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Intelligent Machines

Farhan Zaidi '98

Baseball and statistics are a natural match

One afternoon late in 2004, Farhan Zaidi ‘98, then a graduate student at UC Berkeley, was scrolling through his favorite websites as he ate his lunch. He was in the midst of his PhD research in behavioral economics, a branch of economics that incorporates elements of psychology. But when he saw a posting for a baseball operations position with the Oakland A’s, he dropped his sandwich and shot off a résumé immediately. “It was too good to pass up,” Zaidi says. He beat more than 1,000 other applicants to get the job, which he began after taking leave from Berkeley in January 2005. He’s now in his sixth season with the team, his second as director of baseball operations.

Zaidi, who was born in Canada, played Little League baseball growing up in the Philippines and watched the big-leaguers on summer vacations with relatives on both U.S. coasts. At MIT, he studied public finance and development economics. He also led the undergraduate economics association, organizing lectures by all-stars including Paul Krugman, PhD ‘77, now a Nobel laureate. After graduation he worked in management consulting for the Boston Consulting Group and then in business development for the Sporting News’ fantasy-sports website before heading west for graduate school.

This story is part of the May/June 2011 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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With the A’s—the team known for pioneering the use of metrics instead of relying solely on old-school scouting—Zaidi does statistical analysis to evaluate and target new players and trade prospects, almost as if they were equity assets. “I still use Stata, the statistical program I used as an undergrad,” he says. More important, he uses the critical-thinking skills he honed at MIT. “We deal with a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of value in being able to be decisive,” he says. “There are good trades, bad trades; there will be times when you come out on the wrong end, but if you have the right process, you’re going to be right more times than you’re wrong.”

Zaidi also travels with the team and helps with contract negotiations. Those negotiations may get more media attention when Moneyball, a movie starring Brad Pitt as A’s general manager Billy Beane, comes out later this year. “It’s going to be like a baseball version of Ocean’s Eleven,” Zaidi says. “I’m sure it’ll do well.”

Last fall, Zaidi finally finished that PhD. He’s engaged to marry his Burton-Conner housemate Lucy Fang ‘00, an architect and product designer, this year.

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