For Cubs’ Sveum, stats are help not law
When the Brewers drafted Dale Sveum with the 25th pick in 1982, there was no such thing as “Moneyball.’’
But by the time he retired in 1999, sabermetrics had become a crucial part of professional baseball for many major league teams.
And now Sveum has been hired by one of the game’s foremost authorities on — and proponents of — new-age statistical analysis.
Yet even though Theo Epstein subscribes to the numbers, he is not married to them, and it says quite a bit about his approach that he hired a manager who is not a prisoner of statistics.
“When you’re talking about the ‘Moneyball’ thing, I’ve never seen (the movie). I’ve never read the book,” Sveum said Friday morning when he was officially introduced as the newest Cubs victim. “There’s times you have to create runs.
“If you have a lineup that just hits home runs and you have great hitters, then of course you don’t want to run into outs and give up outs. But sometimes when you have lineups and you’re trying to create runs then you have to try different things to do that.
“That’s just the bottom line. If you’re not gonna hit home runs then you create runs, so you have to do it by running and pushing the envelope sometimes.”
That’s a blasphemous notion to orthodox sabermetricians who believe in only the objective philosophy of baseball statistics. Just as many don’t and are realistic about the effects of numbers, balanced against scouting.
Conversely, any manager or GM who didn’t investigate all the information available to them — and there have been some on the North Side of Chicago — would be derelict in their duties.
Sveum sounds like a guy willing to look at anything, but won’t become captive to a piece of paper.
“All the numbers and stats, we’re very accustomed to them now. They’re part of the game,” Sveum said. “They can help you win games and they give you a lot of options. It’s not a go-to thing.
“It’s not a, ‘Gotta do this.’ You’re using this stuff as options, whether it’s matchups, whether it’s a huge sample or a small sample to get to the bottom of things. Maybe it’s (helping) make out a lineup.
“Maybe it’s, ‘Do I bring in this pitcher because of the numbers he has against this guy?’ It’s all options you have.”
But he doesn’t swear by the stats and will use his gut feeling if that’s what he believes is right. None of this, naturally, is a surprise to Epstein, who had to hear all this from Sveum during his days in Boston and again in the interview process.
Clearly, Sveum is old-school, but not so old-school that he can’t see how some of the newer stats and proprietary Epstein information could help him as a manager and help the Cubs as a team.
“When it gets down to it, you’re still doing baseball stuff,’’ Sveum said. “But you just happen to have all this information that you can use now to help you make those decisions.
“A lot of it’s good and a lot of it you have to be careful with because it’s too much if you try to give too much to the players. It’s way too much to rationalize how good it is and how bad it is. You can’t do that in your brain.
“Sometimes you just have to go out and play baseball.’’
This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive aspects of Epstein’s personality. He is on the one hand a poster boy for youth in the front office and an advocate of everything the computer can offer.
But at no point does he suggest that a computer knows more than a scout, and he still trusts boots on the ground more than a printed chart. He uses information to point him in the right direction, and uses his eyes to make a decision.
They don’t come any more new-school than Epstein, and yet he hires an old-school manager who won’t accept at face value everything Epstein or his computer tells him.
It’s a confident man in Epstein who isn’t afraid of someone who might disagree, and it’s a self-assured man in Sveum who isn’t afraid to lose an interview by telling the truth about how he intends to manage.
If that doesn’t speak to a new era of Cubs baseball, nothing does.
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