Whenever Marlins baseball operations president Michael Hill is mulling a personnel move, he’ll check in with his executives and scouts who spent years watching hundreds of games. He’ll also solicit the opinion of the 31-year-old prodigy with the office down the hall, the former Baseball Prospectus writer with the bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from Yale and a computer that can spit out detailed data on any player, any time.
Jason Parè, who grew up a Red Sox fan in Providence, R.I. and never played baseball beyond little league, never envisioned growing up to be the senior director of analytics for a big-league team. But only because it never occurred to him, or probably anybody else, that this job would even exist.
“It wasn’t something I envisioned for myself until I read the book Moneyball because I wasn’t aware these type of jobs existed,” said Parè, referring to author Michael Lewis’ chronicling of the early 21st-century Oakland A’s. “When I read Moneyball, I said, ‘Wow, that seems like something I would really love to do and I think I could be good at it.’
“To work in baseball, I assumed you had to have a relative who was the owner or you had to have played 20 years in the big leagues or something. It’s been a really good thing for me personally and for people of my background that this has been something that the game has come to embrace because we can bring some interesting thoughts to the table.”
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No, Marlins front-office meetings don’t quite resemble the scenes in the 2011 film Moneyball when nerdy Ivy Leaguer Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) spewed statistics loudly, rapid-fire, at the whim of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), with Brand’s suggestions eliciting skepticism or outright disdain from the crusty, set-in-their-way scouts that regarded such analytic work as flawed.
“I try not to shout basically at all,” Parè said of the way Moneyball portrayed analytics geeks. “It’s interesting how the job has evolved in the last decade. In the beginning, people had to figuratively shout a little bit more to get their point of view across. Now that there’s an appreciation for what we do and the information we can provide, it’s a little bit more of an even-keeled perspective.
“You have the scouting perspective and the development perspective and the old school baseball stuff. Then you have my stuff as well. Because there’s a level of buy-in, you don’t have to really pound the table and shout to get your opinion heard.”
So what was realistic about the movie?
“There was sort of a divide between the traditional scouting and the analytics stuff a decade ago,” Parè said. “I do think that gap has closed quite a bit and teams realize that just any source of information they can get more of and better of is going to help them make better decisions and be more of a competitive advantage.
“For every organization I’ve worked with (the Marlins, Indians and Blue Jays), there has been none of that animosity between the scouts and the analytics people. You’re all kind of pulling in the same direction. Even though there are disagreements about certain player evaluations and strategy, there’s a healthy respect in the game today for both sides of it.”
Eager to build an analytics department, an area where other teams had gotten a leg up, the Marlins in the spring of 2016 hired Parè away from the Toronto Blue Jays, where he was No. 2 on their analytics staff. Wearing jeans, Parè interviewed with the Marlins on a layover when returning to Canada on a vacation in Brazil.
Before Parè, the Marlins only had one person doing something resembling analytics work, Dan Noffsinger, whose background was in scouting. Now they have seven, including two interns who work on projects and feed information into The Fishbag, the Marlins’ data base where you can find most anything on any big-league player with the possible exception of what Marcell Ozuna bats on Thursdays when he has a hangnail.
The mission of analytics departments can be summarized pretty simply:
“Predicting the future of what players are going to do is the gold standard of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Parè said. There are always new and better ways you can do that.”
So Parè is constantly pushing himself to come up with those new and better ways, typing notes in his I-phone or scribbling on a notepad when an idea strikes, whether it’s at a supermarket, gas station or in the shower (“all of the above,” he said) or on a date with a girlfriend.
Hill consults him before most personnel moves and Parè likes to be well-preParèd.
“I kind of like to collect my thoughts and email and send them off,” he said. “Sometimes Mike will come into my office and ask me what I have on a player. We try to build systems where we’re not just running things on the fly when Mike asks about a player. We have a profile of the guy, his statistics, we have what our models have on him. We have our collection of scouting reports. We try to have it all in one place so where we’re more preParèd and can make better decisions.”
When Hill asks his opinion on minor-league prospects, “I can’t just say this guy is going to be a big-leaguer and that’s it. I can say well, there’s a 70 percent chance for him to be a big league but there’s floor vs. ceiling argument.”
Are there times when a statistical program will tell him one thing about a player and his eyes tell him differently and he’s thus hesitant to share his information with Hill?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Everything is with numbers and statistics but there’s certainly a range of conviction you have with the various secrets” – all of which are as closely guarded as Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recipes.
Parè spends most of his day in front of a computer, and guiding his staff with their ongoing projects, but he also likes to watch a lot of baseball – including Marlins’ minor league affiliates – to give him ideas and a broader perspective.
Surprisingly, he says he’s “terrible” at math – “I topped out at calculus 3 and that was about it for me” – but in running an analytics department, “the creativity is more important than the actual nitty gritty math you’re doing.”
Will there ever be a time when these analytics guys can craft formulas to make computers spit out information that leads to near perfect forecasts of player performance?
“We’re never going to be perfect,” Parè said. “Just like predicting earthquakes or the stock market or anything that has hidden variables that you can’t measure is never going to be perfect, especially something with the human element to it,” he said.
“But I do think we can get better as time goes on. Early on in my career, one thing I didn’t do well was I sort of forgot players are human beings with families and mortgages and hopes and dreams and interests and if they have a bad day at the office, it might affect their performance on the field, just like anybody else. So I try to be cognizant of that in predicting performance, even though I can’t necessarily fold that in some times.”
Much of what he does is shrouded in secrecy; Hill declined to say which personnel moves were particularly influenced by Parè data. Parè also wouldn’t discuss that.
For now, Parè is enjoying the ride, navigating a job that didn’t exist in MLB when the Marlins last won a World Series.
“I’m legitimately excited to wake up every day and come to work, which is something not many people can say,” he said.
This feature is part of a Miami Herald business series on people in South Florida with interesting jobs.
Here’s my post with a bunch of Dolphins notes from Monday, including news on personnel changes and a starter being named.