The Wall Street Journal once dubbed Marlins reliever Craig Breslow “the smartest man in baseball, if not the entire world.” The Sporting News had him ranked as the smartest athlete in any sport in 2010.
Given his degree from Yale University in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, those claims would be hard to challenge — particularly in a sport in which estimates place the number of college graduates at fewer than 5 percent of all major-league players.
“You can tell his brain works at a different frequency,” said Marlins pitcher David Phelps, who is no dummy.
Phelps has a degree in political science from Notre Dame.
But Breslow, a 35-year-old left-hander who spurned a chance to attend the prestigious New York University School of Medicine in order to play baseball, is a cut above all others, at least academically.
“I can’t compete with that,” said Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler, who has a degree in history and sociology from Stony Brook.
If all it took was brains to make the Marlins’ Opening Day roster, Breslow would be a shoo-in. But it’s his arm that will dictate ultimately whether he lands in the Marlins bullpen, and Breslow will be trying to prove this spring he merits that opportunity.
“I’m not here to talk about Yale,” Breslow said. “I’m here to get people out.”
The Marlins signed Breslow to a minor-league contract believing, based on his baseball résumé, that he is capable of doing just that.
In 10 seasons with six different clubs, Breslow has crafted a 3.31 ERA — a figure that is only slightly lower than his 3.5 college GPA — in 524 appearances, all but two out of the bullpen.
He spent the past four seasons with the Red Sox, helping Boston win the World Series in 2013. But he struggled each of the past two seasons because health issues.
“He knows the game,” said new Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves, who was Breslow’s pitching coach in Boston. “He sees the game within the game, and that’s what impresses me about him.”
Breslow could be the ultimate thinking man’s pitcher.
He developed a fascination with medicine as a child when he broke his arm, and it became his passion at 12 when his sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“The experience of having a sibling that’s diagnosed with cancer at a young age can have a pretty lasting impact on your career path, and so that was just kind of a natural fit,” Breslow said.
Breslow excelled on the diamond and in the classroom at Yale, where he led the Ivy League as a senior with a 2.65 ERA and was then accepted to NYU to study medicine.
He was forced to make a choice: baseball or medicine.
“There’s a much narrower window to pursue baseball than there is to pursue medicine, and I needed to put one off in order to pursue the other,” he said.
Using that reasoning, baseball won out.
But after bouncing around the minors for a few years and then being cut, he began to have second thoughts.
“I was released in 2004 from A ball with this kind of standing deferment from NYU, and then that decision became very real,” Breslow said. “Do I want to be a 24-year-old Ivy League graduate with this degree, and this contingency plan, toiling in the minor leagues? Ultimately, the answer was yes.”
So Breslow stuck it out and reached the majors with San Diego the following year.
Now, Breslow said he has no strong interest in going to medical school. He said that once his pitching career is over, he will likely remain in the sport, perhaps in a front-office role.
He understands baseball analytics in a way that most players don’t.
“I know my share, but it seems as though there are new metrics coming out daily,” he said. “I think being able to calculate them is not nearly as important as being able to analyze and understand them.
“I’ve looked at Batting Average on Balls in Play [BABIP] at various times through my career.”
But Breslow is not ready to make that leap just yet.
“I would say that the longer I’m in this game, the harder it will be to leave it, he said. “For right now, I’m just worried about continuing to play.”