A Conversation with Red Sox Analytics Department Overseer Zack Scott

Zack Scott is currently one of four people running Boston’s baseball operations department. Along with Raquel Ferreira, Brian O’Halloran, and Eddie Romero Jr, the 16-year member of the team’s front office is keeping a chair warm while the search for Dave Dombrowski’s replacement continues. His core responsibilities remain largely the same. Scott’s title is Senior Vice President/Assistant General Manager, and per the Red Sox media guide, he “oversees the club’s Baseball Analytics and Baseball Systems departments.”

What is the current state of Boston’s analytics department, and how much has it changed since the University of Vermont graduate (B.S. in Mathematics) joined the organization in 2004? I addressed those questions with Scott following the completion of the Red Sox season.


David Laurila: How much has the Red Sox analytics department grown over the years?

Zack Scott: “There’s been a lot of growth, not just with us, but in the industry. As you know, there’s been an explosion of data. Throwing out round-number estimates, when I started there were around 10,000 data points, and now it’s more like 10 billion data points. And a lot of that has been the last five years. So the need to grow is apparent; there’s only so much you can do with a short staff.”

Laurila: How many people are currently in the department?

Scott: “We added five new employees last offseason. Overall, our R&D team is 15 people. It’s around half analysts, half software developers/technology-implementation.”

Laurila: There’s a perception that the Red Sox went from one of the top analytics teams in baseball to one that is below the top tier. Is that accurate?

Scott: “I’d say that early on the Red Sox were considered ahead of the curve. We had people like Bill James and Tom Tippett. I was doing some analytical work, and we had consultants. We did stay kind of stagnant for awhile, while a lot of the industry grew and got ahead of us. But I feel like in the last few years — three to five years — we’ve caught up, and that we’re in a really good spot. I think we have outstanding, brilliant minds on our analytics staff. I look back and laugh at the type of analytical work I was doing in 2004. It’s just so much more advanced now.”

Laurila: Was the period of stagnation a matter of complacency?

Scott: “I think it’s more that there are a lot of decisions that have to be made on staffs, and you can’t always do everything at once. For instance, we increased our scouting staff in a big way. And for awhile, because of the kind of data that was out there, we didn’t really need to [grow the department]. Then, when we were late, when we should have been more aggressively growing… I wouldn’t say it was complacency. Again, it was more of where you’re picking and choosing to invest your resources. So we did want to invest in this area, it just took a little more time than we’d hoped.”

Laurila: What changed when Dave Dombrowski came on board [as President of Baseball Operations, in August 2015]?

Scott: “We actually grew on his watch more than on any GM’s watch, in terms of size of our department. Dave came from a much smaller front office. He’d be the first one to admit that they weren’t doing a lot analytically with the Tigers. But he was very open to learning, so they were just slightly different conversations, with a different level of engagement. There was a different comfort level with him. That said, it’s our job as [an analytics department] to make everything we do digestible for any audience. That was true when it with was Ben [Cherington] and Theo [Epstein]. They just had a different level of interest, and understanding. So in the end it wasn’t all that different, it was just a different audience.”

Laurila: What about after Alex Cora took over as manager [in November 2017]?

Scott: “I was part of the team that interviewed him [for the job], and right away in the interview it was clear that he wanted to do a lot analytically in the big-league clubhouse. Coming from Houston, an analytically forward-thinking organization, he’d been exposed to that, and very much valued the information he’d been getting. I credit him a lot for us advancing quite a bit in the last two years. It was out of necessity, because with Alex there was a demand for the information. We had to step up and deliver.”

Laurila: The Astros, Dodgers, Rays, and Yankees probably have the most robust analytics departments in the game, and not only are all four in the postseason, two of them are in your division. Does your department need to grow even more, simply to keep up?

Scott: “We’re always continuing to evolve and get better in every aspect of the baseball operation. Again, I feel that in the last two years, especially, we’ve caught up. I would agree with you that those teams are the cream of the crop in the industry, but we’re right there. Where we’re really trying to improve now is on the implementation side. When you grow rapidly, like we did, there are a lot of tools you need to create, and a lot of analysis you need to perform. From that standpoint I feel we’re loaded and ready to go.

“One thing that happens when grow really quickly is that implementation becomes more of a challenge. When you’re trying to do stuff really fast, and roll it out to the proper audiences — whether it’s on the evaluation side, or the on-field strategy side — there are going to be hiccups along the way. We’ve experienced that. So for us, it’s about implementation. The teams that have been doing this longer, like the ones you mentioned… that’s where they’re probably ahead of us in some ways. The size of the staff for some of those teams — I’d say three of them — is significantly larger, as well.

Laurila: How large are their respective departments?

Scott: “It’s hard to know exactly from what’s out there publicly — media guides, online, etcetera — but for the Yankees, Dodgers, and Rays it’s around 25 people. Like I said, we’re at 15. The Astros are around where we are in terms of numbers.”

Laurila: Is it possible to have too large of a department?

Scott: “Yes. When you increase the size of a team it becomes a management challenge. It becomes a challenge to make sure everyone is on the same page, and that everyone is functioning optimally. We want to be as efficient as we can. Some organizations that have larger numbers have found ways to utilize those folks, but again, you can’t add everywhere, all the time. So yeah, I would worry that having too many people would create some challenges for us.”

Laurila: Do the people in your department work primarily on their own projects, or is the structure more collaborative in nature?

Scott: “They collaborate a lot. We try to leverage the different skills, different strengths, of different analysts. This is the first year we had each analyst be a liaison to a different branch of baseball operations. For example, our player development point person wouldn’t just work on player development analysis, he was the point person for coaches and staff to talk to. Same thing with amateur scouting. Both domestic and international had a point person. Pro had a point person. We also had an analyst in the clubhouse this year, with Alex, for the first time. That was Jeb Clark, who came over to us from the Cincinnati Reds.

“That’s how we changed our structure this year. It was to improve communication. And I think there is more area of opportunity for us improve there. We have a lot of ideas on how we can do that going into next year, from what we’ve learned from that process this year.”

Laurila: What role is technology playing in your efforts?

Scott: “There is so much technology out there. We hear from vendors all the time, trying to pitch us on things. When that happens, you need to have a really good process to vet the different types of technologies. Sports science alone… I heard a basketball sports scientist talking last year about how she wanted to bring in a wearable technology that would monitor heart rate variability, and there are a number of those. She had to figure out which is the best. What are the pros and cons of each one? What was going to be right for this organization as they try to implement it?

“We’re trying to do things on the field — in-game, in a practice setting… there’s a lot we want to do. Players are coming in hungry for that sort of information. There’s a lot of it that goes on in colleges, so when you draft players some have already been exposed to it to a certain degree.”

Laurila: Technology aside, how much are you trying to predict the future? I’m thinking primarily of trends within the game.

Scott: “That’s something we’re always trying to stay ahead of. It’s nothing new. I can recall talking to Theo, way back when, about anticipating different trends. That conversation took place when we drafted Jacoby Ellsbury. We were feeling like the game was trending toward his skill set becoming more valuable. Power had dipped for a little bit, and we thought that might continue to happen. So we’re always trying to stay on top of trends, but it’s not easy. It’s hard for us to know what’s going to happen with the baseball, and all these different things.”

Laurila: The team will soon be hiring a new President of Baseball Operations, and/or new General Manager. How important will it be for Dave Dombrowski’s replacement to be heavily invested in analytics?

Scott: “I expect that this organization will be bringing in someone who shares a lot of the values of John Henry and the rest of our ownership group. John is very generous in investing in my department, and values the kind of work we’re doing, so I fully expect that whoever comes in will share those values. The relationship I have [with the new GM] will thus be important.

“Right before Dave came on, there were several meetings and discussions where [Henry] expressed a concern that we had lagged behind the rest of the industry. It was a great opportunity for me to present to him where we were at that time, where we wanted to be, and how I thought we could get there. He was extremely supportive, and we put together a multi-year plan to grow the department. We didn’t want to just hire 10 people right away. We wanted to have a good hiring process, and make sure we brought on board high-quality people. We wanted to bring them into the fold in a systematic way, so that we weren’t throwing too much against the wall and creating the management challenge I referred to. I think we’ve done a good job with that. Like I said, we’re continuing to grow the department, but we need to do so the right way.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 years ago

Tom Tippett created the baseball sim, Diamond Mind Baseball, and before Zack started with the Red Sox he worked with Tom. Great guys, both of them. Great sim also. I played it for 12 years.