The Numbers Game

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pro_SaberPitcher2Multiple Classes | Growing up in San Francisco, Samuel Mondry-Cohen C’10 led what he calls a “charmed baseball life.” When he was a high-school sophomore, a family friend helped him land the coveted job of batboy for visiting teams at AT&T Park (home of the Giants), which meant that for the next five years Mondry-Cohen had a better-than-front-row seat to the games—and to the empirical data exploding in the blog-o-sphere after the 2003 publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

“All these things came together at the same time,” Mondry-Cohen explains. “The Internet took off; Moneyball was published; and baseball blogs gained respectability. Baseball as a game had always lent itself to keeping statistics, but with the Internet, people were able to share these statistics, comment on them, and tweak them. The conversation improved.”

Mondry-Cohen came by his love of numbers and baseball honestly. His parents—high-school mathematics teacher Bruce Cohen and attorney Gale Mondry—were devoted fans of legendary analyst Bill James, and they followed baseball partly through its rich statistical life. The 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract, Mondry-Cohen recalls, “was an anniversary gift from my father to my mother.”

No surprise, then, that Mondry-Cohen landed a dream job right out of college, collecting and analyzing data for the Washington Nationals, climbing the ladder to his current position as director of baseball research and development. But here’s the curveball: he did it with a degree in English, two introductory statistics courses, and a self-initiated, one-hour-a-week tutorial with Adi Wyner, chair of Wharton’s undergraduate program in statistics.

During the summers of his junior and senior years at Penn, Mondry-Cohen managed to snag internships with the Nationals, and quickly made himself indispensible as a researcher.

“I was one of only a couple of people reading baseball research online and could cite three different articles on the value of a stolen base,” he laughs. “There was no formal data-analysis department at the time, other than what Adam Cromie [now assistant general manager, then assistant director of baseball operations] was doing. He realized I could help him.”

And so Mondry-Cohen turned out reports analyzing such topics as the value of a player’s speed beyond stolen bases, and expected production from minimum-salary players. When he returned to Penn his senior year, Mondry-Cohen continued to generate research for Cromie. Then, he says, “the research got to be over my head.” That’s when the English major showed up at Wyner’s office at Wharton.

Wyner, who currently hosts “Wharton Moneyball,” a Sirius radio show devoted entirely to sports analytics [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2014], was a known baseball guy. He was the principal investigator on the ESPN-funded MLB player-evaluation research project and developer of SAFE (Spatial Aggregate Fielding Evaluation), an “elegant model,” according to Mondry-Cohen, for determining how good a player is at defense. He had also worked with Shane Jensen, associate professor of statistics, on a number of projects for ESPN The Magazine.

Mondry-Cohen recalls that when he asked Wyner some questions about general baseball stats, the professor “didn’t bite.” Instead, Wyner suggested that the undergraduate take a few statistics courses and come back.

Mondry-Cohen did come back—the next week. This time, according to Wyner, he pitched an “interesting research project” (the one he was working on for Cromie). That piqued Wyner’s interest.

“I realized Sam lacked the general computer and statistics skills, but that he had an understanding of the material,” Wyner remembers. So he agreed to tutor Mondry-Cohen for an hour a week to bring him up to speed.

“He created a special office-hour slot once a week just for me, an undergraduate who was not his student, for my entire senior year,” says Mondry-Cohen. “It is a testament to the University and to him that he extended himself to me and continues to do so. Whenever I need something, he is always there.”

It turns out that Mondry-Cohen was not the first fledgling baseball analytics student to come knocking. Matthew Carruth EAS’07, now a software engineer at Zillow who contributes to baseball blogs on the side and runs his own statistical warehouse website, StatCorner.com, had been there a few years earlier.

“I was waiting for my TA’s office hours and noticed a quote on Professor Jensen’s door relating to baseball stats,” Carruth recalls. “On a whim, I knocked and initiated a conversation with him on the subject.”

Carruth ended up working with Wyner and Jensen on a project evaluating catchers for ESPN The Magazine. Though he was never tempted to pursue a career with a team, he continues to do baseball research on his own.

“For me, baseball research within the advanced community has reached the long tail, chasing minute improvements,” he explains. “That’s valuable to those directly involved but no longer to me.”

Those are the kinds of details that are very important to Matt Swartz C’03 G’09 Gr’09, an economist for Cigna who has been working as a consultant for Mondry-Cohen since March 2013, when they met at the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) Analytics conference. Swartz, a native Philadelphian, discovered analytics relatively late in its ascendency, after reading Moneyball in 2005.

“I had heard there was a book about baseball numbers, but it came out the first year of my PhD program, which is pretty intense,” he laughs. “I read it cover to cover on a plane and was instantly obsessed. There was an entire world out there that I had not even heard of.”

Having “emailed anyone [he] could find,” Swartz got plugged in pretty quickly and began contributing to the baseball blog-o-sphere, writing for such online publications as FanGraphs, Hardball Times, and MLB Trade Rumors. That soon connected him to Mondry-Cohen, who wanted to hire him despite the fact that Swartz was a fan of the rival Phillies. (“I think he knew I went to Penn,” explains Swartz with a laugh.)

Before their deal was sealed, however, yet another Penn baseball connection appeared in the person of Jeff Luhnow EAS’89 W’89, general manager of the Houston Astros [“Alumni Profiles,” Mar|Apr 2013]. He offered Swartz a full-time job in Houston—a move that prompted the Nats to make a counter-offer.

Swartz “wondered what our commitment level was,” says Mondry-Cohen. “So we made a longer-term commitment which has worked out beautifully for both of us. From my perspective, Swartz does really valuable work for us.”

Swartz, who is not at liberty to discuss the projects he is working on for the Nationals, appreciates the fact that they have let him continue to contribute to online publications. (He now roots for them, even when they are playing the Phillies.)

As for Mondry-Cohen, the former English major is slated to be a guest on Wyner’s radio show in the near future. Looking back at his time at Penn, he doesn’t regret the academic choices he made.

“I probably would have taken more statistics courses,” he says, “but I might not have some of the language to communicate between the front office and the statistical side without the English major.”

—Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09
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