Baseball's new execs are Ivy Leaguers

Mets General Manger Sandy Alderson poses for a

Mets General Manger Sandy Alderson poses for a photo at Citi Field. (May 31, 2013) (Credit: Mike Stobe)

David Stearns was raised a Mets fan in Manhattan, majored in political science at Harvard and now, at age 27, is two months into his rookie season as an assistant general manager for the Astros.

Adam Fisher, who once hired Stearns to be a Mets front-office intern, graduated in 2001 from Harvard with a degree in American history, wrote his senior thesis on Jackie Robinson and currently is the manager of baseball operations in Flushing.

Paul DePodesta, Harvard class of 1995 and former GM of the Dodgers, works alongside Fisher as the Mets' vice president of player development and scouting.

Sandy Alderson, his boss, is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is considered the pioneer of a still-evolving movement that has made Major League Baseball as much a landing spot for the nation's best and brightest as Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

Statistical-driven analysis not only has forever changed the way the game and the players are evaluated, it has transformed the front offices. The desks with the field views are populated more and more by Ivy League types with degrees that range from economics to psychology, and every year brings another fresh crop shunning medical school or MBAs in the hope of making fantasy baseball a reality.

More opportunities

Remember wanting to play for the Yankees when you grew up? The next generation is more interested in running them -- or at least drafting and signing the players, maybe even overhauling the farm system.

"If you go back 25, 30 years, the opportunities didn't exist,'' Alderson said. "First of all, front offices were smaller, staffs were smaller, and they came from more traditional sources. Now they come from traditional sources but others as well because the expertise necessary today is a lot broader and more varied than it used to be.

"Statistics are a particular methodology for player evaluation. And not only do you have to be on top of that methodology, but in some cases, thinking about the next big thing.''

That's true of any industry. Look at Apple, Google or Facebook. It just wasn't thought about much in baseball before the last big thing, which is known by its Hollywood-celebrated brand name: "Moneyball.''

Boiled down to its most elemental ingredients, Moneyball introduced on-base percentage to the masses as a revolutionary concept of evaluating players.

New set of numbers

Sabermetrics, a term derived from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, is the group that essentially fired the shot in the revolution against age-old statistics such as batting average and won-loss records for pitchers. Instead, more value has been placed on measures such as weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) rather than RBIs and fielding-independent pitching (FIP) in the place of straight ERA.

In this way of looking at baseball, the game can be evaluated and studied much in the same manner as any other number-driven performance, such as financial markets or the insurance industry. The business models are getting to be more similar, too.

"The big idea 30 years ago was on-base percentage,'' Alderson said. "That's an old idea at this point. I think the cutting edge today lies with the use of more and more data that's available to be used in a more refined way to give a competitive edge."

Though Moneyball is an oversimplification of the work done by statisticians such as Bill James and the sabermetric crowd, it did open the door to people whose playing careers stopped well short of the professional level -- or never advanced beyond Little League.

And it's not just Moneyball's cinematic hero, Athletics GM Billy Beane, who generated the gravitational tug on the next wave of baseball's decision-makers.

"Knowing that there were guys with similar backgrounds to my own, who were out there doing really impressive things in the industry, was encouraging to me,'' Stearns said. "And I think it's probably encouraging a lot of people who are looking to get in the game.''

Sometimes through unusual gateways, as in the case of Stephanie Wilka, another Harvard alum -- with a social psychology degree -- who works with Stearns as a baseball operations coordinator for the Astros. Wilka, 28, was first hired by Theo Epstein and the Red Sox, who moved her to the Dominican Republic for two years before a team mentor encouraged her to pursue a law degree, which she earned from Pepperdine in 2011. Epstein, too, has Ivy League roots, having graduated from Yale.

Shortly afterward, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, an outside-the-box thinker himself with dual bachelor of science degrees in economics and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, brought her on board in Houston.

"It's pretty fascinating,'' Wilka said. "What percentage, with what precision, are we able to predict what's going to happen to a prospect? At what rate are we correct? On a great day, you're talking like 50, 60 percent. Through things like psychology or makeup or any information available to us, we can try to increase that percentage.''

New breed of GM

Better methods of crunching that data, more than inventing a new statistical measure, seems to be where the next frontier lies.

DePodesta was on the cutting edge of the Moneyball-style innovations when he joined Beane in Oakland. But he came from an Indians front-office group, first headed by current Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd and later by Cleveland GM-turned-president Mark Shapiro. That evolved into a highly educated pipeline of future GMs such as Josh Byrnes (Padres), Ben Cherington (Red Sox) and Neal Huntington (Pirates).

"That's where it started,'' DePodesta said. "The game began changing a bit when the dollars got bigger and bigger. That's when the analysis behind Moneyball came out. Suddenly there was an opportunity for bright, talented people.''

Many were former college players, as DePodesta was, and shared a passion for baseball. But they soon went beyond the traditional on-field understanding of the game to a place that few could have predicted a few decades earlier. It's not as though you could major in Moneyball at Harvard -- even though a similar course is offered these days by the school's statistics department.

"I didn't go into college thinking this was a career option,'' DePodesta said. "What I really wanted to do was be a football coach.''

DePodesta was on that track, working for the now-defunct Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League, when he wound up thumbing through media guides at the Orioles' offices one afternoon. It was there that DePodesta stumbled upon Alderson's bio in the A's media guide, a moment that changed his opinion about working in baseball.

"Dartmouth grad, Harvard Law, Marine Corps,'' DePodesta said. "This was my kind of guy.''

Just as Alderson influenced him, DePodesta helped continue the metamorphosis of the front-office executive after he broke in with the Indians and ultimately wound up as the Dodgers' GM in 2004. But despite the momentum of sabermetric-propelled analysis, it was in Los Angeles that the "old-school'' thinking about baseball began to push back.

The Los Angeles Times dubbed him "Google Boy'' -- a derisive nickname meant to suggest DePodesta's over-reliance on computer-generated info -- and he was fired after the Dodgers went 71-91 in 2005. DePodesta lost his job, but remained a hero for the sabermetric crowd, which has only multiplied since then, especially in the college ranks.

The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, which describes itself as a "student-run organization dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management,'' could be churning out the next army of DePodestas if they didn't sound so uninterested in baseball.

It's not that the sport has necessarily fallen out of favor with the numbers-obsessed. There's just not a lot of groundbreaking debate that can be done by laptop-toting amateurs on such well-worn terrain.

"There's kind of a glut. The market is pretty saturated at this point,'' said Andrew Mooney, a Harvard junior and co-president of the HSAC. "It's getting to the point where if you want to say anything new about baseball, you need to access the type of tracking equipment that the organizations are using. I think the opportunities that people in our club are most excited about now are in basketball and football, where this industry is still kind of in its infancy.''

 

Baseball at forefront

Mooney explained how baseball was always ripe for advanced analysis because of the one-on-one nature of the game, an easily isolated series of matchups. Other team sports, such as basketball and football, have too many moving parts, with each one directly affected by numerous teammates and opponents.

"I think the NFL is still somewhat in the Stone Age in this regard,'' Mooney said. "There's still plenty of stuff out there to get yourself noticed.''

That's the challenge for the next generation of aspiring baseball executives, who fell in love with advanced metrics but are unsure of how to take their relationship to the next level. Now that the Moneyball revolution is over and the analytics crowd has settled into a period of detente with traditionalists, where is the next big thing going to come from? And who will invent it?

"The competitive advantage continues to get smaller and smaller,'' Fisher said. "There are a lot fewer teams that don't embrace this type of stuff.''

Conversely, the number of applicants to Fisher's internship program continues to grow. He figures the Mets have a dozen or more former interns who now work either for the Mets or elsewhere in the majors, of which Stearns is one. DePodesta sounds confident that the next generation -- maybe the smartest and most educated that baseball has ever seen -- can be game-changers, too.

"There's so much information available to us,'' DePodesta said. "There's room for innovation -- it's just different now. You've got to work really, really hard for that 1 percent.''

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