Mining the Stats That Matter Most
- By Thomas Weaver
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.