teams share some basic principles; how to win, how to evaluate players. It makes for a more competitive out there.
WBRU Sports: What do you say to that new generation now? What advice do you give them?
Epstein: Just to be… not to be dogmatic and to be open-minded, to always question oneself and others about what seems to be right, what seems to be the answer, what seems to be the number might not be. And always to really respect tradition and to think deeply about anything new that seems to be insightful and challenge yourself to find a way to actually apply that in a game, but to be open-minded to the other side. The best answers tend to come through some sort of discourse and not through absolutes or ultimatums.