Pipeline to the MLB
The skills picked up at Haverford—critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and a sophisticated understanding of data—have turned out to be an ideal fit for key front office roles in Major League Baseball. And as a growing number of alumni get established in the industry, they are opening doors for younger alums.
Haverford baseball coach Dave Beccaria was out to breakfast last summer with his wife and two young daughters when a stranger, drawn by the Fords logo on Beccaria’s shirt, approached their table. “He said he worked with a bunch of Haverford folks,” Beccaria recalls, “and he just wanted to introduce himself and say hello.”
As it happens, the stranger was an assistant general manager with the Philadelphia Phillies. Assuming he was including not only team coworkers but industry peers in that assessment, “a bunch” might have been underselling the point.
Four years ago, a New York Times article drew national attention to a truth that savvy baseball insiders have known for years: There are enough Haverford alumni working in professional baseball to fill a team roster. With a handful of exceptions, though, you won’t find them on the field; most have transitioned from their college playing days to jobs as executives, scouts, analytics gurus, and agents. In an organization ever more reliant on complicated statistical analysis to identify prospects and compile rosters, this growing list of Haverford grads has proved to be an ideal fit.
“As the dynamic of front offices has changed over the last 10 to 20 years, more and more teams have been looking for certain skills— critical thinking, a willingness to explore innovation, and the ability, if you do discover something new, to be able to share it,” says Josh Byrnes ’92, senior vice president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I think that’s why Haverford has a footprint in Major League Baseball.”
You can make the case that Byrnes is as responsible as anyone for establishing and expanding the Haverford pipeline to the majors. It all started with his love for the cerebral side of the game. He remembers immersing himself in the old Strat-O-Matic baseball game as a kid, obsessing over “every aspect of the operation— scouting, how they made deals, how they put together a roster. That always interested me.” He brought that obsession to Haverford in the late 1980s, something his coach on the baseball team, the late Greg Kannerstein ’63, remembered for years after. As Kannerstein told The Boston Globe in 2005, “I saw his potential to become a general manager when he told me straightforward, as a freshman, what we needed to do to improve the program. . . . Everything he said was absolutely right.”
Byrnes’s Haverford baseball teammate Jon Fetterolf ’93, an attorney and agent with Washington, D.C.-based firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, remembers Byrnes preaching the “moneyball” concept back when the two were in college, more than a decade before the concept would become famous (thanks to a bestselling book and eventual feature film). The term is shorthand for an advanced analytic approach to the game that deemphasized traditional stats like batting average and RBI and created an entire vocabulary of new statistical measures, from Defensive Efficiency Ratio to Wins Above Replacement. Well ahead of his time, Byrnes dreamed of turning that obsessiveness into a career, and he got his chance when Kannerstein introduced him to legendary baseball agent Ron Shapiro ’64 at a Haverford alumni game. That meeting led to an internship with Ron’s son, Mark Shapiro, who was then in the front office of the Cleveland Indians.
Byrnes has since established himself as one of the most well-respected names in the game: from intern to scout to scouting director in Cleveland (a six-year stretch in which the team twice reached the World Series), then assistant general manager roles with Colorado, Boston, Arizona, and San Diego, before the Padres made him GM in 2011. He joined the Dodgers in 2014 and helped build the team that has appeared in the past two World Series. More than simply a point of pride for his fellow Haverfordians, Byrnes’s success has been a beacon for those looking to find their own way into the game.
That list grows by the year. While Byrnes wasn’t the first Haverford alum to work in pro baseball—in addition to Ron Shapiro, Arn Tellem ’76 has been a prominent sports agent representing MLB players, and Tony Petitti ’83 serves as chief operating officer at Major League Baseball—he has blazed the trail that most of the current Fords in the game have followed. Thad Levine ’94 was working in business development for the Dodgers and itching to get to the baseball side of things when Byrnes, newly arrived in Colorado as an assistant GM in 1999, hired his former teammate as an entry-level advance scout. Levine spent six seasons with the Rockies, moved to Texas as an assistant GM in 2005, and in 2016 was hired as senior vice president and general manager of the Minnesota Twins.
So how is it that the primary decision-makers for two of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams were part of the same starting lineup on a Division III college team? At one level, the answer is nothing more complicated than a network of conscientious alums looking out for each other. More significant is the fact that a person who thrives as a student-athlete at Haverford is the kind of person who will thrive amid the intellectual and competitive challenges of professional sports.
Eric Lee ’04 thinks a lot about the skill set that has made him successful in pro baseball, and he’s boiled it down to a simple idea: “It’s really the liberal arts profession.” After nearly a decade working in MLB, he was promoted last year to senior director of player development for the Cincinnati Reds—an opening created when his old Haverford team- mate Jeff Graupe ’06 became the Reds’ senior director of player personnel. Lee cites not only his formal education, but the value of his “baseball education” under Beccaria and longtime assistants Dan Crowley and Kevin Morgan. It’s an approach—emphasizing critical thinking, creative problem solving, and a sophisticated understanding of data—that reflects what he learned in the classroom. “So much of what I learned about the game, I learned from that staff and my teammates,” Lee says. “I was in the clubhouse last night talking to our minor league players, thinking that it’s incredible how much of what I say I’ve taken right out of their mouths. All of it still resonates with me.”
Those complementary approaches to coaching and teaching continue to contribute to Beccaria’s success with the baseball program. “The team’s incredible now, and Dave deserves a lot of credit for that,” says Nick Chanock ’05, a player rep with the Wasserman Agency. “He’s done so much to build a program full of smart kids who are also really good players.” That overlap is evident on both sides of the student-athlete balancing act, as baseball regularly informs students’ academic work. Economics Professor Anne Preston teaches the seminar "Sports as an Economics" and among the dozens of baseball players she’s as a teacher and thesis advisor, at least three— Josh Studnitzer ’14, Tommy Bergjans ’15, and Casey Fox ’15—wrote their senior theses on economic or advanced statistical issues in professional sports before going on to work in pro baseball. (And the flow of baseball-themed economics senior theses continues. The Class of 2019 boasted three. Among the subjects: the effect of competitive balance draft picks on MLB fan attendance, Major League Baseball as a lens to measure managers, and the effect of college baseball playoff performance on the MLB Draft.)
Back in the fall of 2014, when Bergjans started work on his thesis, “Sunk Costs in MLB: The Effect of Draft Order and Previous Contract on Playing Time and Future Salary,” he didn’t know that he’d soon have direct experience in the topic: The right-handed pitcher was drafted by the Dodgers in the eighth round of the 2015 MLB draft (he’s one of four Fords ever drafted, along with Chaon Garland ’91, Dean Laganosky ’09, and Stephen Ridings ’17). At press time, Bergjans, most recently a member of the Reds’ minor league organization, was a free agent deciding if he would try to extend his playing days or, quite possibly, begin an off-the-field career in the league. He was comfortable with that temporary uncertainty in large part because of his experience at Haverford.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I got to college, but what Haverford offered was the ability to explore,” Bergjans says, a truth that applied in the classroom and on the diamond. He recalls experimenting with innovative off-season training techniques to increase his velocity that “most programs wouldn’t have allowed—baseball can be pretty dogmatic—but I saw results, and my coaches allowed me to continue doing that.”
Studnitzer similarly benefited from the program’s open-minded approach. He spent his time with Haverford baseball as a team manager, a title that belies his contributions: In addition to providing and analyzing the team’s performance on a variety of advanced metrics, he shot and edited video that allowed Beccaria and pitching coach Nat Ballenberg ’07 to break down throwing mechanics. After he graduated, he secured internships and entry-level gigs with the Orioles, Cubs, Mets, and Phillies before being hired last year as Philadelphia’s coordinator for advanced scouting. He says the work of fellow alums already in the game has established a reputation that benefits everyone who’s come since. “Baseball people know, if it’s a kid from Haverford, they’re smart and they work hard,” he says. “That’s a huge advantage.”
And a self-sustaining one, as alumni who get their start thanks to that Haverford network become part of it, establish themselves, and reach down to lift the next generation. Eric Lee, for example, gave an early assist to Jeremy Zoll ’12, helping him to get a summer internship with the Reds. After graduating from Haverford, Zoll landed an internship with the Los Angeles Angels, who then hired him as a coordinator of advance scouting. Zoll then went on to become assistant director of player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers and in October of 2017, he was named director of minor league operations for the Minnesota Twins, making him the youngest person in this role among the 30 major league teams.
Among the latest beneficiaries of the Haverford/MLB pipeline is Nick Perez ’19 who did a 2018 summer internship with the New York Yankees, and is going on post-graduation to intern with the Chicago White Sox in their player development department. For him, this will mean moving to Great Falls, Montana, to collect video and data for the Great Falls Voyagers, the White Sox’s advanced rookie affiliate team.
“When I came to Haverford, I learned about some of the alumni connections in Major League Baseball, and I really cannot express my gratitude enough to all of the alumni in the industry who have helped guide me through these past two years,” says Perez.
Also entering the pipeline is Charlotte Eisenberg ’19. A math major and a reserve player on the field hockey team, Eisenberg signed on as a baseball team manager for her senior year in hopes of preparing for a career in sports analytics. “At the beginning of the year, I could probably name three [major league] baseball players,” she says with a laugh. “Now I can probably name 50.” But she understood the numbers—and how to analyze them—well enough not only to contribute to the Fords’ 2019 season, but to earn a trainee position with the Texas Rangers. Her connection? Casey Fox, who met her five years ago when she was a prospective student and he was a senior. Now a player development assistant with the Rangers, Fox acknowledges the significance of the Haverford network in Eisenberg’s hiring, but emphasizes: “She did 95 percent of the work. Her skill set lined up really well with how teams are building their development and analytic sides right now.”
With any luck, Eisenberg will have her chance soon to help other bright, innovative young alums take their first step into a baseball career. It’s simply how this network works. Says Eric Lee, “Everything that’s happened in my career was a result of help I got from other Haverford alumni. There’s a responsibility to help others who are where we were, and I think all of us working in baseball feel the same way. At this point, it’s a tradition.”