The Cubs built the best team in baseball by scouting for soft skills

Theo Epstein embraces soft skills
Theo Epstein embraces soft skills
Image: AP/Gene Puskar
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A memorable scene in the movie Moneyball delights in making fun of old-school baseball scouts who talk about a player’s “character” or “make-up.” Searching for insights into personality, the scouts look for clues such as the attractiveness of a player’s girlfriend, which might offer tips about his confidence.

In the book the movie is based on, author Michael Lewis and his subject, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, scoffed at the idea that anything other than results should matter in player evaluation.  The A’s were relentlessly analytic, and any player attribute that couldn’t be measured had little value. That approach gave the tight-wad A’s a market advantage which they exploited.

The gospel of Moneyball spread throughout baseball during the last decade, and now virtually every team crunches player data to find a statistical edge. Thus the Chicago Cubs have pivoted again, and built the best team in baseball by screening for those easily mocked qualities like character and personality.

In an interview with the New York Times, team president Theo Epstein said he specifically wants to know how players handle failure. Even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and the most successful teams may lose 60 games a year. Epstein told the Times:

In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?

Unlike the grizzled scouts of Moneyball, Epstein doesn’t rely on vague impressions. Investigations into character has become systematized. For players the Cubs may want, Epstein asks his scouts to produce three detailed examples of how players faced adversity on the field, and three examples off the field.

Baseball teams aren’t alone in valuing soft skills. Companies that once focused on a job applicant’s pedigree, GPA or technical skills realize they need to sort for a much wider range of behaviors. Google once used math problems and brain teasers to identify and screen candidates; former HR head Lazlo Bock later conceded those exercises were “a complete waste of time.” More important than IQ, grades or coding skills, Bock says, are learning ability and leadership.

PwC, the accounting and consulting firm, similarly wants new hires to have not just technical skills but global acumen, which it describes as “a mindset of curiosity and openness, along with recognition that we all have potential blind spots.” Comfort with nuance and ambiguity is one reason humanities majors should apply to business schools, said Dee Leopold, former head of admissions at Harvard Business School.

Built to handle adversity, the Cubs faced little this year on their way to a Major League baseball-best 103 wins. If they break their century-long losing streak and win their first World Series since 1908, it may usher in a new soft skills revolution in baseball.

It might also give further weight to the case that firms need to consider a wide range of attributes when hiring.