Sorry, Stats Nerds, Cubs Still Think Chemistry is the Ultimate Science

We’re going to get to the Cubs here in short order, but I’d first like to share with you an anecdote from my advanced chemistry class in my junior year of high school. Because of course that just reeks of Cubbishness, right? Yeah, well, I’m hoping it will after I get done with it.

Our teacher, Mr. Chinworth, always scheduled tests for Thursdays so he could reserve the following Fridays for Physical Challenges. While we occasionally conducted them as individuals, they were mainly done as teams. Each group would receive the same set of materials and would then be given an objective and a set of rules.

In this particular case, we were given a few sheets of printer paper, some masking tape, paper clips, and drinking straws with an objective to build a structure that could hold the most weight possible. There were minimum height requirements and so forth, but I think you have a gist of the basics.

So we build our structure, which involved cutting the paper into strips that equaled the height requirement, then rolling said strips into pillars and taping them together to distribute the weight evenly. Mr. Chinworth began by stacking one textbook, then another. And another. And another. And another. Pretty soon, all the books in the classroom were stacked up and he had to resort to adding 5kg weights from the scale.

The best part was how incredulous our teacher was as he climbed atop the desk to add more and more weight, laughing in awe as he did so. Our structure eventually succumbed to the load placed upon it, though even that was a testament to our superior engineering. Rather than listing to one side like a massive Jenga game, the whole thing flattened at once without toppling the pile of knowledge that had been its undoing.

My point here, obscure as it may be, is that not once in three years (I had the same teacher for chem, advanced chem, and physics) did a team I was on fail to win a Physical Challenge. Wait, no, that’s not the point. The point is that every one of the teams in all those classes — none of which came close to matching our aforementioned feat — had the exact same materials and were playing under the same rules.

Why, then, were the results so different? In addition to flawless design and precision, it was in the interpretation of the rules and implementation of the materials. Which brings us back around to the Cubs.

In this era in which any rube with opposable thumbs and a wifi connection can start a blog and call himself an “Insider,” access to data is easy to come by. Even the most unique, proprietary methods of data collection and analysis fall into the public domain in short order and eventually descend into obsolescence.

Theo Epstein talked with the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales about the often futile search for competitive advantages and the resultant need to dive deeper and turn over new stones. Because the handholds and leverage points are so minuscule and far-flung, communication and execution are paramount. After all, as advantages become more granular and incremental they must be delivered with increasingly more fidelity and efficiency.

That’s where the Cubs’ open-concept front office comes into play.

“A lot of the information is only as impactful as it can be if it’s put into play on the field on a nightly basis, knowing the team across the field is making adjustments on you,” Epstein told Gonzalez.

“So if everyone has the same information, you want to put a premium on a humanistic approach understanding people. Putting them in a position to succeed and supporting them as human beings and individuals and the chemistry of the group as a whole.”

This closely echoes what the Cubs’ baseball boss shared during a broadcast early in spring training, though it’s important to look back at those statements for a little more depth.

“It’s not so much the information you get these days, although that can be an advantage if you find some unique data stream,” Epstein said. “But the real advantage is how you apply it, how it gets onto the field.

“And of course the ultimate competitive advantage is just understanding people and knowing when to ignore the numbers or when to combine an understanding of data with an understanding of the person. Putting your players, human beings, in a position to succeed and understanding that they’re more than just numbers on back of their card.”

Oh man, that is just pure unadulterated baseball erotica. Like, it’s dirty enough to appeal to even the crustiest old-school grunts yet refined enough to get the most erudite stat-heads salivating. Freebase that stuff and inject it right into my veins, please.

For as fantastic as that all is, though, Epstein’s coming at it from more of an overarching organizational perspective. Joe Maddon added a new layer to the conversation when he spoke to MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat about the vibe during camp this year.

“A unique camp in the way that the guys interacted, meaning they’re getting together as a group, talking about subjects outside of baseball,” Maddon said. “They’re becoming even better human beings just by interacting with each other.

“I have nothing to do with it, nothing. It’s about them. I really like the empowerment that I think our players feel from our office, the manager’s office, the coaches, as well as the front office. It’s a unique situation as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else. This is the first time I’ve felt it to this level here.”

By assembling a group of players who genuinely enjoy spending time with one another, the Cubs have created an environment in which new ideas can be more readily accepted and assimilated into the collective. Think of it like heating your milk to allow for a more homogeneous suspension of Nesquik. Apologies to the science nerds currently shouting that said mixture is actually a colloid.

Regardless of my rudimentary grasp of aqueous solutions, the point is that the Cubs have confirmed that chemistry is more than just myth or misnomer. It’s a viable aspect of team building, something Maddon might refer to as a “force multiplier.” Given how the deluge of data has flattened the analytical landscape, it makes sense that the high ground may best be gained by forming a human pyramid.

And not like Yertle, who ordered his fellow swamp-dwellers to form a turtle tower from atop which only he could gaze out upon his surroundings. Rather, it’s a matter of the various pillars of the organization coming together with equal stature in order to bear more weight and stand much taller than they could by simply standing atop one another.

The thought is that the Cubs are trying to create the ideal organizational ecosystem for their data and research to not just survive, but to really thrive and proliferate. I guess that makes Wrigley Field the world’s coolest terrarium.

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