Digging for Diamonds

SABR President Vince Gennaro created the Diamond Dollars Baseball Analytics Case Competition. (via The SABR Office)

SABR President Vince Gennaro created the Diamond Dollars Baseball Analytics Case Competition. (via The SABR Office)

NEW YORK — What Hunter Gilbertson wants—and what his New York University analytics teammates want and what most of their several dozen well-dressed peers want—is to work in baseball. What they know is how wildly difficult that is to achieve. What they’re doing about it on this day, a mild-fall morning in Manhattan, is an attempt to get just a little bit closer to that goal.

“That’s the hope,” Gilbertson said. “That’s the whole point, pretty much.”

It’s the Diamond Dollars Baseball Analytics Case Competition, a biannual convergence of some of the top college-aged baseball minds and the brainchild of Vince Gennaro, president of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball.

The format is simple: Gennaro sends each of the 11 northeast college-based teams a prompt mirroring as closely as possible a real-life baseball-ops situation — this time, assessing the free-agent market and determining the contract value for Pablo Sandoval, ultimately choosing which two teams would be the best fit and deciding what contract each should offer.

The four- to five-person groups have about five days to analyze the case from every angle they can think of. That includes  what Sandoval has done in the past, various projections of what he might do in the future, why Stadium X might fit him well, what extra value he might provide Team Y, what a lost draft pick is worth, and even how his modern defensive metrics correlated with his listed weight season-to-season.

Each team presents its case in front of a pair of judges, including at least one from a major league front office.

Nine of the 11 teams picked the Giants and Red Sox — his former team and his ultimate destination, respectively — as the best fits. Most teams suggested contracts in the neighborhood of six years and $100 million. St. John Fisher, Middlebury and Tufts departed as winners.

During the three years Gennaro has organized the competitions, he has found it mutually beneficial for everyone involved — for the competitors receiving an educational opportunity and networking with each other and with the judges, for the front office judges themselves meeting some of the people sending them resumes, and for SABR itself, attracting a younger crowd than it usually does.

In short, it has become exactly what Gennaro hoped it would.

“I’ve had so many young people come to me and say, ‘How do I get into baseball?’” Gennaro said. “You find that if you just point them in a direction and send them to a club, the club is just sitting there with hundreds of resumes that they’re getting. So I thought [it would be good] if I could put something together that would serve many objectives.

“It serves students, it gives them a networking opportunity in addition to an educational experience. It serves the teams. It just seems like it fits all the way around. It’s just something I have a lot of fun doing, and I get a real kick out of it.”

Looking for a Professional ‘In’

They all have different stories—varied beginnings, certainly, and divergent endings, probably.

Gilbertson, the NYU captain, would enjoy a baseball-ops job, but as a sports management major with a concentration in sports law, he isn’t ruling out being an agent down the line. Cameron Toh, who is studying economics at Middlebury and plans to go abroad to China, yearns to be “part of that next generation that connects Major League Baseball to China.” Fiona Maloney-McCrystle, Toh’s classmate at Middlebury, isn’t sure if she wants a career in baseball, but these experiences are helping her figure that out. Kyle Stitch, from St. John Fisher in upstate New York, dreams of taking his analytical mind to the hockey world, where the advanced metrics movement is in its infancy.

What they have in common is the Diamond Dollars competition, which most compete in through some sort of sports or baseball analytics club on campus. The competition is, first and foremost, a learning experience, because no amount of networking is worthwhile if you don’t have the skill set and knowledge base to do anything with it.

Bird-Brained
A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

“When you go through the process of coming up with the case, you go through every step, you learn a lot along the way, just by doing the work,” said Mike Snyder, one of the judges and the Orioles’ assistant director of player personnel. “And then also being able to stand up and present that, you have to defend it. After you defend it, you sort of hear what went well and what didn’t [from the judges]. I think that’s probably the most important thing.”

Some of that learning, though, can come during the students’ own time, thanks in large part to the boom of publicly available data in recent years. So the big benefit of the competition from the participants’ perspective is getting a little face time with front-office personnel they hope to work for or with in the future.

At least 16 Diamond Dollars participants have secured either permanent positions or internships in baseball, according to Gennaro, “though it may be more by now.” Gilbertson can rattle off a list of recent NYU graduates who participated in the case competition and are now working in sports—one friend who works for Major League Baseball, another in the New York Rangers media department, yet another doing Yankees premium ticket sales. (It is important to note that in many cases, if not all of them, Diamond Dollars was far from the only means of their professional development.)

“This has been a huge networking opportunity for everyone,” said Gilbertson, a veteran of five Diamond Dollars competitions.

Toh gets that. This industry isn’t an easy one to break into.

“You take every opportunity you can and do what you can with it,” Toh said. “Whether it’s presenting your own research or a classmate who’s working for the Orioles next year or a professor who has connections, you do what you can to get into the industry because it’s such a competitive field.”

A significant part of an individual’s first impression on a judge from a major league front office is not the handshake and chitchat during down time, but the group presentation itself. Judges aren’t necessarily looking at the actual material—groups would be hard-pressed to come up with something the judges haven’t already seen—but are making note of how it’s presented.

Each member of the team needs to be clear and concise during his or her portion in order for the team to cover all of the ground it needs to during the allotted 20 minutes. For TJ Barra, the Mets’ recently promoted manager of baseball research and development who served as a case competition judge in November, that’s a good simulation of real-life front-office scenarios.

“I can have the smartest guy in the world,” Barra said, “but if he can’t get that opinion to the GM in a short argument, nothing’s going to happen with it. Half the battle is presentation.”

Experience breeds comfort. Returning Diamond Dollars competitors reported feeling more at ease this time around, while first-timers were a tad nervous. That’s more than okay in the eyes of Sarah Gelles, the Orioles’ director of baseball analytics.

“None of us were born ready to present in front of major league front office executives and not be nervous,” Gelles said. “That is totally to be expected. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get, and the better you get.”

‘A Scouting Combine for Future Analytics Talent’

That’s how one judge who works for a major league team described Diamond Dollars to Gennaro.

As worthwhile as it is for students to get involved, the judges dedicating their time aren’t doing so merely as a favor to Gennaro or SABR. They get to match an occasional face to the stacks of resumes they receive, as well as get a glimpse into the sort of processes industry outsiders — aspiring to be insiders — are taking to tackle baseball ops questions.

“To have an interactive dialogue with students like this, who have taken the time to know what they want to say and really analyzed it, there’s a benefit to them as well,” Gennaro said. “[It] is a great value proposition for them.”

Gelles has become a regular judge at Gennaro’s competitions, and this time she brought Snyder with her, in part as an effort to see more teams present. Baltimore’s owners and executives, Gelles explained, have been supportive in recent years of adding young talent to their relatively small front office as “a much cheaper way to get better.”

Multiple Orioles hires have participated in Diamond Dollars, and in those cases Gelles had a chance to briefly see those people in action during their case presentations. In at least one instance, Diamond Dollars served as evidence of an interest in and knowledge of baseball on the resume of an MBA recipient that was otherwise more general, as oppose to tailored to a career in baseball.

“It’s definitely a good way for us to [gauge talent],” Gelles said. “[One person] didn’t have any baseball experience except for this, so I think it was helpful to see. We look for the most talented individuals.”

Imagine being a needle in a haystack—an inanimate object waiting helplessly, hoping to defy probability and be found. Those are the students’ resumes sitting on someone’s desk or desktop. Now imagine being in charge of digging through the haystack to find not only a needle, but the sharpest one. That’s the clubs’ task.

Barra sees the many resumes the Mets receive. Diamond Dollars helps him, however slightly, digest them.

“It’s good to see the person behind the resume,” Barra said. “We get hundreds of resumes from candidates each year, and [it’s beneficial] to be able to see people communicate and demonstrate their knowledge and [see that] they’re not just a robot.

“The younger group of guys now have so many more ways to express their opinion—whether it’s through events like this or writing for Hardball Times or FanGraphs or [Baseball] Prospectus. There’s just so much more information that’s available now than there was five years ago, 10 years ago. We’re seeing a stronger group of guys than we’ve ever had to pick from in the past.”

SABR Getting Younger?

The organization, now in its fifth decade of existence, generally skews older in terms of members’ ages, so anything that attracts the next generation is a positive. That is one secondary benefit to the existence and growth of Diamond Dollars, Gennaro hopes.

The continued expansion of the competition should assist that effort. As it stands now, Gennaro organizes two competitions per year, one in New York in the fall featuring northeast teams and one in Phoenix in March (in association with the annual SABR Analytics Conference) that draws schools from around the country. This year the Phoenix edition is March 12, and Gennaro expects around 20 groups to compete. Anyone seeking more information can find more info here. And Gennaro, who serves as the director of the master of science in sports management program at Columbia University, intends to expand Diamond Dollars’ reach even further.

“I’m getting interest from other parts of the country,” Gennaro said. “I think I’ll end up doing more. It’s just a matter of me finding the bandwidth to do that.”

Gennaro pitches Diamond Dollars alongside SABR’s college membership deal. Schools can get up to 25 memberships for $250 — so, $10 apiece — if they can get a sizeable group together.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity to attract younger people to SABR,” Gennaro said of the case competition. “This type of event does a lot to attract people to—and even make people aware of—SABR. It’s helped us improve our demographics. We’re excited about that.”

As excited, perhaps, as the students who present in the hopes of flashing their analytical chops at this proving ground of sorts.

“I wasn’t as fortunate to identify right off the bat that these are the skills you’re going to need in the industry,” Snyder said. “A lot of these people here have the benefit of being able to identify that earlier.”


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Tim Healey is a Boston-based sportswriter. He works for Sports on Earth and the Boston Globe and can work for you, too, if you want. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey or email him here.
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Matt Redinger
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Matt Redinger

I was lucky enough to be a part of the very first Diamond Dollars Case competition at the 2012 SABR Analytics Conference. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to someone that loves baseball, research, and analytics. Thank you for the great article about this event!

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