Theo Epstein was standing in the Red Sox clubhouse yesterday while the team he assembled finished up batting practice at Angels Stadium. He is in a strange spot this time of year. The work is done. He has an incredible amount riding on what happens over the next days and weeks, but from this point forward he has zero say in the outcome.
That seems like a strange spot to be in. When I asked him how he was feeling, in those terms, his reflections led quickly to how he thinks and why he runs his baseball franchise the way he does. With the playoffs starting today, the Red Sox in them for the sixth time in seven years, here's what the general manager is feeling.
“I guess I’m filled with a lot of anticipation, more than anything else,” Epstein said. “There’s not a lot we can do at this point. It’s interesting. I feel like some people watch the postseason and say, ‘Let’s see how good this team really is.’ I don’t feel that way. I feel like I know we’re a good team. I know what we’ve accomplished to get here over 162. I feel more like we’re watching the fates unwind.
“If you played the postseason 100 times, 50 times you might get bounced in the first round, and 25 times you get bounced in the next round, 12 times you might lose in the World Series, 13 times you might win the World Series.* You’re not sure what you’re going to get. You root your players on, hoping that they show their best at the most important time, believing that they will, because we believe in their character.”
*Note that Epstein rounded up from the 1/8 percent chance of winning it all. Good to know his brand of logic leaves room for optimism.
In baseball, the consistent winner is better than the powerhouse. That’s how Epstein operates, anyway. The most dominant team in a generation, the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners, did not even reach the World Series. Reaching the playoffs once, no matter how your team is, is buying a lottery ticket. Reaching the playoffs often – like six times in seven years – is like being the house in blackjack. Eventually, over time, the odds dictate you’ll win.
“That’s why we have clearly defined objectives,” Epstein said. “In our mission statement, part of it is we want to operate with a long-term view to put ourselves in a position to win 95 games and get in the playoffs as often as we possibly. Now we’ve done it six out of seven years. Part of the thinking is that if you make the postseason multiple times, you improve your chances of making the World Series. Theoretically, if you’re in eight times, you’ll win one World Series. Well, we’ve been in five times. This is our sixth time in. The first five times in, we won two World Series. I’m not going to [complain] about that.
“I don’t believe in building a team with the season goal of winning the World Series, and the next year you look up, you’re old all of a sudden, you don’t have any options. ‘Now we’re a 75-win team. Hey, we won the World Series two years ago.’ It doesn’t work that way. We want to try to always operate with the broadest possible lens, so we have a solid foundation so that every year, or just about every year, we’ll be in a position to win 95 games and get in, and then trust our players, trust our manager, trust our coaching staff, trust our advanced scouting, trust our ability to perform under pressure to go win a World Series.”
The most famous/infamous take on the postseason came from Billy Beane, the famous/infamous general manager of the Oakland Athletics. In Moneyball, he said, “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is [expletive] luck.”
Look at this decade: The 2007 Red Sox are the only team with the best record to win the World Series. The Yankees in 2000 and Cardinals in 2006 won the title despite entering with the worst record in the field.
It’s a dice roll. But it’s also not.
The team that plays the best wins. Was it random that that team happened to be the best of eight teams and win 11 games first? Yes, probably. Does that mean the players on the field didn’t earn it? No, absolutely not.
“I think there’s a lot of truth to it,” Epstein said. “I know Billy took a lot of [grief] for that comment. But the reality is, the smaller the sample, the more randomness there is. That said, it’s not a complete crapshoot. There are certain types of teams that tend to do a little bit better. There are certain elements of the game that are emphasized. It’s not determined by luck. It’s determined by how you play. So we try to do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to play well. You try to get every edge you can, including advanced scouting, which I feel for the postseason we’ve done as well or better than anyone else in the game – that’s something that we really emphasize and take pride in. Our players, time after time, have come up big in the postseason. They deserve a lot of credit for it. I feel like if you call it all luck, you take away from how hard it is for them to perform under those circumstances. I’m not saying Billy is wrong, because he’s not. But there is a performance element, too.”
And that’s why this is fun. Game 1 starts in 12 hours.