Ep. 113 - Theo Epstein

Update: 2017-01-16


Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, chats with David about growing up in Massachusetts, becoming general manager of the Boston Red Sox at only 28 years old, how his use of advanced analytics helped steer the Red Sox and Cubs to curse-breaking championships, and more.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the voice said If you're going to have a Hall of Fame career began at Theo Epstein has done that as a thirty year old general manager helped lead the Boston Red Sox to its first World Series title in eighty six years and then came over the Chicago Cubs and help break a hundred and eight year drought last November making himself the toast of the town we thought this was the appropriate day to post this conversation as Theo and the Cubs are visiting with President Obama today in his final days in office the the Theo Epstein you you are a classic story of a guy who grew up on the right side of the tracks and made made good tell me about it I mean I'm in completely engrossed in the fact of your grandfather and his brother riding my favorite one My favorite movies of all time yeah my my grandfather Philip and his identical twin to Lee whereas screenwriting duo day I actually went to Penn State together and were boxing champion see other back when college boxing your twenty s well into Islamic bombs at two in three straight generations and then they moved out to L A and became a writing team ended up working for a long time for Warner Brothers and had a real contentious relationship with Jackie Warner actually they were called before the House Committee on un American yes you may ask about them in the blackness was vicious yet there so they were there embroiled in that in the one point they were asked if they were members of any communist organization they said yes Warner Brothers so they were but they were blacklisted know but they they stood up for their friends to earn perks are right on the line but they add they wrote many movies together including Casablanca and my grandfather died in nineteen fifty two so I never knew him but Dooley became surrogate father for for my dad a surrogate grandfather to me and everytime I ask him about Casablanca what made it so great he were to say that one same ol' crap hearsay is very modest about it but we're very proud of it and he won the Academy Award for and so that it sets my mind as math on the road along with the loan with the World Series trophy along with dead the two thousand for groceries reading a kid my dad that's cool that's great so you dancer writer as well yet my dad's long time novelist and the created the Creative Writing Program at Boston University and has published many books and by the king of the Jews the best known as near Times bestseller list a Holocaust novel threats lot of historical fiction mixes and a lot of Yiddish to make sure it's just about unreadable for me but he sees a great author and teacher so the question and your mom runs a business is well she she she runs a clothing store yet my mom had ops upbringing of my dad so my dad grew up in Hollywood because because his parents because his dad worked in movies grew up in Brooklyn and spent a lot of time and out of foster homes with her twin sister and had to start working during high school and was very much self made woman and she ended up opening a women's clothing store they meet they met when my dad was teaching in English class at Queens College that night service and education class and my mom's twin sister was taking the class and she was married but she she thought the teacher was handsome so she told my mom to come out of the class so she came followed him home to the subway one time and ended up cutting that's like a script yet this is or is it isn't about the LA basin my mom you know no college whatsoever but started this clothing store forty years ago with her twin sister and with their best friend in the studio apartment of the best Francis call the studio in Stokes still go in Brooklyn in Brookline yes ocean to look a little business yep and Harvard once asked him to come teach a class on women and small business and one year she made more than my dad my dad taking home a college professor salary and the economy is really booming my mom made more than my dad be all of that because he had the you know of the yell yell education and the postgraduate degree in everything and is a big success so I guess the obvious question is what the hell happened yes oh yeah my my dad ask me that all the time he did push literature a lot and and I'm in school in general and scholarship and he misread it on a mere grown up and thank him for that Paris As always I love with baseball from the time I was two years old they say of these stories are true or not this era track to be crowned Central Park hit home runs with along with Bob at an Emmaus five if they ever needed me to relax and calm down a decision from a baseball game on TV and say what I was eight they asked me what I wanted to do it but I grew up in a so I can see myself being happy if not work in baseball in some way because the typical kid drawn up in Boston initially New York and Boston won by shortstop the Red Sox and that pretty clearly didn't work out another avenue you um we spoke in the spring than in Arizona New You told me that one highlights of your youth was when the when the program came out for the computer game that the GM game GM and so you could do trays yes yes I grew up playing this game called Michael League Baseball which was served and the computer version of strata my played strategy that placed radical of it too but when news got a big deal member on the Apple two C came out and I could have an apple in their house and Michael League Baseball was the most sophisticated baseball simulation along the lines of strata Matic which actually does a great job of teaching you the percentages of the base of baseball strategy and went about when not about when to run when not to run straight interesting but to my colleague was a game a supply of my brother and then one year they came out with this ad on desk that allowed you to know it is play the games but also trade players and construct your own team is called the General Manager such owner's desk in a dome over that right away this is fascinating to make deals and construct your own teams and looking back on as pri pretty Katrina do you um I you talk about percentages and and obviously data has become a huge thing where you come empirical guy back then was status something that interested you because you you you wrote Yes yeah I love to read love to write I did pretty well at math but was was no mass of art that all I think I think I grew up appreciating the game from from both perspectives you know I played the game through high school was pretty good you know for a little Jewish kid from my massive not not good by any other standard but not another Hank Greenberg no uncertain us an eco facts but love love playing the game was always thinking about the game watched a ton of baseball in person at some level of the half mile from Fenway Park and watched a ton of baseball on TV so I could appreciate it from a traditional standpoint the way if and when to even the way Scott Wood watching players and think about what they might do next project in their future performance so to speak but then I also got exposed to Bill James' writing a pretty young age my dad bought me some of those abstracts and the Bill James Baseball abstract in the early father of saber metrics yeah yeah he really he really was he really is and in some to some extent started with Branch Rickey hired statistician and he understood the importance of on base percentage versus batting average for example but Bill was an amazing in quite the iconic last time was his publishing these these truths about baseball from his from his basement essentially while holding down a job at a factory and there is a night watchman at a frank and beans factory or something and and um yeah it's amazing it really is and am quite the writer too so you know ye not read in the whole thing cover to cover him and his prints by Sandy Alderson who is currently the GM of the Mets and was the GM of the eighties in late eighties to nineties was was a fan of bills writings and applied some of those principles and that helped those A's teams when ultimately won a World Series and Billy Beane I picked up the mantle from Sandy he was assistant GM under Sandy and then Moneyball really brought it to more popular light but yes I I grew up in reading bills bills books and starting to look at the game from an objective standpoint as well in understanding some of the basic truths with the numbers of the game and I think that's that's basic truths will talk a little bit about the basic truths that he uncovered just you know that that that the best one to talk to as wide as mentioned at Branch Rickey understood just because it's easier to grab onto just how much more important on base percentages to scoring runs in batting average for example and so the whole industry was based on batting average if you watch the game on TV they showed the hitters batting average everything was about becoming a three hundred hitter and it didn't matter how much locked in how much you got on base but if you're trying to build a team to win yeah winning is all about going as many runs as you can and preventing runs you would essentially ignore batting average and focus just on how much energy on bass and Bill understood that I think Branch Rickey understood that's why his teams on so much and and Sandy understood that and Billy in and the whole world with money bond of course that's just the surface level inside and you can drill the great thing about baseball as you can drill as deep as you want and there's so much more that we don't know about the game than we do try understand three or four percent of the game the rest is is a great unknown that you can research trying to find the slivers of insights that might help you I want I want to talk a little more about that in a minute you mention Branch Rickey in a lot of different ways he seems like sort of a prototype of the modern baseball person in the way he approached personnel approached training he approached as you say statistics yet I think I'll forever be the best League Baseball Executive of all time because of his innovation and really modernize the game and most importantly integrated the game with a very courageous way by signing Jackie Robinson but yet he invented the modern farm system he understood the importance of finding quality through quantity of assigning year hundreds of players to play in your farm system and through evaluating the performance the best ones would rise to the top and was the first one to really understood understand the importance of statistics in evaluating players and projecting the future before you guys have this manual the Cubs weigh in but he he did that sixty years ago yet he had his his whole organization and vertically integrated from top to bottom of the entire farm system and then out out of his impact on the Dodgers came out camp and this and he's the one who I think officially wrote the first manual that the Dodger way of playing baseball camp Ennis wrote that and that helped lead the way to the Dollar dynasty the sixties and then I was working for the Orioles in the early and saw Cal Ripken seniors Oriole way of playing baseball so he made an impression on me and I realize if you want to get the whole organization on the same page about how you want to play the game how you want to teach the game is really important codified so those are the first things we did at the Red Sox and hear the Cubs that was literally the first thing we did after the press conference at down together to define how we want to play the game you a list compact you're narrative you you see fall of your father's footsteps and you went to Yale David Lynn R who's now a prominent columnist at The New York Times told me that when you're a sports editor there you are the best writer there but you were focused on baseball yet that doesn't speak well of the other riders at the Daily News that note I'm also not a hit it's a nice comment yes so I went to yell and I was choosing between yellow and and Williams which is a division three school where you can play bass yeah but I'll take it continue to play baseball and soccer but end up going down was not nearly good enough to play there so was looking for other other ways to stay involved in sports and the Daily News and the piano great opportunity and I met met some great people and threw myself into that and it also may arise if I did not want to become a sportswriter just got some exposure to professional sports writers and and to me it seemed a little bit too solitary of a pursuit to individual pursuit for me to pursue but have tremendous respect for for sports writers and for the media as a whole for you um you're very you're good at it I mean you're good at dealing with those guys had talked to some of them when I was working on a piece about you and the Cubs for The New Yorker one guys said Theo can give you an answer that has three meanings and they'll all be true which is a talent too if people think you're not misleading them as ol' reporter and Europe as a no reporter can appreciate that so did that experience help you deal with with reporters yeah I think it did and I also been breaking into baseball I got my first art for your song public relations so I get to see the game from that standpoint talent of the Serb out how that happened the new job with your ills yes I wrote letters to a number of teams and sort of the old fashioned good ole boy network yell connection came through a little bit embarrassed to say but end up in a great break Calvin Hill great football player father is of Grant Hill the basketball player and still a big force and in sports is really working for the Cowboys but Grant Hill to time Calvin at the time was the vice president Vice President Administration for the Baltimore Orioles and he got my cover letter and saw yellow on it and I and I think I mentioned a couple of the research projects I done and on the Negro leagues in that caught his attention he ended up calling me we were getting an early start on the weekends one fry spring Friday at our Garmin as well as folks who want to yes exactly and the phone rang it was a scout in hell with the Orioles I kind of snuck off into it one choir room I could find talk to him he invited me down size interviewed with him in with Charles cyber to the Orioles during my spring break freshman year and got an internship and ended up becoming a great start we'll take a short break and we'll be right back with Theo Epstein rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank skip the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so from Baltimore you know you're graduating from Yale and you get this opportunity go to San Diego yes so that my my last internship with the Orioles ended in August of nineteen ninety four with the baseball strike that ended up cancelling the World Series the last labor stoppage in baseball so that the prospect of a job seem to be waning at that point decided to apply to law schools and other other things I interested and got a call of the blue from Charles Steinberg the Kino who had just gotten an opportunity out in San Diego and I've never been to San Diego they offer me the job there's the Senate touches with the Potter is there there are ten and is ten inches of snow out my dorm room so I said yes I accepted and then flew out there did after I graduated to start new job new life in San Diego and you moved up pretty quickly in that organization yes I did PR for years there but to deal with reporters every day yet and didn't didn't love it but was working in baseball and saw the matter but I befriended the general manager Kevin Towers at the time was I knew Young general manager there and we had a loss he was he was used Mary single and twenty one right out of college used to living vicariously through me a little bet and I got to hang around his office and listen how they evaluate players and the different things I would go on and baseball operations department he took a liking to me and started taking me out to teach me how to scout C amateur players and quickly brought me over to work in the best baseball operations department which was my ultimate dream and you end up running that department what the hell were you well I didn't but the general manager runs at that department but I he promoted me to something called director of baseball operations which is basically you know it it's just the jack of all trades to do a lot of things the baseball operations department I wasn't as in my mid twenties and the great thing about the Potter is the time is there is a small market team to have to be resourceful it was a really small shop so another organization might had twenty folks in their baseball operations department in the home city we had for five and got to do little but everything to work and pro scouting got to go out for the draft to help out in player development get to help out a major transactions and that's really where I formed my current view of the game my office was situated literally between the scouting director and the statistical analyst that that that of the time they're one of the first teams to have a stats guy on staff in those two that the scouting director who saw the game really traditionally out and evaluate players subjectively he and the SAS guy who evaluate players objectively and in want to see them play I would only want to see their track record those two hated each other but they both like me again I think this because I was young and going out in and you're eager and yet and here to please and help them out I got to hear the best from both of them and maybe some things I didn't agree with us while they were trying to lobby me on why their way of seeing the game was the right way and what I determined that that you know they were both great baseball guys and really insightful about the game but that I thought I saw the clearest picture about players and about projecting players featured performance by looking through both lenses by looking through the traditional scouting lands at the same time also looking through an analytical more objective Lance and if you could find a transaction that made sense looking through both those lenses is probably a pretty good move for your team you know the funny thing about the small operation is interesting to me because kids always ask me like how do you get to be of the strategist for the presidents on and what how do you start and I was telling go find some small campaign where you can do everything and where you you know you're not pigeon holed and where you if you're help you can learn the whole the whole deal and the same is true obviously for you yeah I think had I had AA worked initially at a big market team that had a bigger staffs and may be best to be as innovative to solve problems are as aggressive and resourceful would have been the same experience and I were still kids when they're first starting out in baseball is whoever your boss is or bosses are that if twenty percent of their job that they just don't like as of you can ask them or figure out what that twenty percent is and figure out a way to do it for them you'll both make them really happy improve their quality of life in their work experience and also gaining invaluable experience for yourself and if you do a good job of that the Star TV responsibility and that's really what happened with me at the Potter's end up back in Boston a few years later Luke you know and back to Boston brought you back there yet and Larry got involved with the new ownership group mother at Sox in late two thousand one and buy a day in spring training in March of two thousand and two he had brought me back there as assistant Jenny reluctance to leave San Diego's kind of a sweet life oh it was was I got to be out there from from age twenty one to twenty eight and some great experiences I turned down an assistant GM job elsewhere to stay with the Potter is that a lesser position because we had such a tight knit group and was such a nice life out there but it felt like time and really the Red Sox that was my ultimate dream as I grew up half a mile from Fenway Park as huge fan of the team they were sore the ultimate ivory tower franchise where you really had to know somebody who is the young jockeys at the old yucky regime and they were just close shop and I didn't even as working in baseball it was a pretty insular operation over there the Red Sox and is hard to ever envision myself working there so when the opportunity came up to work for people that I really respected into to go over there as assistant GM as it was an instant yes and Kevin even supporters supported me and said You have to have to take this opportunity so a lot of people would be bewildered face it there's no way in which Theo Epstein is just like Dick Cheney but you get assigned the task of trying to find a general manager for the Red Sox shortly after you arrive there and somehow up just had that yet it is said of the stuff of any scheming I began to you but now I get the job in March of two thousand to was named the assistant general manager but there is no full time general manager there was an interim general manager Mike Port Dan Duquette had been fired a few months earlier as the full time general manager with the owners decided was that we would go through the season with just an interim general manager and with me as assistant GM at that name a permanent general manager after the season so we're pretty good team and two thousand to good in make the playoffs and the task me with leading the search for our next trail manager led the led me to two individuals if you're a tardy who is a disciple of Billy Beane who is the time the general manager the Blue Jays but Worcester native and someone I thought would be really interested in a job and I love loyalty to the Blue Jays he declined the opportunity and then thinking big we decided to go after Billy being good has a tremendous amount of success was the Oakland A's would be immortalized in the pages of Moneyball in the movie and after the CU missed the app to have Brad Pitt plays that defined the less as an actor of that than me but it was so we talked ability and he actually accepted the job and and a lot of soul searching and twenty four hours later called me and told me that is can take the job and there are a lot of thought into and there are a lot of very legitimate personal reasons I couldn't take it in the family and move move three thousand so now I've completely bungled the search for full time general manager and I have to go back with my tele to my legs to to my boss is and tell them that the first two nominees in turn the job down and so I did and I'm so filled up I filled up in the air they eventually caucus tin and called me and said You know you know we thought about it and we just want you to do it and who's pretty stunning as I was at twenty eight years old at the time and had only been an assistant general manager for eight months I think that that the time and knew it was a shock and i din say yes right away I thought I was twenty eight I was brought from an emotional maturity standpoint I was probably younger than that and I think with seven years in San Diego heads hacked and maybe work in baseball to um but yeah I know them the more I thought about that is just the opportunity of a lifetime and I did feel like I knew the organization while I've been there for a season I worked really hard to get to know everybody felt like I knew what our strengths were as an organization what our weaknesses were what we had to do is to take the next step yes felt like I had been an observer of the game and thought enough about the game right I could do some good things and I knew I knew nuts about what I didn't know too that you have to surround myself with great people and and yeah I just felt like it was an opportunity that it receives but but kind of daunting in your hometown premier job in baseball like the marquee franchise it had to be when did you that one main to become a public person you're you're you're pretty you're actually pretty shy person and now you're the face of the red so that was my biggest hesitation and those those fears were realized today I was announces general manager so I left my live really close to family and walk to work and I was completely anonymous you know no one knows this and general manager is in for good reason I really cherish that anonymity Am prime more introvert than extrovert and just appreciated being nobody I like happy in my in my skin at the time is as a completely anonymous worker bee at the Red Sox and then that morning of the press conference I walked downtown and there were five TV cameras right on my front step of the cameras right my face and followed me now than I could say we get them to go it followed me every step on the walk to Fenway Park in my heart was pounding and I realized at that moment that in my life changed forever and that been
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Ep. 113 - Theo Epstein

The Axe Files with David Axelrod