University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Numbers Game

Zack Scott in front of the Boston Red Sox scoreboard. 

By Thomas Weaver
Photograph by Ian MacLellan

1986, nine-year-old Zack Scott fell for America’s game and Boston’s team. If you’re a Red Sox fan, you know, that season. Up three games to two versus the New York Mets in the World Series, the tenth inning slow roller off Mookie Wilson’s bat skips between poor, pilloried Bill Buckner’s legs, the Mets’ winning run crosses home, Red Sox dreams of ending The Curse melt with game six and seven heartbreakers, on hold for another eighteen years. 

So, Scott ’99, the Sox’ head analytics guy, VP for baseball research and development, found the game and the team that would one day be his calling with a season that, to large degree, hinged on a play that defied the odds. Buckner would make that play, what, 99 out of 100 times? In a game of cruel inches, crazy bounces, and mortal rotator cuffs, so it goes. But years later, pioneering front office leaders would begin to realize that close, objective examination of the myriad statistics of baseball could yield better results on the field. There’s no inoculation against chance. But enlisting the reasoned as another line of defense against the random is akin to adding a tenth player named “Evidence-Based Decision-Making” to the lineup. 

Today, sabermetrics, the empirical analysis of baseball statistics, is a critical dimension of Major League Baseball front office work, and the Red Sox are among the teams with notable investment and success on this front. As a Boston Herald pre-season article described Zack Scott’s role: “There is no one more vital to the future of the Red Sox…”  

It’s the 2017 season-opening series at Fenway Park. But as a quaintly New England brew of cold, wind, and rain lashes the city, the day game is called. The concession stands on Yawkey Way are shuttered—no Luis Tiant Cubano for you. Fans console themselves browsing the seemingly infinite variations on Red Sox caps for sale at the official store across the street. Out-of-towners wearing Pirates jerseys and forlorn faces head to the refuge of Back Bay shopping malls. 

But through a side door off Yawkey, up a few flights of stairs, the work of the Boston Red Sox front office quietly hums along.  Zack Scott’s office is spare and windowless, buried somewhere in the sprawl of Fenway along the third base line. Past success, a huge photo of the 2007 World Champions banner being unfurled on a blue-sky opening day 2008, hangs on the wall behind his desk. Present and future is in full view on the opposite wall. A white board displays the 2017 game schedule, and the names of players on the active roster, optioned, and 10-Day Disabled List in three tidy columns. 

A small corner bookshelf holds pictures of Scott’s wife, Molly, their two kids, Zoe, six, and Perry, three; a bright splash of kid’s art; and dense stacks of baseball stats and analytics books. Among the volumes, works by Bill James, godfather of sabermetrics and a consultant to the Red Sox. The wonkish world of baseball statistics had its spotlight moment with Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball, the story of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane’s quest to leverage innovative analytics and turn a cash-poor team into a winner. The book vaulted the work of Beane, his assistant Paul DePodesta, and the pioneering James into the public consciousness. Scott says that, to some extent, he and colleagues in the field owe their careers to Moneyball. The book opened eyes and eventually doors in pro baseball’s front offices. 

Discussing the continual development of new measures, Scott touches upon defensive performance, once a black hole of information with little guide but an official scorer’s subjective call of an error. Now teams have documentation on a grid of where every ball is caught or hits the turf. And it’s just one aspect of what Scott calls a “data explosion” that came with MLB’s 2015 rollout of new measures via Statcast. 

MLB front offices could easily drown in the information. Scott and his team of analysts strive to sort the relevant from the irrelevant with statistically rigorous models and sound methodology. “We don’t want to be a think tank doing academic exercises,” he says. “We want to positively impact change and make the team better by providing the decision-makers with the best information to help them solve the questions they need to answer.”  

There’s an art to that, as well as the science, and a good deal of communication and people skill required. Scott personifies a Red Sox guiding principle to tap the insights of both analysis and scouting—the intangible “seeing the game well” built on years of playing, watching, managing—to get the best result. On game day at Fenway, that plays out in real time as Scott and other top lieutenants watch the game from president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s box. Questions arise, and Scott is there to offer data, discuss what needs to be addressed, anticipate what’s next. 

Colleagues praise Scott for having the patience of a good teacher and the ability to bridge the worlds of “quants,” executives, coaches, and players. “My goal is to get to the point when we feel like we have insights that we’re ready to deliver, to be able to package that up—whether it is just a conversation, an email, a memo—in a way that is easy to digest, really to translate it into baseball language that everyone else speaks here,” Scott says. “It’s an art to try to find the best way to present something and get buy-in. That is everything to me. Buy in on this stuff.”

The analysis of Scott’s unit impacts multiple aspects of the Red Sox operation—draft picks, player development, scouting opponents, strategy, roster management, and blockbuster trades such as the deal that brought pitching ace Chris Sale from Chicago to Boston this year. 

“Zack is really good at synthesizing and communicating complex analytical concepts to decision-makers in an effective way,” says Brian O’Halloran, senior vice president and assistant general manager. “He isn’t afraid to disagree with the prevailing opinion and offers his thoughts with conviction, but in a respectful and productive manner.” 

 

 

Scott became a baseball fan with that 1986 season. A few years later, he took the deep dive into baseball statistics when his older brother introduced him to Strat-O-Matic, a dice-and-cards baseball game grounded in MLB player statistics. Reflecting back on Little Zack, Big Zack expresses some bemusement and confesses to something close to obsession. He played out the entire Red Sox season on Strat-O-Matic, kept extensive stats, his parents suggesting he might want to get outside a little more. 

Scott did, indeed, get outside. Focused on soccer when other kids were playing Little League, he later switched to baseball in Babe Ruth League and high school. He offers a straight-faced assessment of his prospects as a high school JV leftfielder. “I was a good defender. I could catch the ball. But I had no arm strength. And I couldn’t really hit. I was just a singles hitter with too many strikeouts for a singles hitter.” Scott sentenced himself to the bench when he offered to keep the stat book for the coach, then did too good of a job, and earned the duty full-time. “I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I just made a bad decision.’”

Scott spent his first year of college at the University of Texas-Austin, charting a computer science major as the route to a career in creating computer-based sports games. But a family emergency back in hometown Natick, Massachusetts, made him reconsider college closer to home, coinciding with a shift towards following his “comfort with numbers” into a statistics major at UVM. 

Reminiscing about lasting impressions of his Vermont years, Scott mentions Professor Ken Golden, a distinguished mathematician. “He would see math everywhere,” Scott says. “Middle of teaching his class, a big breeze in the trees, he would look out the window and talk about how beautiful this is and how mathematical. It was the first time I was exposed to someone who saw the world that way, through the lens of mathematics. It gave me a new appreciation for the things around me.” 

Sociology prof Kathy Fox’s course on social deviance, class field trips into the Green Mountains with geologist David Bucke, Scott sampled academics widely, finding experiences and insights that have stayed with him. And in stats classes his interest continued to grow in finding truth through numbers as a basis for sound decision-making.

Austin and Burlington alike, the local music scene was also important to him. Just when you think you’ve got Scott pigeon-holed as a somewhat button-down family man, analytics guy in a VP job, you’re thrown by his off-speed pitch—the fact that he is, in the estimate of many, an ass-kicking blues/rock harmonica player. 

That skill is grounded in hours of practice, sometimes holed-up in his dorm room for three hours at a time practicing on his harp. UVM music courses in composition and on the blues took him deeper. Hidden Bean on Redstone, Cactus Café downtown, Scott rattles off a few of the places that he and friend/fellow math major/guitar player Matt Whitcomb ’98 performed. A few years later, he turned down a chance to tour with the band Buddahead. 

Jed Hoyer, general manager of the Chicago Cubs and former assistant general manager for the Red Sox, weighed in on Zack Scott, musician, to the Boston Herald: “The thing I love about it is, it was always such a different side to his personality. A part you didn’t see on a day-to-day basis because he was pretty reserved in the office. Then all of a sudden this guy oddly busts out on the harmonica, and he’s unbelievable. You’re shocked by the Zack you knew at work and the Zack going all John Popper on the harmonica.”

 

 

Oddly enough, in January 2003 that Popper alter-ego provided a “networking” opportunity in an unlikely location, backstage at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club. Theo Epstein, freshly minted as the boy wonder GM of the Red Sox (and a guitar slinger in his own right), was in the house for a fundraiser show. As Scott tells the story of their first meeting, his somewhat introverted, networking-averse side made him reluctant to approach Epstein and share his background. At the time, he worked for Diamond Mind, a stats-based baseball game headquartered in Lexington, Massachusetts. 

But a friend kept nudging him, then took it upon herself to break the ice with Theo and suggest, more or less, “You should talk to that guy over there.” 

As it turned out, Epstein knew Diamond Mind’s work and had thoughts about how they might help the Red Sox as consultants. One of his first questions to Scott that night concerned a player named David Ortiz, recently released by the Minnesota Twins. Though he seemed worthy of signing, Scott admits that back then neither he nor Epstein saw Big Papi developing into a future Hall of Famer.  

Consulting led to internship led to a full-fledged front office job with the Red Sox in May 2004. They were heady times as the organization honed the team and homed in on breaking the curse with young Epstein leading a young front office. Scott recalls long, long hours—“we basically lived here.” Describing the office dynamics, he first suggests family, pauses, and admits “fraternity” would be more accurate. Work breaks might mean baseball amidst the cubicles, taking cuts with a plastic bat at a ball of tape. “HR wouldn’t have been happy,” Scott deadpans.

Crazy days, but visionary leadership and hard work at long last brought the MLB Championship trophy to Boston in 2004 and again three years later. As Epstein, Hoyer, and others eventually moved on to the Cubs and other organizations, Scott was among the few 2004 front office originals still on board for 2013’s World Championship. 

That makes three championship rings to Zack Scott’s name. But don’t expect to see him, or others in the organization, walking around flaunting them. You also won’t find the bling under glass on Scott’s desk or on the fireplace mantle at home. The rings are tucked away in a bank safe deposit box. 

That reflects, Scott says, an organizational focus on looking forward, driven by a clear sense of mission measured with the most primal of sports statistics—wins and losses. Also fundamental to the Red Sox way, a belief in team concept, shared work and credit, that applies to vice presidents and analysts as sure as it does to pitchers and catchers. Scott winced a bit at that “no one more vital to the future of the Red Sox” line in the Herald. “That’s not really how things work,” he says.

With an afternoon status meeting on Beacon, the organization’s new web-based information platform, fast approaching, Scott gathers with his team of analysts for a quick lunch. Heading out to Sal’s Pizza just across Lansdowne, they descend a narrow set of stairs, walking beneath a large black-and-white photo of Ted Williams uncoiling a home-run swing. 

Contact UVM © 2017 The University of Vermont - Burlington, VT 05405 - (802) 656-3131