It is a mild rainy Tuesday night in Chicago, and many Windy City residents have settled in for a night of watching their hometown Bulls get back to playing after this past weekend’s NBA All-Star break. However another contingent, over 100 and several hundred more watching on a live stream provided by CSN Chicago, have dropped what they are doing to fire up the Hot Stove and talk all things Cubs with one of new team president Theo Epstein’s top lieutenants and a rising star in the world of baseball front offices everywhere, New York native, Shiraz Rehman.
The 34 year old assistant general manager has flown back from Arizona, where Epstein and company have been holed up for weeks awaiting the start of spring training games to talk about the new face of the Cubs and their embracing of all things digital to improve the fortunes of Wrigleyville and finally, maybe erase “The Curse of the Billy Goat” once and for all.
One of Epstein’s first moves, along with bringing in Jed Hoyer, Rehman and others, was to junk the Cubs player evaluation system of years past and start anew with the help of Bloomberg Sports. The three year old division of financial giant Bloomberg has been working with almost all of the MLB clubs, as well as thousands of fantasy baseball enthusiasts and several hundred MLB players to make the use of analytics more streamlined, fun and engaging for everything from casual games to advanced scouting.
However the partnership with the Cubs is Bloomberg’s most ambitious project to date, one which Rehman, who had worked intimately with Bloomberg as part of the Arizona Diamondbacks front office, whole heartedly endorsed.Will it be a new version of Moneyball in The Windy City, a revival of fortunes like Epstein had in Boston or another evolution in the game entirely? We asked Rehman to explain the new vision for Cubs fans as part of his extensive talk this past week.
Q: Big Lead Sports: You had worked with the Red Sox and then went to Arizona and helped the Diamondback in their resurgence. How is this different or the same from those challenges?
Each team and organization has their own unique circumstances and challenges, but the commonality is that we are all trying to win a championship. What I took away from my experience in Boston is the idea to be as efficient and creative as small-market clubs have to be, yet use your resources to exploit competitive advantages like big market clubs are able to. Jed articulated those same principles to our group here just a few weeks ago during our organizational meetings. In Arizona we had to focus more on the first part of that equation and were able to find success with two different groups and management styles, (2007-08 and 2011), but sustaining success in those markets can be a bit more of a challenge.
Q: Big Lead Sports: One of your areas of expertise, forged in a background as a commodities trader and financial consultant, is in analytics. How important is analytic evaluation today in sports and how will that work into what fans will see with the Cubs?
I think the key take-away for our fans is that we will do our best to leave no stone un-turned. All information is good information, until we prove it to be otherwise…which just means we’ll challenge ourselves and our own assumptions constantly based on new information and look for ways to objectively prove that our intuition or current practice is correct. As a group, I think we will try to be as thorough and comprehensive as possible in our decision-making, whether it be for player personnel decisions, advance scouting, or in amateur scouting and player development. I think that’s what the term “analytics” means in baseball today.
Q: Big Lead Sports: There may be some people who say that too much analysis takes away from the human element. Do you see too much data hindering talent?
For a player, I think there is such a thing as “paralysis by analysis”…where over-thinking can lead to too poor performance. That’s why pre-game preparation is so important for them, to allow them to have confidence when they step on the field and allow their natural abilities to take over. In the front office, it’s not just about looking at data, it’s about looking at the right data. Our task is the pick out the data that helps us make better decisions on a consistent basis. For either group, I think the real risk is in deciding what information is useful (or not) without learning and understanding what it means.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Is there added pressure coming here from the Diamondbacks to a market which is so passionate about their team?
I wouldn’t say pressure…it’s a pleasure to work in a market where the fans are as passionate and loyal as Cubs fans are.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Is it difficult to get people used to a new system or a new way of thinking in a traditional sport like baseball?
I think that implanting change is something that takes time in any organization, but I can tell you that our baseball operations staff in Chicago, top-to-bottom, has really embraced the vision for the organization that Theo & Jed have laid out thus far. Not all of the results will be evident overnight, but I’ve seen nothing but willingness to do whatever it takes to build a winner from our entire group.
Q: Big Lead Sports: There is so much data available to players now as well. Do you worry about guys thinking too much with a system like this?
I think a good deal of Major League players have an idea of what types of information they like to use to prepare and what they don’t. Our job is to make sure we arm them with whatever they need to be successful, and we will work hard to insure that happens.
Q: Big Lead Sports: You will work very closely with Theo and Jed, how will your role be different from what it was with Kevin Towers in Arizona?
Every front office is different. I’ve been fortunate to work for and with 7 current GMs (incl. Theo) in the game today, and have tried to learn something from each one of them. Probably the single biggest take-away for me is that successful leaders create environments where people aren’t afraid to challenge one another to get better. The exciting thing about Theo, Jed and our entire leadership team in Chicago is how much they embrace creating that environment.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Why are there teams that are still reticent to embrace technology?
I think that most teams actually do embrace technology a lot more than the fans sometimes see. Many clubs have built their own technology solutions in-house, others use 3rd parties’, and there are new tools available every year that clubs take advantage of. Here in Chicago, where we have to the most ground to cover is in taking lots of small pieces and ideas that all function pretty well on their own and trying to put them together into one place, so we can be more efficient about how we do our jobs. That’s why we’re so excited to work with a company like Bloomberg, who clearly has the resources, scale, expertise and experience to do that for us.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Analytics can do a lot of things, does part of that system tell you if you do x things you can get x wins in year one?
There are a whole lot of factors that play into winning and losing a baseball game. We try to isolate the different parts of what makes up championship-caliber teams, and work on insuring we fill a roster, over time, with the types of players that provide those skill sets. But games are still played on the field, and the human element is the difference between what actually happens with the right mix of players and coaches over 162 games than what any program might produce.