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Theo Epstein says Cubs are a lot more than ‘some geeky stat team’

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is a darling of the analytics crowd, but what was he talking about Monday? Heart.

“It starts within,’’ the Cubs’ new second baseman said. “It starts in the heart and works itself out in the skill, in the action on the field.’’

Likewise, the metrics people have thrown themselves at Cubs manager Joe Maddon, but what was he talking about Monday? Team chemistry.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to get a bunch of guys in a room and they’re going to win and then we’re going to have chemistry,’ ” he said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe (chemistry) can be intentionally created or done.’’

If Theo Epstein lived in a city populated solely by stats enthusiasts, he’d never have to buy his own drink. But the Cubs president of baseball operations bristles at the idea that the franchise’s recent success is due to some combination of algorithm and artificial intelligence.

“As an organization, if you had to classify where our advantages are these days, if we have any relative to the other teams, I think it’s more on the humanist side than it is on the analytical side,’’ he said. “Every organization is doing analytics now. Maybe there’s a few breakthroughs here and there still to come, but everyone is doing the same stuff.

“I think one of the things that we do well that gives us a bit of an edge relative to some organizations is we understand the game is played by human beings, and we really encourage guys to be themselves and let their true talent come out.

“It’s ironic because I think we are probably painted with a brush as if we’re some geeky stat team. That’s fine, too. There’s a lot of great work that our guys do in that area. But there’s no doubt there is a really welcoming environment. It’s a humanistic approach to player development, to team building, to showing up for work every day.’’

There’s a certain self-help-book feel to all this talk of culture and team building, and a lot of it comes from Maddon. But Epstein says that whatever comes out of Maddon’s mouth is connected to his heart, that beating organ not beholden to numbers or equations.

“He’s the real leader of what we’re doing here, the culture part I’m talking about, where we let guys be themselves, allow young players to feel comfortable and adjust quickly,’’ he said. “I don’t think suits can really pull that off throwing out ideas from the front office. That’s a hard thing to pull off in the clubhouse and on the field. Joe coming in really was that last piece of the puzzle for our culture.’’

In that culture, there is no dress code. In that culture, against what most people would consider reason, the club has held tight to catcher David Ross, who batted .176 last season. Maddon believes Ross is so good for team unity that he doesn’t care how bad he is at the plate. Ross’ teammates rave about his ability to connect with different personalities. He’s flesh and blood, just like Jake Arrieta is, just like Kris Bryant is.

Those very human players helped the Cubs win 97 regular-season games last season and advance to the National League Championship Series. But it’s worth noting that the Cubs finished behind the Cardinals and the Pirates in the NL Central last season. And Epstein very much wants to note it.

“We try to walk around here and remind ourselves that we are a defending third-place team,’’ he said. “We’re at an interesting juncture because it’s obvious the opportunity that lies before us and how much talent and how much character there is in our clubhouse. But we haven’t accomplished anything yet – truly. It’s not just a line. We haven’t. We have to go out and do it. We have to come together. We have to overcome the adversity. We’re excited about it.’’

If anybody needs a reminder about not getting overconfident, it would be those Cubs fans who think a World Series title in the near future is preordained. Somewhere along the way, tired, hunched-over shuffles have given way to struts. It’s an amazing phenomenon considering the Cubs haven’t won a championship since 1908.

“I understand the tendency of folks to get ahead of themselves a little bit,’’ Epstein said. “It is a bit of a boomerang effect, where you’ve been on the other side for so long that you can’t find that happy middle ground of cautious optimism or understanding all the things that we hope go right but could go wrong. I understand that.

“But the 25 players in the clubhouse and the greater organization, they’re pretty immune to that. They’re not going to get wrapped up in any overly optimistic thinking or complacency. There really is a great vibe – good people brought together for a noble cause feeling connected with each other and ready to go work for it. What more could you ask for this time of year?’’

Well, now that you’re asking: More sweat, blood and tears. Fewer stats.

“It’s ironic that we’re painted as robots,’’ Epstein said. “The reality is, if we succeed, it will be because we’ve embraced the most important people in the organization — the players — as human beings.’’