Sam Mondry-Cohen was between his junior and senior years at the University of Pennsylvania when he first began working with the Washington Nationals. He’s come a long way since then. An unpaid intern for six week in the summer of 2009, Mondry-Cohen now holds the title of Assistant General Manager, Baseball Research & Development.
His initial front office experience was the epitome of humble. The Nationals didn’t even have an actual internship program at the time. As Mondry-Cohen explained it, “They were basically there to babysit me. I don’t know that anyone was really looking for any work product.”
What they got was a second sabermetric voice at a time when analytics had yet to become mainstream. Mondry-Cohen may have been majoring in English at Penn — African-American literature was his main focus — but he was an avaricious reader of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. He’d devoured The Book. In short, he was a nerd-in-training.
“I had the vocabulary, and a way of looking at the game, that wasn’t common back then,” recalled Mondry-Cohen. “The Nationals didn’t have an analytics department or an R&D department. They didn’t have any data analysts. Adam Cromie, who went on to become the assistant GM, was the Assistant Director of Baseball Operations. He was the one who appreciated my world view of baseball, and he did assign me a few projects.”
The Nationals told Mondry-Cohen that they wanted him back after he graduated, so he spent more time in Penn’s statistics department than he had previously. To a certain extent, he never left. He continued to work on projects for the Nationals during his senior year.
“They quadrupled my pay,” joked Mondry-Cohen. “I went from zero dollars to zero dollars.”
After graduating, he returned to what was now a formal internship program — a paid internship program — and when the 2010 season ended he was hired as a full-time employee. The job title he was offered was Assistant in Baseball Operations. That didn’t fit his self-identity. Mondry-Cohen felt that the work he’d been doing, as well the work he wanted to do, was more akin to that of an analyst.
“There weren’t many people around baseball with that title,” said the now-32-year-old executive. “There were some — Farhan Zaidi having been the first — and I remember our assistant GM kind of pushing back and saying that it was an unorthodox, if not goofy, title. Was I sure I wanted it? I said that I did. He begrudgingly said, ‘Sure. We’ll still pay you $35,000 a year, but you can be an analyst,’ so my first full-time job in baseball was as an Analyst in Baseball Operations.”
He was among Mike Rizzo’s earliest wave of hires. The longtime GM had the interim tag removed from his own title during Mondry-Cohen’s internship, and he didn’t want to lose what he had. Rizzo cut his chops with scouting, but he was astute enough to recognize what the Penn product brought to the table.
“Mike wanted to have some kind of sabermetric voice, as he could kind of see the way the game was going,” Mondry-Cohen explained. “He wanted that voice to be represented some way in the front office, and it’s what Adam Cromie and I were able to provide for him. To this day, he wants a data-driven opinion.”
The Nationals established an actual analytics department following the 2013 season. Mondry-Cohen was promoted and given the title Manager of Baseball Analytics… which isn’t exactly what he wanted. As much as he’d preferred “analyst” when he was first hired, he believed that the department he’d now be leading should be called Research and Development. A year later, he got his wish.
Washington’s lone year with an “Analytics Department,” per se, saw a pair of heady hirings. One came indirectly from Tufts University and Columbia Business School. The other came indirectly from the website you’re currently reading.
“We brought on Mike DeBartolo as an analyst,” explained Mondry-Cohen. “Josh Weinstock, who had been working for me as an intern, came on as an analyst as well. Josh had written publicly at FanGraphs, which is where I’d seen his work.”
In part because he considers his own skill set to be “much more on the baseball side than on the machine-learning, pure-quant side,” Mondry-Cohen typically looks to hire people highly proficient in computer programming.
“For some people that’s maybe not the most fun, because it’s a little disconnected from baseball,” observed Mondry-Cohen. “Presumably they want to work in baseball because they love baseball, but a lot of what they need to be able to do doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with baseball. The size and scope of data sets we see in today’s game require you to have real computer programming and data modeling skills. That’s something that’s really changed since I started out 10 years ago. It’s a lot more than linear regressions and multi-linear regressions now.”
The one-time intern has another valuable piece of advice for those looking to join a baseball R&D team: Don’t wait to get hired.
“If you want to be a surgeon, you can’t just go into an operating room and start cutting people up,” Mondry-Cohen told me. “If you want to be a baseball analyst, you can start analyzing baseball data tonight. There’s a lot of public baseball data, and the sorts of modeling we do… a lot of it is open source, and free. You can use these programs like R from home. And there can be an audience for it. You don’t have to do this work and just put it in a closet. You can post it on your own blog, you can post it at GitHub, you can maybe get it published on the FanGraphs Community Blog. So if you want to do baseball analysis, my advice is to start doing it now. If you don’t have the technical skills to do things like scrape publicly available Statcast data, start there. Get those technical skills, then jump in. You don’t have to wait for a job.”
Mondry-Cohen’s R&D department has grown organically and currently comprises 13 people. In all likelihood, it will continue to grow organically. His career certainly has.
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.