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Inside Baseball

As assistant GM of the St. Louis Cardinals, John Abbamondi ‘93 revels in the data analysis that goes into fielding a winning team.

The contents of John Abbamondi’s in-box wouldn’t be out of place on The Office–a new cell-phone policy to approve, employee reviews to tackle. “It’s all kinds of normal company stuff, because this is a company,” says Abbamondi ‘93.

Then again, most companies don’t have Albert Pujols on the payroll or 10 World Series titles to their credit.

This story is part of the September/October 2009 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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Now finishing his second year as assistant general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Abbamondi is part of a new wave of baseball executives bringing fresh perspective to the game. “Teams are looking for an edge in any way they can,” he says. “They are using more people from a nontraditional background, because clubs recognize that a relentless pursuit of improvement means that you try to look through as many informational lenses as you possibly can.” Combining skills such as quantitative analysis with an ability to mine innovative ideas from unconventional places, Abbamondi has helped the 2006 World Series champs remain postseason contenders.

Major League front offices are often staffed by baseball lifers who have spent years playing, coaching, or scouting everything from college ball on up. Abbamondi, however, came to the Cardinals by a more unconventional route. He attended MIT on a navy ROTC scholarship and spent the next nine years as a naval flight officer. But he was also a baseball aficionado and “kept following baseball, particularly the business side,” he says. “I was the guy reading the news on collective-bargaining agreements and reading books by [sports economist] Andrew Zimbalist.”

Abbamondi began to think even more seriously about sports after he left the navy to attend Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. As he weighed possible post-MBA careers, classmate and San Francisco 49ers employee Paraag Marathe introduced him to several people in the sports industry, and business-school classes with sports management guru George Foster further piqued his interest–and gave him an opportunity to meet Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s.

In 2004, those informal connections and some mentoring helped him land a job in Major League Baseball’s labor-­relations department, which negotiates and administers collective-­bargaining agreements with players and umpires. There, he found himself drawing on quantitative skills he’d honed as a political-science major at MIT. “There were lots of public-policy-oriented problems that we looked at quantitatively,” he says. “It’s not altogether different from the stuff I did in the commissioner’s office.”

The group also served as a central advisor to MLB teams, giving Abbamondi a consulting opportunity that would prove a crucial stepping stone. “It was a good place to learn the business,” he says. “Club executives would come to you with their trickier problems, and we got to respond and help clubs solve them. We got a ton of experience, and got to meet people from a lot of clubs.” Shortly after the Cardinals’ 2006 victory, John Mozeliak, then the club’s assistant GM, asked for advice on contract negotiations with David Eckstein, who’d just received the World Series MVP award. “We could act as a dispassionate third party and say, ‘He’s a great player, but here’s what this similar player signed for as a comparison,’ ” he says.

So when Mozeliak succeeded Walt Jocketty as general manager, he already knew what Abbamondi could do. Abbamondi joined the club in December 2007, and his network of relationships paid almost immediate dividends. “I’d only been there for a month or so when we traded Scott Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays for Troy Glaus,” he says. “Since I had helped the Blue Jays’ assistant GM out in the past in my role at MLB, we already knew each other. I like to think I’d built a reputation as a straight shooter, so they knew that a guy who was helping them a month ago wasn’t going to screw them now.”

Being a straight shooter is a major asset in baseball. Although it may be a simple game (as the irascible coach in Bull Durham put it, “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball”), the work that goes into building a baseball team is anything but simple. While it used to be mainly a matter of conferring with scouts and drafting and assembling the best players you could afford, today’s baseball executives must evaluate and integrate information from a flood of diverse sources–scouting reports, statistical analysis, medical data, and contract and payroll figures. “It’s all about looking at all the information you can find and putting it together in a way that makes sense to help you make the best decisions,” says Abbamondi. “How can we give ourselves the best possible chance of doing something nearly impossible: predicting the future?”

If a club is weighing whether to acquire a particular pitcher, for example, one of the first questions is whether he’s likely to stay healthy. “Of course we’ll lean heavily on medical-staff opinion, but we also want to know what our scouts think of his pitching mechanics,” Abbamondi says. “Do they see any red flags that might lead to injury? Meanwhile, the stats guy may look at the track record of other pitchers who have thrown this many innings by this age.” The trick is to blend qualitative and quantitative analysis.

“The foundation of all analysis tends to go back to scouting, but that’s one guy sitting in a ballpark, and you can’t have people at every game,” he says. Statistical tools like Pitch F/x, which delivers data on every pitch thrown, can help confirm or refute the more subjective analysis. “Say a scout went to see a prospect and wrote a glowing report,” says Abbamondi. “We can check that game data to see if it’s consistent with this pitcher’s other games. If the data shows us that the pitcher was doing something a little different that day, maybe the scout caught him on a very good day. We might not realize it was an outlier without that data.”

Abbamondi has also helped lead an effort to make the club’s information much more accessible–and easier to slice and dice. For example, scouts now submit player evaluation reports to a Web-based database that’s integrated with the Cardinals’ statistical systems. “Fifty years ago, if you wanted to know about a player, you pulled a written file,” he says. But now, “I can go to one system and ask for all the left-handed relief pitchers with scouting grades above a certain level and statistical projections at or above a certain number.”

Beyond making it easier to analyze the existing information, Abbamondi tries to build competitive advantage by adopting ideas from unlikely places. “You have to look outside our industry to think about how we can continually improve,” he says, citing a chapter from surgeon and New Yorker medical writer Atul Gawande’s book Better that explores the dramatic improvement in battlefield survival rates in the past decade. “It wasn’t an advance in medical technology but, rather, process improvement in battlefield triage treatment,” he says. “They are changing the supply chain in medical care, and we think about how that could translate to baseball. Should we wait for better MRI technology to predict pitcher injuries, or can we do it by improving processes or how we are organized?”

In a sense, baseball is a sport of numbers, but Abbamondi never forgets that those statistics are produced by humans. “Our business is different in that our units of productions are people with real-world problems, and [it’s important to go] above and beyond baseball analysis to deal with those issues,” he says. “We have a player, Khalil Greene, dealing with social-anxiety disorder. Knowing what he’s going through and how it’s affecting him and the team is the sort of thing you can’t learn from a spreadsheet. You have to be around the clubhouse and get to know the players as people, and do what you can to put them in a place to succeed.”

Because of baseball’s human element, fans forge emotional connections that can last lifetimes and cross generations. Sitting in the dugout of Dodger Stadium last year, Abbamondi flashed back to his first baseball game, which he’d watched with his father at that very stadium. “I’m fortunate to work in a game where I can still touch on the memories from my childhood, and sometimes that comes home in a deep way,” he says. “I still get a real sense of wonder getting to watch players like Pujols take batting practice every day, and I hope that never wears off.”

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