This Analytic Whiz Kid Traded Baseball for Vegas
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Brad Pitt already made that movie.
At a time when brainiac number crunchers barely old enough to shave were flooding the executive ranks of pro baseball, Brad Rodriguez appeared to be next in line. Michael Lewis had just published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the 2003 book that fundamentally reshaped how the world looks at America’s pastime, and Rodriguez was looking at his big break.
In 2006, after graduating with a degree in economics from Harvard University, Rodriguez was named assistant general manager of the Jacksonville Suns, a minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Two years earlier, the Dodgers had hired another Harvard alum, 31-year-old Paul DePodesta, as their general manager, raising expectations that, at just 23, Rodriguez was on the fast track to the big leagues.
Only a funny thing happened on the way to the majors.
His intelligence was a little bit intimidating. … I thought his brains would get him to whatever path he wanted.
Kirk Goodman, former GM Jacksonville Suns
“As AGM of a minor league team, I was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades,” recalls Rodriguez, now 35. “I was overseeing just about all aspects of the experience at the ballpark, [from] corporate partnerships to marketing design and game-day operation. … It even included little random things like playing meteorologist to know when to put the tarp on the field, or putting on our team mascot costume for a charity event.”
Flexibility is something Rodriguez, the son of a U.S. Navy electronics technician, learned from an early age. Born in Key West, Florida, he moved frequently, finding comfort in sports, playing baseball and soccer, until he abandoned on-field exploits when he started high school in Jacksonville. Still, his interest in sports never subsided.
It was while he was at Harvard, managing the Crimson football team, that the Boston Red Sox hired 28-year-old Theo Epstein, making him the youngest general manager in baseball history. Two years later, in 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series — for the first time in 86 years.
As Red Sox nation rejoiced, Rodriguez took his cum laude diploma and headed south to work for the Suns in his Florida hometown.
“The analytics-savvy teams were definitely in an arms race to find the best talent,” Rodriguez says. “It was fairly novel at the time to have taken a course in sports economics and to apply econometric principles to sports in an academic setting. … The wave was just beginning to build.”
Only Rodriguez didn’t get to apply the analytical proficiency he’d developed at Harvard — those responsibilities were undertaken by the Dodgers’ front-office staff while he attended to the more mundane tasks of running a minor league team.
Still he stood out: “He was one of the first few front-office members that, after pulling the rain tarp off the field following a bad storm, would pick up a rake and start helping the grounds crew,” says Theresa Viets, now the team’s military liaison and account executive. “You wouldn’t assume Ivy League grads would do something like that.”
Former Jacksonville general manager Kirk Goodman noticed something else about Rodriguez: “His intelligence was a little bit intimidating. … If he had the right opportunity and met the right people and made the right impression, I thought his brains would get him to whatever path he wanted.”
Only the path veered in a surprising direction — taking him away from the ballpark.
“Working in sports can wear on you, especially at the minor league level. It takes a lot of the fandom out of you,” Goodman explains. “The money isn’t anywhere near proportional to the work you do or the amount of time you put in. You can get burned out on it really quickly.”
Finding that he was devoting more time to day-to-day operations than analytics, Rodriguez decided in 2010 to enroll in the MBA program at the University of Chicago, where he served as co-chair of the school’s media, entertainment and sports group.
Risky as the decision was to return to school, Rodriguez was convinced it would refine his analytical and leadership skills in a way that working with the Suns couldn’t. Skills sharpened, he’d bust his butt and finally land that front office-job in major league baseball. Then Caesars Entertainment, the gaming behemoth that operates 47 casinos in 13 states and five countries, came calling. Turns out the massive gaming corporation was launching its own enterprise analytics group — and recruiting MBAs with Rodriguez’s pedigree.
“While it wasn’t baseball or sports directly, it was still a way to continue working in an entertainment field while also advancing my goal of pursuing a more analytical role,” he says.
His first post was in revenue management, leading a group that analyzes hotel pricing and inventory. Today Rodriguez is director of fraud detection, working as a “data detective” mining mountains of information related to everyday operations and identifying fraud and abuse throughout the company — from small-time theft to sophisticated schemes.
To his own surprise, Rodriguez is applying skills he refined in baseball in his new gig policing some of the world’s biggest casino operations. Much of his time involves coding, data visualization and forecasting, using his analytic prowess to find potential loopholes or flaws in the company’s daily operations. But his most crucial function has been marginal analysis: poring over cost-benefit studies in connection to the behaviors of certain customers and presenting his employer with recommended solutions.
“I had long thought I’d be using that skill to understand what core elements differentiate players; how the marginal value of an extra win could impact roster construction; or even in-game decisions like when to steal, when to apply the shift or when to bring in a reliever,” he says. “In my current line of work, the specifics may vary — I’m differentiating groups of customers instead of players — but the core concept remains the same.”
Perhaps, but the analytics whiz who once dreamed of joining the big leagues remains a die-hard fan who misses the ballpark. “My time there generated a lot of wonderful personal memories, both on the field and off, that just can’t be replaced,” he says.