Chairman of the Chicago Cubs
Cubs Win! Tom Ricketts Explains How
|The importance of people on the business side and on the baseball side
|How Ricketts used quantitative analysis and qualitative conversations to understand how organizations succeed
|How the Cubs identify and address cultural inconsistencies
|The business of the Cubs and the ballpark
|How to improve the fan experience across the spectrum
|How Ricketts thinks about expanding the client base into the future
|The development of analytics in baseball
|Combining art and science in analytics
|Future trends in baseball analytics
|How to take a large risk in baseball
|How it felt to be a part of the World Series win
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, great to be here.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Also joining us today is Ken McAtamney, partner and portfolio manager at William Blair, and more importantly, an avid Cubs fan.
Ken McAtamney: Thank you, Hugo.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Tom, after taking over ownership of the Cubs in 2009, you set about transforming the team from loveable losers. I don’t know what’s worse, being called a loser or a loveable loser, but you set about transforming the team into World Series champions. Could you give us an overview of your vision you had at the time?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, and Hugo, I agree, loveable loser is worse than loser. It’s like nails on the blackboard to us, and that was one of the things we wanted to put behind this organization. But on the first day that we bought the club, we put out three goals. 1). Win the World Series, or win several World Series if we could, 2). Preserve and improve Wrigley Field, and 3.) Be a better neighbor, and more active in our community, both locally and in the whole city of Chicago. And so, everything we’ve done since then, every plan, everything we’ve executed has all been to achieve one of those three goals.
And when you look back at 2009, going into owning the club, we knew that’s what we wanted to achieve. I mean, the ways we got there, we weren’t sure yet honestly. The deal was very complicated. It was a very long deal. It took a long time to get done. The work just to close was overwhelming. It was my decision to hang on to the people that were currently in the big chairs here; the management team here, and then assess them after we got in, and that strategy worked out pretty well for us.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, parts of the plan were very specific, I imagine, and parts, maybe, less so, but one of the things I was taking away from reading/research that we’ve done is around recruitment. You seem to have a very, very detailed recruitment process. That seems to be something you really, really emphasize, is that fair?
Tom Ricketts: Well, yeah. Obviously, the most important thing is people, and everyone says that, but it’s just really true. I look at my responsibilities as split into the business side and the baseball side. Fortunately for us on the business side, we had a very, very strong chief executive, Crane Kenney; helped him with a couple different people on the management team, and then he filled it out, and they wrote the strategic plan that we executed against on the business side.
On the baseball side, spent a lot of time working with the baseball people that we had. I went to all the minor league clubs, I sat in the draft room, really immersed myself with all the information I could get, in order to be as informed as possible, and to know what I want to look for, and to know what we need to get better on the baseball side. So, in terms of recruiting, the most important thing that I can do is bring in the right leadership; the right management. And of course, on a business side, it was already here, so I didn’t have to recruit anyone, effectively.
But on the baseball side, it was clear after about a year and a half or so, that we just weren’t as progressive as other teams were, and just weren’t taking advantage of all the metrics and analytics other teams are using to get better. And so, we were fortunate through a very quick dating process to be convinced that Theo Epstein was the right guys for us, and so I hired him, I guess, about seven or eight years ago, now. And that was transformative for the organization in terms of bringing in the right leadership at the right time to redirect our baseball organization to achieve higher goals.
Hugo Scott-Gall: One of the things that stood out for me was, when you were hiring on the baseball side, the emphasis on character. You weren’t just trying to hire great players, or future great players, you were trying to hire great people. Is that a fair representation?
Tom Ricketts: Well, absolutely. When you’re looking at the guys you want on your team, now we’re going down to the team level, it’s really important that you have good chemistry with your ball players. And people ask me how important it is, and there’s no way to quantitatively measure that. There’s no way to say, okay, well, it’s worth a couple games a year, or something like that, but if you think about, and what I always say to people, think about the coworker you dislike the most, and then imagine that person with you on every plane ride, every hotel, every game, in the shower; you’re together all the time. If you don’t have good chemistry on your team, it can’t help but have an effect on player performance.
And so, that leads to two things you have to think very thoughtfully about, and one is getting the right manager. I think a good manager is someone who identifies the rubs in the clubhouse, and addresses them in a way that keeps players focused on the game, and keeps players away from distracting eachother, if there are distractions in the club house, but you also have to make sure you have to have the right players, themselves.
Before you sign a free agent, you want to make sure they’re good people in the club house; before you draft a player, we do extensive analysis of what kind of young man that player is. Is he a good teammate? Is he a good person? Will he be willing and able to get through all the ups and downs it takes to become a successful major league baseball player? How does he handle the adversity? All those things add up, and so not only do you have to get the right talent in the room, but you have to get the right personalities in there, as well.
Ken McAtamney: Does this cultural aspect also lend itself to an analytic approach? And can you talk a little bit about how you go through that systematic rigor in evaluating character, culture, et cetera?
Tom Ricketts: Well, there are ways that people are trying to analyze character more analytically. I mean, there’s personality tests, and those kind of things, but ultimately, at this point, that still is really just getting to know the player as a person, and that’s pretty much comes down to talking to all the coaches, and teammates, and parents, and the kind of things before you draft a young man.
So, the analytical side there, I don’t think, is fully developed, although there are ways people are trying to get there. So, you have to just overlay that lens across whatever statistical analysis you’re doing on that player.
Ken McAtamney: So, would you say your approach there is differentiated at all, or, perhaps, you just value it more?
Tom Ricketts: That’s a good question. I couldn’t really speak to what a lot of other clubs do. We say it’s a high priority; I’m sure other people say it’s a high priority. Whether or not we are better at it, I couldn’t tell you. I know that the clubhouse we have right now, the core of guys have been together a long time, and they’re all great young men, as well as great players, so we’ve been successful at finding those kind of players. Whether we’re ultimately better than other clubs, that’s hard to say.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Did you spend a lot of time in the early years from taking over, looking at other organizations, either within baseball, across sports, or even outside of sports, thinking, particularly, when those organizations have had some kind of transformation, what can we learn; what can we learn across the whole business?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, absolutely. So, for example, when it was time to look for a new general manager; a new head of our baseball operation. I hired two different quantitative analysis to be done by two different guys, one was a local guy who was Ph.D. from Cal Tech, or something, and he did analysis for us, and I had another guy from the east coast do an analysis to just try to take the success of other teams, and put it into a quantitative framework that would allow me just to understand who was actually doing the best or doing more with less.
If it was a small-market team that was doing very well with a low payroll, I wanted to know that. If it was a large-market team that was doing great drafting the right players, and developing the right players, I wanted to know that. And taking out the individuals, just the organizations. I think that was definitely something where we tried to put a quantitative overlay on that process.
Away from that, there was a lot of qualitative discussion. During the process of looking for a new general manager, I talked to, about, 20 people who I could trust to have a discrete conversation, and ask them a lot of the same questions about what they thought our organization might need and who would be the right person for us. Those were very informative. And thoroughly, just going out and talking to other clubs. I mean, just going and sitting down with the clubs that we looked up to. The Red Sox are a great example of a team that had, not only, transformed their baseball organization from their “curse” to being winners, but also their ballpark. A lot of the things we did at Wrigley were guided by some of the things they did at Fenway.
So, other sports organizations we looked up to, like the Giants, and a few others. I went and talked to them too. But, I think, lastly, just go out and talk to your own people. Really just being in Dominican Republic every year, and going to where we have a big training facility, going to all the minor league clubs a couple times a year, spend time on the road with your own people, and I think that’s probably the best way that I got information in those early years on what things that we could be better at.
Ken McAtamney: In that process, were there one or two really big, surprising, impactful takeaways that you didn’t expect?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, great question. In fact, there really was. Sitting at an airport one day with one of our guys on the player development side, he just said, “Look, it’s kind of a bad time of the year for us.” And I’m like, “Oh, why’s that?” He’s like, “Well, every year, about this time, we get our budget cut because we’ll go out and sign the new player, and the international guys are expecting to spend those dollars, and they get redirected toward the major league club.”
Well, we had studied the Cubs, and we had found out that relative to other teams, we spent the highest percentage of our baseball budget on major league payroll, which meant that we were going for it. We were trying to win every year, and that’s fine. That’s a strategy, and it’s not the wrong strategy, but what it does do, is it makes you deemphasize the future. It takes away from what you’re investing in your future teams.
And it didn’t really hit home to me until I heard it straight from one of our guys, and it was something that is an example of being out, and if you’re not having a beer at a hotel, and that hotel is an airport, if you’re not having a beer in the hotel waiting for a late plane, maybe you just don’t get that perspective.
Ken McAtamney: Right. Great. Going back to the cultural aspect of it, there’s certainly, no matter how much work you do; how much due diligence, there’s a human element here, and things end up differently than what you expect. For better or worse, you do it in a very public domain. So, when things go wrong from a character standpoint; from a culture standpoint, what is the process that the organization puts around that to try to get to the root of it, and then try to make it right?
Tom Ricketts: Well, I give a lot of credit to Theo Epstein and his guys. When we do find something that’s an action a player’s taken, or something a player has said that may not be consistent with the way we feel, or the way our fans feel, we address it head on. You can’t always get an answer that makes everyone happy, but you can convince yourself that you’ve done the right thing. And we’ve had instances of that in the last few years, where a really thorough internal discussion that tried to bring in all the potential factors is really executed before we make a decision, and I think our guys care about that as much as anyone in the league.
And so, when we’ve had these kind of issues in the past, I’m really happy that the way we go about it has been so thorough and thoughtful, so I really give our guys a lot of credit for that.
Hugo Scott-Gall: How important is the manual, The Cubs Way, in just codifying what it means to be a Cub, and how a Cub should behave, and how much input do the players have into that on an ongoing basis? Is it something that’s given to them, and it’s for them to read, interpret, and react to? Or is it something they’re consulted on, and they buy into it, and they take more ownership of it?
Tom Ricketts: Well, so The Cubs Way, for those that don’t know, it’s not a mission statement. It’s a book. I mean, it’s a thick book that talks about how we’re gonna coach and develop young players. And I think, what Theo Epstein did, he did it on the first spring training he was with the organization, he brought all the coaches, and players, and managers together, and they talked about how are we gonna bunt? How are we gonna steal? How are we going to teach certain types of pitches? Because we want to be consistent.
And I think it has, really, two purposes. One, the very practical purpose of trying to train players consistently. The fact is, they go from the A team to the double A team. They go from one hitting coach to another hitting coach, you hope they’re getting consistent messaging between those two coaches, but without a manual, or without guideposts on that, you’re not sure if that’s gonna happen.
So, I think it has a practical part of the player development strategy, is to having a Cubs way, but I also think it has a symbolic effect of saying, hey, we’re one organization, we’re going to work together, try to find best solutions or best answers for how to develop players, and we’re gonna be consistent in how we apply that. And maybe there’s something that’s not in The Cubs Way, per se, in the book, but we do things the Cubs way, which also means, the right way.
Ken McAtamney: Maybe we shift to the business side of things a little bit. As you mentioned earlier, the importance of the business, and the importance of the stadium, and the experience there, I think that tends to be overlooked, perhaps. The team, and the product on the fields is, obviously, the visible part. Can you talk a little bit about, again, back 10 years ago, how you thought about developing the business that is the Cubs?
Tom Ricketts: Well, I mean, the business falls into a couple different categories. I mean, the first thing was to make sure we had the right management team, which like I said, we have, maybe, the best president in baseball. He supplemented his team, they wrote a huge strategic plan on everything we could do better here, and executed against it ever since. So, I think that comes down to really having the right people in the right chairs with good leadership, and from our standpoint; from my standpoint, being involved with the big picture vision on that, and then being supportive of all the execution that has to go behind it.
When it comes to the ballpark, I mean, Wrigley Field was built in 1914 for $250,000.00 in eight weeks. And you can imagine that it could probably use some improvements, and on top of that, for the first 20 or 30 years, I think the Wrigley family took over the team in about 1919 or 1920, they were very proud of the ballpark and put a lot of money into it. It was Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field were the two iconic ballparks in all of baseball for all those years. But after World War II, into the ’50s and ’60s, just wasn’t a lot of investment.
If some of the features of the ballpark deteriorated over time, they got replaced with cheaper, less aesthetically pleasing alternatives. And on top of that, just the core, fundamental structure, the steel, the concrete, the electrical, the plumbing, all that stuff was under invested in for decades.
So, from the ballpark standpoint, I mean, it was, first and foremost, let’s make sure that this is going to be around for the next generation of fans. We want this to be built, and I used to joke, I want this to be the Roman colosseum. I want someone to walk through here in 2000 years, saying, “What the heck did these people do with this building?” Because we want it to be that solid, and we don’t want to have the next generation, whether it’s my family, or whoever in 100 years to have to go through what we just went through. So, that was number one.
Number two was, we have to make it a better fan experience. It’s critical in baseball. In other US sports, NFL is a great TV sport. It’s great on television, maybe the best television sport out there. If you’re an NFL fan, you watch almost any NFL game, your television experience is critical. NBA is a superstar sport. It’s a star sport. Whether your star player plays in Houston, or Oklahoma City, or wherever, you’re watching the stars play the game. Baseball is a local sport. Your baseball team is a member of your family, and how you feel about that member of the family is largely driven by how you feel when you come over here to watch baseball.
So, we needed to have a better fan experience. And that led to some of the developments outside the park, which are family friendly, but it also led to addressing the biggest issues inside of Wrigley, which was, you know, washrooms. People didn’t plan for that 75, 80 years ago. So, we needed to improve that. We did a dramatic amount of increases on those kind of facilities. Points of sale. People don’t want to come to the ballpark and wait in line. That’s another one that we’ve done dramatic things to improve.
But just tiering out a little bit, if someone wants to have a higher-end experience; if you’re a firm that wants to bring in your high-end clients, Wrigley didn’t have that before, so we built in certain clubs that really address the kind of fan that wants to have an all-inclusive ticket, or wants to have just a higher-end experience. And we’ve also addressed the fan experience at the other end of the spectrum too. We’ve built out all the extra facilities in the upper deck and made it a better experience overall.
So, structure first. Secondly it was about fan experience, but thirdly, and maybe what makes me the happiest, make it look nice again. Wrigley Field, when you pulled up, and you drove down Clark Street in November or December five years ago, what should be this beautiful ballpark that we’re so proud of, looked like an old parking garage. Everything that fell off the outside got replaced with chain linked fence. And it just looked terrible. So, we had this talk, and this vision, I want Wrigley Field to be like that place in Europe where you’re walking through the old part of some old city, and, oh, here’s the church, or the bridge, or the palace, and people are just hanging around it because it’s a beautiful place to be; a beautiful, historic place to be. We have to think of that as our goal for Wrigley Field.
And working with historical architects and other people, we restored the outside of the ball park to look like it did in 1935, which was what we determined when it was the most aesthetically pleasing from the outside, so now when you come to Wrigley and look at it, you see how it was meant to be, and we’re glad we could put that back, so all those things add up, and I’m really proud of all of our hard work that we put into the ballpark.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Sure. On a day like today, it looks fantastic. Leaning forward a bit, when you think about the digital word, and the relationship you can have with current fans and future fans, and expanding the fanbase; the customer base, how do you think about that, whether that’s doing more with content, which could be Cubs TV, whether it’s social media, how do you think about that, building a deeper, more intimate relationship with the client base?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, I could go on about that question for a long time. It’s a very important thing to us. I mean, the fact is that the way people consume their information, and consume their media is changing. Maybe 25 years ago if you just got good newspaper articles about yourself, that was probably gonna be enough, but that’s not the way people consume their media as much as it used to be. You have to be in control of your story and your image directly. It’s complicated a little bit by the fact that the league is also involved with managing your image, and there’s boundaries on what you can and can’t do.
But I think our guys have done a great job of getting out ahead of it. Our new YouTube channel has, I think, 100,000 some subscribers, which that’s a great place for us to tell our story directly, and you can get a backstage pass to seeing how a player gets ready for a game or see the player in the off season, see how they live. And those are kind of things that fans want. They want more engagement. They want more context. I think that’s a great development for us. Relatedly, part of the reason that we’re excited about launching our own network; or own channel is that we can get to our fans directly that way, also.
So, as Marquee Sports Network comes online next year, you’ll see a lot more information about the things that fans care about, which is the players. And I think that’s something that’ll help us. We encourage our players; we help them do what they want to do on social media. We trust our players. They’re all very respectful and thoughtful young men, and in the baseball culture, it’s not like other sports where it’s okay to bring attention to yourself. Typically, a baseball player doesn’t try to raise his profile above the profile of his teammates, which is inconsistent with social media.
And so, what we try to do is encourage guys to be a little more active, and some of them – these guys are funny. They have great personalities. They’re very busy, so maybe they don’t have time to sit down and think about what they’re going to put on Instagram that night, or whatever, so we try to help them a little bit; the league tries to help them a little bit, but we encourage them, and that’s the best way, really, to get to your fans. A message from a player back to a fan is powerful and meaningful to the fan. So, those are the three ways we look at it. And there’s other little ways, of course, in the park. We do a lot too, so…
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, if you could time travel back to 2009, what would you say to yourself then? What would you say, you’re going to find this harder than you think? What lessons would you want to share with yourself back in 2009?
Tom Ricketts: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think that when I look back at 2009, the steepest learning curve I had was all about local politics. I mean, there’s only four ballparks in baseball that are privately financed, and we’re one of them. One would assume that putting up a videoboard on a ballpark that you pay for it yourself, and of course, we pay an incredible amount of local taxes, you think that would just be an easy thing to do, but in Chicago, nothing’s easy to do.
And so, there was a very, very steep learning curve there, which we had a lot of delays. The city slowed us down in a bunch of different ways. But ultimately, I think we used that time well to make sure that the planning for Wrigley, once we got the project rolling, was ready to go. And we’re happy that we used that time wisely to make sure that the money we did put into the ballpark was put in effectively. So, I think my number one learning curve was local politics.
On the baseball side, I don’t know what else. Maybe the first draft? I didn’t understand very early on that we were really not spending a lot on our future. Maybe I would have suggested to our baseball guys that we set aside a little more of our resources for the future, as opposed to the present, but I think those are two of the things, maybe, I would have done differently, or I see differently as I sit here today.
Ken McAtamney: So, this’d be a good time to transition into the analytics of baseball. But a good segue, perhaps, before we get into the analytics of the sport itself, would be the analytics around the business, and your engagement with your client base and the fans, and where that is today, and how that is likely to progress into the future.
Tom Ricketts: I think that when it comes to analytics in baseball, it’s really changed everything. Basically, the box score was invented in 1859, and it was, basically, the main way of transmitting information about a baseball game; still is today. And you got to the ’60s, a little bit of technology was going in; the people were starting to follow stats a little more carefully. ’70s had a little bit more going on. And then, transformative was Bill James, and what he started to do.
And Bill James, for those that don’t know the history was literally a night watchman at a pork and beans factory in Kansas who just sat down and started looking at numbers in baseball in a different way, and would ask questions that would do against the grain of the way that baseball, just, saw things, and then try to come up with quantitative answers that would be different than just the basic baseball thinking. And that was the beginning, I think, of people just looking at the raw numbers more thoughtfully.
And of course, that led over the years to the development of a bunch of different – which stats are more important, do RBIs really matter; all this other stuff, both in-game situations, like should we bunt or not, or analyzing player results like RBIs and that kind of thing. And that led up to the Moneyball era, if you would. If you all like the young guys, young general managers looking at stats in a way that gave them a little bit of an edge in player understanding.
So, and that’s where it was in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and for a while. But then, the next level came. And that came with technology. So, now as we’re able to look at every single event at every single game from multiple perspectives, not just the stat on what happened, was that a hit; was that not a hit, but multiple sets of cameras on different systems on every ballpark studying every single part of that play.
You’ve gotten to a point, now, where what’s happening is teams are driving to take all the randomness, and noise, and variables out of the performance. So, pitch data, that’s interesting. What was his ERA? In college, he had a 2.9 ERA. But pitch performance, where the ball actually goes, that’s the next level.
When we did trades a few years ago, a couple of great examples of looking to the next level on stats was with Scott Feldman, who we traded for, we signed him as a free agent. He was a Ranger, he had about a 5.09 ERA, and I asked our baseball guys why they thought he would be value added for us, and they said, “Well, he actually, if you look at his other stats, his fielding, independent pitching, and a few other things, he is actually a lot better than that.” And he was. And so, he got here, he got off to a great start. We were not going to be winning our division that year, so we looked to trade him.
So, then we traded him to the Baltimore Orioles, and one of the players there was Jake Arrieta. Jake Arrieta is at a similar situation, in a sense, that when you looked at his outcomes, when you looked at, not just his wins, but his ERA and other things, he looked like in the bottom quartile pitchers in baseball. But when you looked at his actual pitches, they were much better. So, there was a discrepancy between what the quality of his pitched were, his pitch data, and the performance of his pitches, and that gave our team the confidence that maybe if we could bring him into our organization, they’ll be an opportunity for him to work out whatever issues he has and get better.
And so, everyone is looking now beyond just what the stats say to what the actual event happened. You talk about exit velocities off bats, or launch angles, those are very popular things because now we can measure so much. So, the real question, now, comes, all right, so now we have 12 full-time technologists here, the real question comes down to, can we take all this information and make it practical?
Ken McAtamney: Right. As you move from the game tactics, I guess, which is what we’re talking about here, the play on the field to, perhaps, the training of the younger people in the organization, or even the drafting and the recruiting, are you able to apply that same technology at that level, or is it not quite there yet?
Tom Ricketts: Some of it, yeah. It depends. A lot of its camera based. There’s cameras that we have that take 300 frames per second; cameras that we have that takes 1000 frames per second. The quality of those cameras won’t be in every ballpark. We do a lot of video, obviously, of the people that we’re looking at to bring in the organization. But you can’t quite get all the same data that you can out of a player that’s in your organization already. But you do the best you can.
Ken McAtamney: And how level is the playing field now? As you said, the Moneyball era is actually now been fairly well exploited, I would imagine. You’ve talked about some of the leading-edge things, but my guess is the gap between the leading edge and the lagging edge is probably narrowing across all of this through time. Is that accurate?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I think that as different organizations hire from each other, you end up with ideas moving around the league fairly quickly. Everyone is committed to look for that next thing, whatever that might be. What might have been a discrepancy or an arbitrage at one point, it’s shrunk.
Now, that doesn’t mean we still don’t put money behind it. We still are working very hard. There are some organizations that seem to really outperform in some of these newer models and newer strategies, so people are always looking for what’s next, but I would agree that the difference between the top team and the bottom team has shrunk dramatically. There’s just not as much edge as there might have been.
Ken McAtamney: So, it leads one to wonder that, potentially, there’s a reversal of the impact of data in technology in analytics. This combination of art and science, which is what we’re talking about here, generally, and we talk about that in our industry, as well, does it reach a point, then, where it’s just table stakes, and everyone does that. And then the art, actually, has increasing emphasis? You go back to the future?
Tom Ricketts: Our baseball guys will tell you that they look at it as two lenses on the same telescope. You look at both what you can see on paper and what you can see in person, in a sense. Because no matter how much data you collect, and no matter how much you can isolate the event you’re trying to understand, there’s still going to be context that can’t be captured with a stat.
You talk about art and science and investigate, I mean, you could look at any one investment and see its performance over time, but it doesn’t give you the context of whether that was a good investment for any one individual because that’s relative to other things that they may have owned, or their time horizons, or their objectives. Anyway, so I think that there’s always going to be room for someone who uses some judgment to add some context to the statistical analysis, and that’s just because of the human nature of what we do.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And how important is momentum? You can look at a player over his career, or over the last two or three years and come up with data around it, but how important is its recent performance; the momentum? He may well be not performing at the level suggested by the average of the last three years, four years. How much do you read into, is he hot right now?
Tom Ricketts: Well, you hope you don’t because if you believe in your numbers, than if someone is having a bad week or two, they’ll be some mean reversion at some point, and they’ll end up with the kind of results over the course of enough observations that they’ll come back and perform better. I think it’s probably more psychological for players than anything else. There’s a lot of studies that show that what you did in your last attempt doesn’t have a lot of impact on what you do on your next attempt. We hope our guys don’t let a few bad days effect how they approach their performance. There’s a mental aspect to that.
I think one of the things that we do, and I’m sure other teams do also is, we spend a lot of time on mental skills, as we call it. Getting players in to talk to. Some are former players, some are just trained psychologist, to get them to not worry about the exogenous factors that shouldn’t affect their next at bat. Get them to stay in the moment, get them to think about what they’re trying to accomplish at the plate the next time they get up, and not worry about what happened yesterday, or last week, or if they had an error in the third inning. So, we try to make it so that momentum doesn’t hurt a player.
Now, if a guy is feeling good because he’s had a bunch of hits and he’s really confident, you can let that one run, but I think, ultimately, it comes down to training players to not let past results effect their current performance.
Ken McAtamney: One of the takeaways from Moneyball was this focus on the physical attributes of an athlete, and there might be some things that don’t fit the mold, if you will, of what an athlete should look like. Where is the analytics around that today, in terms of, you’re looking at genetic composition, and eyesight; reflexes, are there a lot of analytics around that, and is that a focus for your organization?
Tom Ricketts: Yeah. And obviously, the movie Moneyball makes a lot of fun of that, taking about how the kid, he looks good, so we should draft him. I don’t think baseball decisions are made by how a player looks anymore. I really don’t. I mean, performance is performance. We can measure performance so many different ways now. Now, like you talk about eyesight, there’s a high correlation between guys with great eyesight and good hitters. So, maybe you want to know that before you draft a player.
But generally, I think people, particularly, with all the data we have now, and like I said, not just the statistics, but all the video that you can break down on a player, it really comes down to the performance of the player as opposed to how they look.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And so, back to Ken’s question around, are we reaching saturation, when you think about what you have data on, and what you don’t have data on, is there anything really obvious where you think, I’d just love to have data on that, but I haven’t got it yet? Are you measuring everything that can be counted is being counted?
Tom Ricketts: I’m confident that almost everything is being measured and recorded somewhere. I’m sure that it can be analyzed better. And so, where is it going next with baseball, in a sense. Your injuries; injury prevention; recovery times; looking at the way, particularly pitchers, throw the ball, can you predict someone’s who gonna likely have arm trouble, or elbow trouble, or shoulder trouble, whatever? Teams are accumulating a lot of data on that. People are looking at, at least in certain situations, wearables. That’s something that’s part of the future, and other sports are doing it too.
You put a sleeve on a guy to measure the force he’s putting on his arm, or you put a harness on a guy to measure the force he’s putting on his swing. We look at that data. Force plates; guy’s standing on a platform when they swing, they can tell you where his weight is when he’s swinging, that kind of stuff. I think that right now, we’re probably at a situation where we’re collecting more data than we’re actually understanding how to use, and so, maybe, the next edge, or the next breakthrough just comes from someone who’s taking all this information and finding the little pieces that are useful for the club.
Now, it also changes the way we do day-to-day things. So, you’ve got a huge amount of information coming into our systems from multiple databases, and that pitching and hitting coaches have to sit down every day, and try to take all that data and put in into a format that can help that player on that day.
So, we’ve got an incredible amount of effort that goes into boiling all the data into more simpler output, and I think the job of a pitching coach, or a hitting coach, or a catching coordinator has gotten harder because they have so much more to work with then they would have 20 years ago. So, not only are people looking in the big, big picture, of how to find the next place for edge with all the data we’re collecting, it’s also a challenge in the small picture on day to day basis.
Ken McAtamney: A slight shift here, which is around the decision making process that you have as an executive, and I think what’s unique about being a sports executive, is you’re in the public domain, very much, yet the stakes are high, you need to take risks, whether it’s signing a big free agent, making a big trade, can you talk a little bit about the process behind that, and how much there is, obviously, you’re going to analyze that as much as you can, but when it comes down to taking a large risk, can you talk a little bit about the process that you and your team have behind that?
Tom Ricketts: Well, there’s different types of risk. If you’re talking about what happens on the field, and who to sign, it really goes back to the baseball guys. I think one of the things that’s great about our baseball organization is that we show them all the resources we can give them.
And effectively, in a baseball team, what happens is you generate all the revenue you can, you pay all the fixed expenses of opening the ballpark, all your other costs, and you pretty much give all the rest of the money to the baseball guys to spend. So, they know what resources they’re going to have financially. They should know what resources they have from a player standpoint, in the minor leagues coming up, or they should know how a player’s going to perform, or how to expect a player to perform in the future.
So, I mean, they have to make those decisions. You are involved in the decisions, I talk to the guys, I get a little bit of time on everything that they do, but ultimately, it has to be the decision of the baseball organization what they want to do, and if an owner gets too involved, you’re, first of all, probably making worse decisions, but secondly, you’re breaking that level of accountability. If you’re gonna hire someone and tell them that you’re gonna be judged on performance, and them you get involved with how they achieve that performance, then who’s really responsible for the results?
Fortunately, like I said, we have really smart guys. They do very thorough work on every decision they make. It makes my job and Crane’s job a lot easier knowing that we have such, really, just people putting great thought into all their decisions, and when they come to recommend something, it is generally worth just going ahead and supporting it. We’re not 100%. Every team makes decisions that in retrospect aren’t the ones they would have made, but you have to place your bets somewhere, and I think our guys are as good at doing that as anyone.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Tom, I think the question I want to ask you the most is, what does it feel like to win the World Series, but before we get there, how did you feel during the infamous 17-minute rain delay in game seven?
Tom Ricketts: It’s kind of funny. I think it was couple a days after the World Series, I had this terrible nightmare that we had lost the World Series. And I was sitting at breakfast with my wife, and I’m like, “Ahh, I woke up in the middle of the night sweating that we lost the World Series.” And she’s like, “Oh, my god. You have post-playoff stress disorder.” And it was like that. It was very stressful. The way that game unfolded, getting off to a lead, seemingly in control, and then things getting away from us there for a while, those 17 minutes, my thoughts were consumed with, really, two things.
One, I need to go make sure all the family was good. I was hosting all my in-laws and everybody, so I had to check on everybody. But really, the thing that I thought about the most from the baseball perspective was, it’s so hard to get to that moment. You’ve got 30 teams; you have to have a great season; you have to have a great post season; you have to stay healthy; you have to get lucky to be in the situation we were in to win in game seven, and to see it get away, and should we lose that game, it would be one of the longest off seasons on the history of mankind.
And I just didn’t want to see that get away for the sake of our players, for the sake of our manager, for the sake of our baseball organization, and for the sake of our fans. To see that one get away from us would have been really, really difficult. And so, 17 minutes felt like 17 years, I think, pretty much for me. So…
Hugo Scott-Gall: You ended up with 5 million fans on the streets around here. That must have felt amazing.
Tom Ricketts: Yeah, that’s one of those things. You’re going down in your open-top bus. We leave from the ballpark here, and just every way along the route, all the way from Wrigley, all the way to Grant Park on the southside of the loop, streets were packed, and people just cheering, and people happy. We drove by, there was a little kid sitting on his parent’s shoulders with a poster that said, “We did it, Grandpa.” And it just reminds you, like I said earlier, the baseball team’s part of your family.
And for all these people to give all this love for all these years, and not get payed back, it was just amazing to be able to be even a small part of giving them that payback, and then having that rapturous celebration with millions of people, which people have said is the largest gathering of people in the history of the Western hemisphere, and, certainly, the happiest gathering of people in the history of mankind. So, it was just incredible, and all I could think as we were going, particularly down Michigan Avenue is, wow, who gets to do this? What an incredibly lucky, blessed person I am to be in a situation where I can be part of something this special.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Absolutely. Tom, thank you very much for giving us so much time. That was fantastic. We really appreciate it. Thank you again.
Tom Ricketts: Oh, I’m happy to talk, and good to see you guys, and, just, hopefully you can stick around for the game.
Ken McAtamney: That would be great. And we at William Blair extend our thanks very much.
Tom Ricketts: You’re welcome.
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Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner
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