Hits on the Diamond

As advanced statistical analysis takes over baseball, Tufts-bred data crunchers are storming the big leagues
photo illustration of baseball players in action
“If you really want to make this work, you’re probably going to have to make some sacrifices along the way,” said Peter Bendix. “If you love it, these are worthwhile sacrifices.” Illustration: Matt Herring
June 1, 2017

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Alex Merberg sat 25 rows behind home plate last November, desperate for a miracle. It was late in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, and Merberg, A15, a baseball operations assistant with the Cleveland Indians, rose as the Indians outfielder Rajai Davis faced Aroldis Chapman, the Chicago Cubs closer who is perhaps the most overpowering pitcher in baseball history.

The Indians had once held a commanding lead in the series, poised, it seemed, to win their first championship in nearly 70 years. But after losing two straight games, they were now down to their final four outs and facing elimination in their home park. With the fans roaring, storm clouds threatening, and the NBA star LeBron James exhorting his hometown Indians from a luxury box, Merberg recalled a mid-summer game in which Chapman had blown away Davis on three pitches. Davis, too, appeared to remember that encounter. As he awaited the pitch, he slid his hands a few inches up the bat, trying to shorten his swing and give himself a chance to connect with Chapman’s blazing fastball.

Davis fouled off four pitches before lining a 98-mph fastball into the left field seats and unleashing bedlam. His home run tied the game, and Cleveland’s Progressive Field erupted. Merberg high-fived Victor Wang, the director of pro scouting for the Indians. “Just sheer euphoria,” said Merberg, who does everything for the Indians from statistical analysis to helping develop minor league talent. “We were giddy.” Alas, their joy didn’t last. Following a seventeen-minute rain delay, the Indians ended up losing the game, and the World Series, in extra innings. Still, for Merberg, in his first full year with the team, it hinted at baseball’s ultimate high.

For another Jumbo in the ballpark, however, no hint was required. Across the diamond and halfway to the stars, in a section of upper-deck seats reserved for the more than 200 Cubs staffers in attendance, was Jeremy Greenhouse, A11. A statistical analyst who personally crunched numbers for Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Greenhouse had experienced first the gut punch of the Davis home run, and then the jubilation of the Cubs winning their first championship in 108 years. Greenhouse hugged his coworkers Shane Farrell and Jeff Greenberg before making his way to the victorious clubhouse, where he was greeted by champagne, and the noted actor and Cubs fan Bill Murray.

For the Cubs, the moment marked the end of a century of futility. For Tufts, the World Series represented another step forward in baseball’s statistical revolution. Gone are the days when teams acquired players based solely on the instincts of grizzled scouts. An influx of analysts, coders and game theorists, utilizing numbers you won’t find on the back of a baseball card, has changed the game. Everything these days is worth quantifying—from the angle at which a ball leaves the bat to the speed with which an outfielder races to catch it—and every front office in the game is expanding its analytics department in an attempt to get, or stay, ahead in the game’s statistical arms race.

Moving into the Front Office

Which brings us to Tufts. For years, the Jumbos watched from the sidelines while peers like Amherst, Haverford and Colby supplied brainpower to teams across Major League Baseball. At last, Tufts is catching up. In fact, you’ll now find Jumbos in front offices throughout the big leagues.

Mike DeBartolo, A06, for instance, is the director of baseball operations with the Washington Nationals. Then there’s Peter Bendix, A08, the director of baseball development with the Tampa Bay Rays. Matt McGrath, A11, works in player development with the Dodgers. Ethan Bein, A17, hadn’t even graduated when he landed a job as an analyst with the Brewers. Greenhouse, meanwhile, serves as the Cubs’ assistant director of research and development. And more are on the way.

“It’s nice to see Tufts have more of a presence,” DeBartolo told me recently. “It’s obviously a great school, but it has also put a lot of emphasis on fostering that creativity and interest in baseball on the part of all these students, where it’s a passion.”

In the decade since Jeremy Greenhouse arrived in Medford, the explosion of sabermetrics—the study of baseball statistics—has made it possible for someone who never touched a bat or ball to forge a career in a front office, as the executive suites of the Major League teams are known. The competition for such jobs, however, is vicious. That’s why Tufts offers classes that specialize in advanced baseball stats.

Boston University professor Andy Andres, for instance, began teaching a course on sabermetrics (the word is derived from SABR, or the Society for American Baseball Research) at Tufts in 2004, and has since expanded to an online offering taken by upward of 13,000 students a year. Bendix, meanwhile, founded the Baseball Analysis at Tufts (BAT) program over a decade ago.

During Greenhouse’s freshman year, he took the Andres course, as well as an Ex-College class on the business of baseball that Bendix, then an undergrad himself, was teaching. He also took a course that former provost Sol Gittleman taught on baseball and American history. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as one course on baseball,” Greenhouse said, “let alone three.”

Of course, given the cutthroat nature of competition in the big leagues, it’s not enough to simply foster an interest in analysis and provide the tools to conduct it. To catch the attention of a team requires a demonstrated ability to tap unmined areas of research. Ethan Bein, for instance, was able to land his job with the Brewers in part by impressing the club with his examination of the new field of Statcast data, particularly batted-ball-exit velocities and how they help discern how luck has affected a player’s performance.

“It’s not necessarily that my research was amazing, but I had a good start,” Bein told me. “I definitely spent time in interviews talking about ways to improve my research, understanding the limitations of it.”

For Alex Merberg, landing a job took both a sophisticated grasp of analytics and a bit of good fortune. After the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he ended up sitting next to Indians stats guru Keith Woolner at dinner. The two hit it off, and Merberg shared some of his research on how teams determine a player’s worth in free agency, and on whether defense is undervalued. “I think if I had been even four seats over, it would have been a lot more challenging,” Merberg told me.

Breaking in Is Hard to Do

How hard is it to stand out the way Bein and Merberg did? Speaking in a Barnum lecture hall packed with more than 30 students one night last winter, the Red Sox analyst Greg Rybarczyk—inventor of ESPN’s popular home run tracker—starkly disclosed what it takes. “Find something useful and unique about baseball, useful to a major league team that somehow hasn’t been done yet, and become the premier expert on that aspect of information,” he said.

It used to be that the clearest path to running a baseball team was to have played for one, preferably in the big leagues, but at the very least in the minors. Front offices have traditionally overflowed with ex-players. After all, how could someone evaluate a young player’s ability to hit a 90-mph fastball if he had never hit one himself?

Two events altered this approach seismically in the early 2000s. First, the Red Sox made a pair of decisions that radically changed the team, and baseball as a whole. In 2002, the Red Sox made 28-year-old Theo Epstein the youngest general manager in baseball history, putting him in charge of all player-acquisition decisions.

Around the same time, the team also hired the legendary baseball statistician Bill James, whose yearly editions of the Baseball Abstract had become required reading for a generation of statistically inclined fans in the 1980s. These two agents of new-school thinking quickly set about changing the way the Red Sox played baseball. In just one striking example, the Red Sox essentially stopped bunting because research from James conclusively demonstrated that the cost of intentionally sacrificing an out as a means of advancing a runner one base far outweighed the reward.

Then, in 2003, the author Michael Lewis published Moneyball, which detailed how the small-market Oakland A’s were using advanced data analysis to gain a competitive advantage over bigger, richer teams. “Moneyball” quickly became shorthand for a team-building approach that de-emphasized time-honored baseball statistics—including batting average, runs batted in, and a pitcher’s wins total—in favor of new-school metrics such as on-base percentage, defense-independent pitching and other, more esoteric formulations.

So how did sabermetrics translate to actual team performance on the diamond? In Epstein’s first year running the team, the star-crossed Boston Red Sox nearly reached the World Series. A year later, in 2004, they at last won a championship, ending 86 years of misery in New England and allowing countless past generations to finally rest in peace. (As an encore, it was Epstein who built the Cubs team that won it all last year.)

That success changed everything, not just on the field, but also at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. Rather than conquer Wall Street, attain prominent legal clerkships or win research fellowships, many elite students suddenly had a new goal: become the next Theo.

Mike DeBartolo, for instance, won awards at Tufts for research into how religious pluralism increases civic engagement. He spent five years at Cambridge Associates, an investment consulting firm, and then enrolled at Columbia Business School.

It was only then, while listening to cocktail party conversation, that he realized he cared more about baseball than hedge funds. “These are people who’d be talking about debt covenants at parties,” he said. “They’d be talking about the coverage ratio on some kind of asset they’d found, going through 300-page 10-K reports on an industrial company. These are people I really liked and respected, but they were literally talking about these things at parties, and that’s not what my passion is.”

On his own time, DeBartolo was researching strategies that baseball teams could employ to spend their money most efficiently in the draft. The Nationals were impressed enough to offer the bright young star, who was earning an M.B.A. at one of the world’s top business schools, a low-paying internship. “I’m 27 or 28, handing out waters to scouts at games, picking up people at airports, picking up food,” he said. “I loved it.”

An Effective Pitch

With each passing year, baseball’s collective IQ continues to swell. The Red Sox, for instance, currently employ a nuclear physicist as a systems developer. (Team president Mike Gordon is also a Tufts grad.) But breaking in, it turns out, is only the first step. Advancing once you’ve been hired presents an entirely new set of challenges.

In 2008 Peter Bendix, then a Tufts undergrad, managed to secure a job interview with the Tampa Bay Rays executive Chaim Bloom at baseball’s annual winter meetings. During the interview, Bendix presented Bloom with a New York Times story about a research paper he’d co-authored that attempted to measure precisely how big an effect the legendary Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone had on the performance of his pitchers (conclusion: really big). “I’ve already seen this,” Bloom said. Foot in the door! Except now the real work started.

Bendix landed an internship in Tampa’s fledgling research department in 2009. He told me that perhaps just half of interns wind up earning full-time employment. Those that stick do everything, and it’s not glamorous. “I did a lot of things that first year,” he said. “I was the guy in the draft room who pulled magnets off the board and helped organize all the folders. I went on so many pizza runs. The benefit was, given that it was a small department, I was able to have my hands in a lot of things.”

He learned to differentiate a slider from a curveball from a changeup by sitting behind home plate with a radar gun and punching the pitch type and velocity into a computer for fans to see on the ballpark scoreboard, which is much, much harder than it sounds. “When I came in as green as can be in 2009, I couldn’t really tell them apart,” he admitted.

He tried to have a hand in everything, an essential approach to making himself valuable. So he shadowed the Rays’ pro scouting director, Matt Arnold, at low-level minor league games and learned how to evaluate players. He taught himself SQL in order to build databases that categorized the new StatCast numbers. He became a liaison between the R&D and coaching sides of the team, and helped the team’s manager, Kevin Cash, exploit statistical findings. “I’m kind of a translator,” he told me.

Merberg, meanwhile, has parlayed a unique skill set—he played a year of college baseball while majoring in economics—into a role in player development, helping the Indians’ minor leaguers unlock their potential. One such player, an unheralded pitcher named Cody Anderson, was struggling to throw with pinpoint control. The strength coaches wanted him to bulk up. The pitching coaches wanted him to improve his delivery.

“We learned the thing holding him back was hip mobility, and flexibility in general,” Merberg said. “He wasn’t able to get to certain spots in his mechanics. It took a group effort to holistically examine the player and identify the main area of weakness that we could grow in.” Anderson overcame long odds to reach the big leagues as a member of the Indians bullpen. Merberg learned a lesson in the importance of player development.

Of course, providing value to a big league team comes in many forms. Greenhouse, the Cubs statistical analyst, is the son of a longtime New York Times labor reporter and the brother of the managing editor of the New Yorker. He arrived at Tufts in 2007 assuming he’d become a sportswriter. He majored in English, and took stats classes solely for the purposes of conducting baseball analysis. “I did not get good grades in them,” he told me.

But his research into obscure subjects such as how much ground outfielders cover, and how well players run the bases—all of it modeled with cutting-edge FIELDf/x data—earned him, at age 20, a speaker’s slot at the prestigious SportVision PITCHf/x Summit in San Francisco. Though Greenhouse is reluctant to discuss his exact role with the Cubs, he is generally considered the right-hand man of Joe Maddon, the team’s statistically inclined manager.

Greenhouse has researched such diverse topics as whether the pitcher should bat eighth in National League lineups instead of the typical ninth, and whether it’s wise for a team to carry 16 non-pitchers for a one-game playoff. (Apparently not, as the Cubs went with 15 in 2015.)

As Greenhouse and his fellow Tufts graduates succeed in their respective corners of the game, the school’s reputation continues to grow. Which is not to say that sticking with baseball is easy. The attrition rate is high. “It’s not necessarily glamorous,” Bendix said. “It’s not necessarily the best that you can do if your goal is to make a lot of money, or if your goal is not to live in St. Petersburg, Florida, or whatever it might be. If you really want to make this work, you’re probably going to have to make some sacrifices along the way. If you love it, these are worthwhile sacrifices.”

More and more Jumbos are welcoming the opportunity to sacrifice for their love of baseball. Matt Yaspan, A16, recently interned with the Yankees, and his classmate Morris Greenberg did the same with the Nationals. “It was part of our intention to have our own networks—to have a Tufts brand, just like Amherst has,” Yaspan said. “It only helps us to have people we know getting these jobs and doing good work.” Somewhere out there, one of them, or someone they inspire, may even become the first Tufts-educated general manager.

John Tomase, A95, is an online sports columnist and on-air personality for Boston sports radio station WEEI. He will always believe his roommate, Zach Soolman, A95, could’ve been Theo.

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