From Haverford to Major League Baseball
Alums in MLB say it takes more than data to win; thanks to Haverford they were ready.
Conventional wisdom, these days, says baseball is ruled by data. But Los Angeles Dodgers executive Josh Byrnes ’92 says writing, people skills, and creativity – skills learned at Haverford – are also essential tools for translating numbers into on-field performance.
"It's not all science," said Byrnes, the Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations, "It's art with science."
Byrnes offered his observations in a recent episode of Founders Porch, a webinar series hosted by Haverford President Wendy Raymond that explores Haverford's role in shaping the lives and work of its alums. Byrnes joined President Raymond; Nick Perez ’19, baseball operations analyst for the Cincinnati Reds; and Haverford Professor and Chair of Economics Anne Preston for a two-hour event that covered a broad range of topics, including the strong network of Fords working in all aspects of the business of baseball today.
From super agents Ron Shapiro '64 and Arn Tellem '76 to executives like Byrnes, Haverford graduates have landed positions in (and near) the front offices of nearly half the teams in Major League Baseball (MLB). A former first baseman who still holds the College’s home run record, Byrnes was an early member of that MLB club and has championed a number of Haverford grads who have followed him. Many played for the school’s Division III baseball team, and more than a few used a senior thesis inspired by Preston’s “Sports Economics” class to distinguish themselves from the numerous college grads who flood the offices of MLB teams seeking internships each year. (Both The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer have published extensive articles about Haverford and MLB.)
President Raymond, who moderated the wide-ranging discussion, opened the event by acknowledging this year's post-season excitement. “It is so much fun to be talking about baseball post-World Series and the huge Phillies run, and also because I’ve loved baseball since I was a little girl growing up in a baseball-maniac family.”
Raymond launched the conversation with a question about how the MLB execs prepared for a career in baseball.
"I hear from aspiring applicants, `How do I get in?’" said Byrnes. "I encourage them to just write. It might be something that you might read on [baseball analysis site] fangraphs or it might be a paper you wrote in school. But I think taking a topic and actually showing that you applied some research and thought to it and can write well can help separate you from the pack."
That was Nick Perez’s avenue to MLB. His paper examining the pay scale of top NFL picks helped him land an internship with the Chicago White Sox. The paper employed economic principles that, he said, "I definitely use on a daily basis."
But he also cautioned they are just part of the tool kit he uses. Communication, timing, and the "feel" he acquired by playing baseball on multiple teams, including Haverford's, are just as important.
"Haverford is a big part of that," agreed Byrnes, citing the impact of Haverford culture on his ability to "talk to a different audience whatever room you’re in [and] to take one person’s opinion and information and implement it and make sure it travels within the organization."
Both alums credited Haverford for teaching them how to be receptive to other points of view, which helps them "to just be able to navigate a clubhouse and be able to communicate with different types of people," said Perez. "I think that having the experience interacting with a wide spectrum of teammates and baseball players has really helped me to be able to have those conversations with our analysts in the front office, and with our players and coaches and staff members down in the clubhouse as well."
Professor Preston observed that baseball is an ideal venue for exploring economic principles given the vast amount of data that is generated. She pioneered the “sports thesis” at Haverford. "At this point, all the theses that I advise are sports theses, and I have to give [some of] them off to other other faculty members." Preston estimated that about a third of the theses now coming out of Haverford economics are sports related.
The webinar ended with a robust question and answer segment. One participant mentioned what has become a familiar criticism, that the analytics surrounding baseball are detracting from its entertainment, especially when they have led to higher strikeouts, with the ball in play less often, as well as longer games. "It’s a fair criticism," said Byrnes, who added that this balance between information and entertainment is something the Dodgers often discuss internally.
Upcoming rule changes like banning defensive shifts (which move fielders from their normal positions), and using a timer to speed up pitches and the game are good steps, said Byrnes.
"I personally love the pitch clock," noted Perez, who saw it implemented as he moved around minor league parks this past season. "I think it’s going to have a huge impact on entertainment value. It’s a far more entertaining game when you’re moving at that pace."
Byrnes and Perez were also asked if there was one attribute that could help a recent college graduate land that first Major League job. "Learning Spanish," said Byrnes.
"I would 100 percent agree," said Perez, who has used his fluency to help mesh players from Latin America and U.S. players at the Arizona Fall League. "We have a mix of domestic and international players, and they need to be able to play on the same field at the same time together." When a staff member can speak Spanish, he said, it can be important to making players feel welcome and also allow them to communicate with their teammates.
A question about gender prompted Perez and Byrnes to declare that gender is no longer the impediment it was even a decade ago for landing a job in baseball.
"I think that's probably been one of the most impressive changes within our game in the last five to 10 years," said Byrnes.
Kim Ng, for example, is the general manager of the Miami Marlins and the highest-ranking woman executive in baseball. She’s a former softball player at the University of Chicago who has been in the game for more than two decades.
"In our shop, we have women involved in every aspect of the operation," said Byrnes. "There are women on most major league staffs. There's literally no job that's out of reach based on gender anymore."
Watch entire webinar – the second in this new series featuring President Raymond: