The Numbers Game
Thirty-five-year-old Jeremy Shelley, the Giants’ newly promoted senior director of baseball operations, won’t ever tell you exactly what he does – or at least how he does what he does.
He’s kind of like the guy in CIA movies who sits in an ordinary office behind an unmarked door and, unbeknownst to everyone but the most senior staff, is actually one of the most powerful operatives in the building.
Shelley works with General Manager Brian Sabean and VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans on player research, statistical analysis, major league contracts, arbitration preparation and scouting. He also oversees the information systems within the scouting department.
In short, Shelley decodes baseball statistics. He finds meaning in numbers. He excavates databases like an archaeologist at a dig – except Shelley uses his unearthed artifacts to piece together a picture of the future instead of the past.
He projects how players are likely to perform over a season, or over the course of a contract. He and his team figure out before each season, for example, how many runs the Giants are likely to score and how many they are likely to give up. They go through each guy in the lineup. They add and subtract. They move decimal points around. They substitute this player for that one and recalculate everything. They use arcane formulas they have developed over the years and that they share strictly on a need-to-know basis, and, really, almost no one outside baseball operations needs to know.
“I’m a little uncomfortable saying anything more than that,” Shelley tells me. “What I can say is that analysis in baseball has gotten so sophisticated and it’s changing all the time. I read, read, read – every baseball web site, every publication, everything.
“And every day, it seems, I see some new stat or method of analysis out there. We’re always asking ourselves Does this make sense? Does this help us?”
Shelley was a finance major at Santa Clara University when he landed an internship at the Giants in the spring of 1994. He went to classes until about 11 a.m. then spent the next eight or 10 hours at Candlestick Park, earning $5 an hour to sit at a computer and input hand-written scouting reports, players’ medical histories and other relevant information in preparation of the draft. He worked nights and weekends.
In August of that year, with still two months left in his internship, the players went on strike and the season was over. He took another internship in the Giants’ baseball operations from March to October in 1995, balancing the Giants with schoolwork until he graduated in June. He moved back in with his parents in Concord, unable to support himself on an intern’s salary. He spent one more season, 1996, as an intern, hooked now on the numerical intricacies of the game.
“But after three years, I told the Giants I needed to get a full-time job,” Shelley says. They hired him in July 1996 as an administrative assistant in baseball operations.
He has been with the Giants 16 years. When his own baseball-playing days ended 20 years ago at the age of 15 — “Too small,” he says. “Not good enough.” – he never imagined a career in major-league baseball.
“I just want to keep learning and growing,” he says.
Maybe some day there will be a stat that shows how many runs are produced and saved by the work of Shelley and his colleagues in baseball ops – the guys who help major-league teams win games without ever touching a bat or ball.