As the 117th season of Major League Baseball (MLB) kicked off this month, players and coaches – and devoted fans – from Anaheim to Kansas City to Tampa are preparing for a six-month stretch of 162 games in an effort to earn a spot in the playoffs and, hopefully, the World Series.
To stay ahead of the curve, MLB teams rely heavily on both scouting and, increasingly in recent years, on data from quantitative analysts, which allows coaches to have the best roster possible by the time Opening Day rolls around.
As sabermetrics – taking the name from the Society for American Baseball Research – continues to evolve and expand, so do research and development (R&D) teams in MLB front offices. And this is where we find three Pomona College graduates and former Sagehen baseball teammates: Guy Stevens ’13 (Royals), Kevin Brice ’16 (Angels) and Simon Rosenbaum ’16 (Rays), all working behind the scenes in the big leagues.
“I didn't realize it would be a viable career path until after my sophomore year at Pomona,” says Stevens of his current role as baseball analytics coordinator for Kansas City.
The math and economics double major spent a summer and a semester working on baseball research with Associate Professor of Mathematics Gabe Chandler, leading to an article published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. “I realized that might be something teams would be interested in and ended up getting a summer internship in the Mets’ front office,” adds Stevens.
Brice, who started hitting balls off a tee at the age of 2 and played nonstop until graduating college, says he really enjoyed math, so when he got to Pomona he knew he wanted to major in the field. “My stats classes at Pomona with Gabe Chandler, Jo Hardin and Professor Shahriari were really good so I didn't feel the need to deviate from what I came to Pomona to do, which was to do math,” says the former Sagehen right fielder, who is now a quantitative analysis assistant with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Having a strong background in math definitely helps Rosenbaum off the field. For his senior thesis, he evaluated the impact of the MLB collective bargaining agreement on the first-year player draft. His experience of competing in NCAA division III baseball as a pitcher and infielder and later on as a third baseman also adds to his professional career.
“Playing baseball absolutely helps me as an analyst,” says Rosenbaum, who serves as an advance scouting intern with the Tampa Bay Rays. “There is so much information now in the MLB and even publicly with Statcast that it's much harder for a team to have an informational advantage. One of the challenges is figuring out what kind of information can actually help us on the field and I think having played baseball gives me a perspective that can help with that.”
And Chandler, who also serves as assistant baseball coach for the Sagehens, agrees. “I think it helps our grads to know where to look in terms of finding inefficiencies in the game and understanding how the game actually functions. Knowing baseball inside and out allows our grads to know where to find a little bit of information that will help them be competitive in terms of player acquisition or strategizing.”
The trend of Pomona graduates going into MLB front offices is no fluke. When it comes to baseball, Chandler considers that Pomona has a fairly unique combination of students, coaches and professors with solid academic and quantitative skills and a fairly serious addiction to the sport. “Once students arrive to Pomona, it sort of becomes cultural at this point, knowing that other people can do it. You have people to talk to, people are writing joint papers and submitting them to conferences because they know that somebody else wants to do this and it becomes a communal, collaborative thing.”
As an advance scout, Rosenbaum helps create reports for Tampa Bay players and coaches on opposing teams before each game series. He describes his work as a mix of watching video and using analytics to look for anything that could help the players on the field be in the best position to succeed.
Stevens and Rosenbaum developed a close bond at Pomona despite being teammates for only a year. They both underwent Tommy John surgery and spent a lot of time together in the training room rehabilitating. Away from the field, they created a strong relationship between playing FIFA video games with friends and talking baseball.
Stevens, who was preparing for his second internship with an MLB team at the time, shared some of his experiences with Rosenbaum, including playing for the Israeli National Team for international tournaments. Stevens pitched for Israel and more recently helped put together the roster for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) which took place this past March where the newcomer team went 4-2 and qualified to the next WBC. The connection facilitated by Stevens paved the way for Rosenbaum to get in touch with the Israeli team and he has been one of the national team’s top performers the last couple of years.
In recent years, scouting and analytics have had somewhat of a tense relationship in professional baseball. Some MLB teams rely more heavily on scouting, while others are starting to warm up to analytics and embrace the growing trend of expanding R&D teams. According to FiveThirtyEight, in 2009 a total of 44 team employees fit the definition of analyst, and at least a third of MLB teams had yet to primarily assign any employee with statistical work. By 2012, the number had risen to 75, and only four teams had no analysts. In 2016, the analyst count had more than doubled again, to 156, and now all teams operate with some semblance of an R&D department.
“I don't think scouting is ever going to go away from baseball and I don't want it to,” says Brice. “We need scouts but I think analytics is a way to complement what they're doing and for us to get better players and be more confident in our draft picks and player selection, and eventually just making a better team,” adds the former outfielder for the Sagehens.
Brice says that his baseball background enhances his rapport with Angels scouts. “I think it helps scouts to know that I have an understanding of how this game is done and I have a feel for seeing things and seeing tendencies that aren't just backed up by data but are backed up by two eyes.”
For a former collegiate baseball player, turned analyst working at a ballpark is a dream come true. Getting to work in an MLB stadium where you can eat lunch in the stands, be around players, work with the smartest guys in baseball and play flag football on the field in your spare time, are all perks Brice enjoys.
“It’s an amazing experience to be around the game I love even if I'm not playing it anymore. It's surreal to see Angels Stadium every day, it's awesome.”