Ari Kaplan: Baseball Analytics Pioneer – Work In Sports Podcast

Hey everybody, I’m Brian Clapp VP of Content and Engaged Learning for WorkInSports.com and this is the Work in Sports podcast…

Managing and leading people requires a unique blend of patience and expertise. 

Patience is paramount to success as a manager because you are inherently managing and leading people who are less experienced in this expertise than you are. 

If someday you become the director of group sales for a sports organization, you will be influencing the day to day actions of people new to the business, and junior in their experience. This means you must be patient in executing your plans, taking their growth with the logical steps forward, and steps backward. Ari Kaplan baseball analytics

It’s like having a kid – you work on their reading, and as soon as you make progress…the next day they look at you like they’ve never seen the word AND before. You want to scream, like, we did this 25 times yesterday…and then you realize they are 6 yeard old and child protective services have already told you to stop yelling so much. 

I’m kidding of course – child protective services have never yelled at me, even if that story was slightly autobiographical. 

But this is patience in action. No one learns in a straight line, they go up and down. They grasp some concepts quickly and others take longer. They need repetition and acceptance of their shortcomings. 

This is a major part of being a thought leader at a company. You can’t write people off as hopeless, you have to work with them, find their learning style, figure out ways to translate your information into their language. 

Nowhere is this trickier than in the world of sports analytics. Analytics is one of the roles in the highest demand for the sports industry, and yet it is a very very different language than most people speak. 

The best in this business have learned how to adjust their style to their stakeholders, whether that’s a GM, a coach or a player.  Some are visual learners, and need heat maps, others like massive amounts of data and want it all, while others need to be told a singular thing at a time that can help them advance in their skill set. 

Everyone learns differently, and as long as they have the passion, the learning will come. 

I was watching TV with my wife the other night, and she was watching some competition fashion show and they are talking through designers and styles and sewing techniques — and I said to her…how in the world can anyone keep up with all these designers and techniques.

She looked at me deadpan and said: “so who did the Patriots draft in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft?”

And I said “trick question, they didn’t have a 3rd round pick”

It took me a minute until I realized she set the trap and I jumped in it. 

The point is, everyone has the capacity to learn what they are interested in and is placed in front of them within the right format.

That is the challenge for those in analytics — taking complex data, that their audiences want to understand, and making it understandable. The passion is there, it’s on the analyst to make it more than just numbers. 

It takes patience. 

Today’s guest Ari Kaplan understands this more than most – over the last three decades he’s been finding ways to give pro sports teams an edge through data AND having the patience to share the information in the right manner so that it can make a difference. 

This interview is fascinating – I learned so much because I have the passion, and Ari has the patience… so where do you fit in?

Let’s find out — here’s Ari Kaplan…

Questions for Ari Kaplan, Baseball Analytics Pioneer

1: Before we dig deep into the world of statistical analysis in sports, let’s go back to your beginning. As a student at CalTech most would assume you’d end up at NASA, some seismological laboratory or astronomical observatory – but for you, sports was the path – why?

2: I read where you presented your CalTech thesis titled “How do you spell relief? An Analysis of Baseball Pitching 1876 to present” to the Caltech board of trustees, and on that board sat the then owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Eli Jacobs, who then hired you on the spot.

You’ve based your life’s work on the predictability of circumstances – was this, in fact, your plan all along to present to Eli Jacobs and turn it into a job?

3:  In that spirit, what are your theories on topics like luck and coincidence?  

4: The 20-year-old version of you is now working for the Baltimore Orioles, designing and implementing their computer system – what do you remember most about that first opportunity with a major league team?

5: How did other people in the organization view you?  And how did you convince them of your value?

6: A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Dan Duquette former Red Sox, Expos, and Orioles GM – it sounds like he was a pretty early believer in analytics playing a major role in baseball because back in 1991 he hired you to revamp the Expos scouting system.

Was this the early impact of analytics – very focused on scouting and evaluating players vs. on-field performance and real-time adjustments?

7: In the decades since you’ve worked with multiple teams throughout major league baseball, but one of your most interesting stops was the Cubs. You were hired by ownership to help advise on key business decisions throughout the organization.

How much different was your role at this point, as compared to when teams were first warming up to the idea of math’s involvement in sports?     

8: I’m going to guess many people, even still today, seem threatened by analytics and data because they don’t understand it. How important is it for someone in analytics to be able to explain it to someone in the dugout, or on the field, or in the front office?

9: You also teach Baseball Analytics with our friends at Sports Management Worldwide and Data Science and Analytics via 8-week online courses. What is your approach to teaching this in-demand skill set?

10: Who is the right match for your course? Is it right for anyone, or do they need some background knowledge?

11: These are pretty complex systems – how much depth are you able to go into during your course?

12: Have graduates of your course found success in major league baseball?

13: I interviewed the Director of Talent Acquisition for the Cleveland Indians a while back and when I asked her where the greatest areas of growth were in hiring, she said without batting an eye – business analytics – understanding how we can either save money or make more money.

So, I wonder, if someone studies baseball analytics and starts to understand R and Python and SQL – could this same skill set translate to business analytics as well? And is that extremely valuable in this time of coronavirus and lost revenue?

14: Let’s finish up with this – thank you so much for your time – has analytics reached its peak, or is this still a growing field?

Today’s Sponsor:

University of Western States graduate program in Sports and Performance Psychology

 

About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the sports media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for WorkinSports.com & WorkinEntertainment.com.

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