Major League MoneyBall with Indians, Cubs

By Adam Grossman

The Oakland A’s were not the first MLB team to use Moneyball. It was actually the Cleveland Indians that first used a version of advanced analytics. Well, at least the fictional Indians from the 1989 movie Major League. The main plot of Major League is that a rich widow becomes the owner of the Indians after his husband dies. She wants to move to the team to Miami (which did not have a team at the time), and she intentionally signs players and hires a manager who should cause the team to lose games. Losing games would cause attendance and revenues to decline enough that she could move her team to Miami.

In a deleted scene from Major League, however, the Indians’ owner actually states this a ruse. In fact, she wanted to create a cover story for why she was signing players that were undervalued using more traditional methods. She says she scouted all the players and the manager personally to find the best possible team for least amount of money because the team was broke. She created a narrative using herself as the villain to inspire the players to win to spite her and have the city rally around the team.

For many fans of Major League, this is an incredible plot twist that changes how they view movie. What is arguably more interesting is that this is almost a perfect summary about how advance analytics are used in sports today and in particular by the two teams in the World Series – the Indians and Chicago Cubs. In the movie, the owner’s goal is to find undervalued players that could help her team win games. That is thesis of Moneyball and perhaps what the book and movie are best known for by most people. However, another interesting part is that both the owner and the manager scouted the players. That is something that is a common misconception about Moneyball. In fact, may teams have actually increased spending and / or relied more heavily on scouting while also using advance analytics more frequently to evaluate players. 

The Indians and Cubs are good examples of this approach. In fact, the current, real iteration of Indians almost eerily similar to the fictional Indians of Major League. The Indians had the 26th (out of 30) highest payroll for the 2016 season yet had the fourth highest team WAR in MLB (WAR is the most commonly used advanced analytic in baseball). This starts with manager Terry Francona. While he did win two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox, Francona was let go by the Red Sox after the team lost a nine-game, September lead for the American League Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. This included stories that focused on how players were eating chicken, drinking beer, and playing video games during Red Sox regular season games that year. It is easy to see why many teams thought that Francona’s best managing days were behind him when the Indians hired him in 2013 – similar to Lou Brown of the fictional Indians.

Francona is not the only similarity between the two Indians teams. Catcher Mike Napoli is almost the spitting image of catcher Jake Taylor. He is a veteran catcher brought in more for his clutch hitting and the way he can handle young pitchers. Pitcher Trevor Bauer’s drone accident prior to his playoff start would remind Major League fans the antics of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Up and down the Indians roster there are players that many baseball fans have never heard of but are delivering significant results to the team. 

The team with the highest WAR total and best record in baseball in 2016 is the Cubs. It is easy to think that the Cubs are the exact opposite of the Indians. More specifically, almost every baseball fan knew of Cubs stars such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester. Yet, the Cubs only have the 12th highest payroll for the 2016 season. How could that be possible? Many of the Cubs players are still in operating on the deals they signed as draft picks. Younger players typically are more cost effective than veterans because players need to have six years of MLB service time before they become free agents. Finding young players who can have significant impact creates extraordinary value for a team. For example, likely National League MVP Bryant is only making $652 thousand this year.

Having younger players on your roster that can make an impact is something that most, if not all, MLB teams understand. Finding those players, however, is a different story. The Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has excelled at finding these players. Whether it is drafting players such as Bryant or trading for young talent like Rizzo, Epstein has built a team where the oldest starting infielder is 27. In addition, the team prioritized “building an offense from within and a pitching staff from spare parts. This flies in the face of more than a century of conventional baseball wisdom, which states that (1) pitching wins championships, and (2) a team can never have too much pitching.” The Cubs gained an advantage by taking a different approach to the draft than most teams, and then developing a scouting department that would find the players needed to compete for a championship.

Major League may have been ahead of its time in 1989 using Moneyball concepts, but that time has clearly arrived for both the Indians and Cubs. As Taylor said in Major League, now there is only one thing left to do with this strategy, “Win the whole f-ing thing.”