Rapsodo Baseball Podcast: Ari Kaplan on Baseball’s Data Revolution

While his fellow students live mostly typical college lifestyles, a young, nerdy Cal Tech student spends his nights poring over Los Angeles Dodgers box scores and game notes. Line-by-line, stat-by-stat, he re-creates an entire season. Then he gets to work.

With his hand-crafted database, the student begins to analyze player performance in ways that had never been seen before. Rather than relying on traditional metrics – wins, losses, ERA, batting average – the student creates a new paradigm with “Expected Wins” and “Expected ERA.”

The research project is featured in the LA Times and catches the eye of a very particular reader – Fred Claire, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It may sound a little like an episode of Big Bang Theory, but it is actually the very real beginning of the career of Ari Kaplan, one of the most influential minds in baseball’s data revolution.

“Most of the teams were against change. They were against even having a meeting to see what they were against,” Kaplan said. “What I loved about Fred Claire and the Dodgers was that they knew nobody else bought into what we were doing yet, and that it gave us an advantage.”

Finding impact players who would have otherwise been overlooked didn’t stay a Dodger-specific advantage for long. As the value of data and advanced stats grew, so did Kaplan’s value.

In the decades since Fred Claire called him in his Cal Tech dorm room, Kaplan has built scouting and player development databases for the Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos (ask your parents), and Houston Astros. He’s consulted with more than half of all MLB organizations.

When the Ricketts family purchased the Chicago Cubs in 2010, they hired Ari to build their analytics department. Without Kaplan, the Cubs went 102 years without winning a World Series. With Kaplan, they knocked it out in six.

In the latest episode of the Rapsodo Baseball Podcast, Ari joins Seth and BP to share stories from his incredible career, discuss his new ventures, and make predictions for the unusual 2020 season.