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Theo Epstein’s Curse-Breakers

When Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox to become president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in the fall of 2011, he told reporters he was “ready for the next big challenge.” And what a challenge it was: The Cubs were coming off of a 71-win season, without much help on the way. Famously, the team’s last pennant had come 66 years prior, and it hadn’t won a World Series in 103 years.

Epstein, of course, was well acquainted with the anguish of a supposedly cursed fan base. In 2004, as general manager of the Red Sox, he’d been the architect of Boston’s first world championship in 86 years. The parallels to Chicago’s plight were obvious. But the prospect of a second Epstein miracle seemed too much to realistically expect. The 2004 Red Sox had needed one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history to end the team’s drought — surely such lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?

It could, and did. On Wednesday night, Epstein’s Cubs did what previously had been reserved for the realm of fantasy, bringing a World Series to Chicago’s North Side for the first time in 108 years. So, having pulled off the feat twice now, how do Epstein’s two curse-breaking teams stack up?

First things first: The 2016 Cubs were probably better than the 2004 Red Sox. Although the Cubs had a penchant for doing things the hard way during the playoffs, they also had one of the best couple-dozen regular seasons in MLB history. By wins above replacement (WAR),1 Chicago was the seventh-best World Series winner ever; Boston ranked 41st out of the 112 all-time winners. The Cubs also just edged out the Sox, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo team ratings,2 ranking 29th among World Series winners versus Boston’s 32nd-place finish. (To be fair, by another measure of Elo the 2016 Cubs ranked as the 70th-best team ever, slightly behind the 64th-ranked 2004 Red Sox.)

But more interesting than straight rankings is the contrast in how each team was built. The 2004 Red Sox were a veteran team, the fourth-oldest World Series winner in history.3 They had old hitters — 22nd-oldest among historical champs, as weighted by each player’s regular-season plate appearances — and positively ancient pitchers — No. 1 all time, in fact, weighted by regular-season innings pitched. Epstein was handed a team full of vets when he took over as Boston’s general manager after the 2002 season, and he doubled down further by adding the likes of Curt Schilling (age 37 in 2004), Keith Foulke (31), Kevin Millar (32), Bill Mueller (33) and Mike Timlin (38) via trades or free agency.

Epstein’s Cubs, on the other hand, were pretty average as far as the age of championship rosters go: They ranked 52nd-youngest out of the World Series’s 112 winners. But they also had an interesting split between the average ages of their lineup and their pitching staff. In keeping with the tradition of the 2004 Red Sox, Epstein once again assembled a pretty old group of pitchers in Chicago — eighth-oldest among all champs (though a full year-and-a-half younger than Boston’s grizzled staff in ‘04). Chicago’s position players, however, ranked 11th-youngest in championship history. The mix between fresh-faced kids such as Kris Bryant (age 24) and Anthony Rizzo (26) on the hitting side and aging pitchers such as Jon Lester (32), Jake Arrieta (30) and John Lackey (37) built the foundation for one of the most interestingly constructed rosters of any champion.

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Some of Chicago’s impressive young position-player talent flowed from a promise Epstein made at his introductory news conference in 2011. There, Epstein declared his intention to build “a foundation of sustained success” rooted in player development, echoing a similar sentiment from early in his tenure with Boston. “We’re going to turn the Red Sox into a scouting and player development machine,” he said in 2002. Although the returns didn’t come in quickly enough for the veteran Red Sox of 2004 — only 12 percent of the team’s WAR was generated by players who began their careers in Boston, the third-lowest rate for a champ ever — Epstein’s machine did eventually produce younger, more homegrown champions in 2007 and 2013. Epstein left Boston in 2011, but his fingerprints were all over the roster that brought Boston its ’13 title. And in 2016, 43 percent of the Cubs’ WAR was generated by players who made their MLB debuts in a Chicago uniform, many of whom Epstein drafted himself.

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A homegrown WAR rate of 43 percent is well below the long-term average of 63 percent for world champs, but that number is propped up by teams that won their titles before MLB’s modern era of free agency and mass player movement. Since free agency began in 1976, the average champion got about 50 percent of its WAR from homegrown players. In comparison with the highly imported nature of the 2004 Red Sox roster, the 2016 Cubs had a pretty normal mix of developed and acquired talent.

Finally, the quality of the 2016 Cubs’ position players set them apart from the 2004 Red Sox, particularly on defense. Both teams received immense contributions from their respective pitching staffs; Boston ranked 14th among champions in pitching WAR,4 while Chicago ranked 27th. But the Cubs’ lineup also generated the 16th-most WAR by a championship team, while the Red Sox got only the 77th-most WAR of any champion from its lineup.

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Much of that difference came down to defense: Those Red Sox ranked sixth-to-last in baseball by defensive runs saved in 2004, instead typifying the classic mashing-over-fielding profile carried by many of that era’s sabermetric darlings. The defensive-minded Cubs, by contrast, illustrated the evolution of today’s data-driven teams, ranking first in baseball (by a wide margin) in DRS this season.

Those kinds of distinctions particularly help put Epstein’s accomplishment in perspective. As one of the first wave of young, Ivy League-educated, statistically savvy general managers, Epstein was able to reverse Boston’s curse by building what was effectively the prototypical early-sabermetric ballclub: patience and power at the plate, and power pitching on the mound. If the ball was ever put in play, you took your chances with the most adequate defense you could cobble together while still propping up your on-base percentage and slugging average. The 2004 Red Sox were one of the first teams to win with that formula, but Epstein’s 2016 champion Cubs show how much the winning equation has changed as sabermetrics has matured. Now, the value of dynamic free-swingers like Javier Baez has been rediscovered, as has the importance of defense. The secret to breaking Chicago’s curse was very different than the one that broke Boston’s hex 12 years earlier.

And if Epstein ever molds another champion elsewhere, it’s a good bet that team will look different than either the ‘04 Sox or the ‘16 Cubs. Another good bet: It will probably set another prototype for subsequent teams to follow, whether they’re trying to end a championship drought or not.

Footnotes

  1. All mentions of WAR in this story will refer to an average between the competing versions offered at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

  2. Using the more complete version that’s adjusted for the quality of a team’s starting rotation.

  3. Using an average for the team’s regular-season roster that weights according to how much each player contributed to the team’s overall record as determined by WAR.

  4. Per 162 games.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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