The baseball employment revolution: Why thousands have signed up for a free online course

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Over the past month, since registration opened for the free online course Sabermetrics 101, a 13,464-person army of the curious, the dreamers, the scholarly and all other kinds signed up and turned a clever idea into a rousing success. The course launched Thursday morning. Nerdery went massively mainstream. The world did not end.

Actually, it got better, much better, and not simply because the brains behind the course, Boston-based professor Andy Andres, has put together a curriculum that explains the importance of baseball analytics, their history and even offers a tool through which students themselves can code projects. SABR101x, as it's called, is the latest signpost of the ongoing employment revolution in baseball, one that stretches from analytics to scouting and will continue to upend the makeup of front offices across the sport.

It's well underway already, with students parlaying math talents into internships and low-level baseball-operations positions while writers for mainstream sites Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs land higher-up gigs with striking frequency. The combination of their contributions and a far more qualified pool of applicants only encourages teams to look beyond the typical hire of the past – former ballplayer – and consider those like Andres' students from the in-person sabermetrics seminar he has taught at Tufts University since 2004.

"When I started, there were less jobs in baseball ops," Andres said. "Now there's more. That's just one factor. The other factor is when there were jobs, the only candidates really were ballplayers. If you look at the roster of people who are GMs or assistant GMs today, most of them come from D-I, D-II, D-III programs. That's how you did it. If you played baseball, you could get the job. They would take the ballplayer over that guy.

"That's what's shifted. Now you can be a nerd-type who's willing to plug away, and you can get that job."

Employment is no guarantee from Andres' online course, a mixture of video lectures, hands-on work and problem sets that can be graded automatically. Boston University offers the course on the edX platform that hosts more than 170 others on everything from robot mechanics to Chinese architecture to molecular gastronomy. The six-week program is meant more as a combination history lesson and idea fertilizer: draw people's interest, get them thinking and hope the introductions to the SQL and R programming languages used throughout baseball front offices inspire them to solve problems themselves.

Certainly Andres, a 54-year-old biology professor at BU, doesn't anticipate all 13,000-plus enrolled will complete the course. About 10 percent of those signed up finish the best edX courses, and the low end is around 5 percent, which even then is a staggering number of potential candidates to work in the industry.

"Let's say it's a 5 percent success rate, people really plugging through the work and getting it done," Andres said. "That's 700 people. Just imagine that. I've been teaching this course at Tufts every year, 20 kids, a seminar. It's a fun class. This is 700 at once. That's incredible."

The democratization of knowledge isn't simply on the numbers side. As scouting and analytics have found themselves not just in tighter quarters but often bedfellows, a blending of the communities has taken place as well, infusing the game with some whose playing backgrounds ended well before college, if at all. The Houston Astros – whose commitment to hiring those without playing backgrounds supports an organizational philosophy that different thought may be better thought – hired Baseball Prospectus prospects writer Kevin Goldstein to oversee their pro-scouting department nearly two years ago.

His replacement at Prospectus, Jason Parks, overhauled the department to develop an in-house scouting group. His fluctuating staff – normally it's around a dozen – gloms off the philosophy Parks learned spending time with Rangers executives A.J. Preller and Don Welke.

"I don't think learning is the way I'd put it," Parks said. "I would suggest they can be molded into the job. I don't teach these guys how to be talent evaluators. I expose them to scouting debate and discussion among a big group.

"The promise of platform to these kids is huge. If you get read in Baseball Prospectus, the industry will see you."

He's right. Within the last year, four from Parks' staff have been hired into scouting or baseball-ops jobs: Jason Cole with the Rays, Zach Mortimer with the Cardinals, Josh Herzenberg with the Diamondbacks and Steffan Segui with the Indians.

They may ascend the ladder. They may burn out. The greater point, one appreciated by Parks and Andres, is that no longer does baseball operate as some insular community and shun anyone who isn't part of the club. Andres' students, too, have found success, from Peter Bendix with the Rays to Matt McGrath with the Dodgers to Mike DeBartolo with the Nationals.

DeBartolo took the first Sabermetrics 101 course at Tufts in 2004, right around the time the Red Sox were winning their first championship in 86 years.

"It was almost too good to be true for me at Tufts," he said. "I had read ‘Moneyball.' I grew up a huge Red Sox fan, respecting Theo Epstein and all they did. It was a good model.

"It was a little family of baseball nerds."

Baseball lured DeBartolo back after almost half a decade in the corporate world. During his time at Columbia earning an MBA, he realized he wanted to solve the same sorts of problems and answer the kinds of questions he did in Andres' class, and he now endeavors to do as much daily as a baseball-operations analyst with Washington.

Already Andres is hoping to teach a Sabermetrics 201 course that includes the deeper sort of analysis done by front offices with big data, from PITCHf/x to perhaps the fielding data MLB plans to gather in every stadium starting next season. The 101 isn't there to breed immediate successes so much as it is to introduce this world that's still daunting and mysterious.

"I think baseball-ops departments look at this and chuckle," Andres said. "They're so far advanced beyond what I'm doing, they're like, ‘Eh, OK.' But I've had people ask how to evaluate these piles of resumes they get and tell me the right person. And I'm hoping we have some people start here."

He's got 13,464 to choose from. The numbers, as usual, are in his favor.

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