Staying in the (strike) zone

Staying in the (strike) zone

From Bergen County to Dodger Stadium, Sammy Elias takes his gamesmanship seriously

Number cruncher for the Dodgers: Meet North Jersey native Sammy Elias
Number cruncher for the Dodgers: Meet North Jersey native Sammy Elias

Sammy Elias isn’t a cork-popping kind of guy under normal conditions, so when the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series recently he allowed himself a brief, subdued celebration with his father and his Dodger front-office colleagues before turning his thoughts to next year’s team.

Not that locker-room champagne spraying would have been allowed in the covid-shortened season that just had ended, but in Sammy’s rarefied world of metrics, statistics, and tendencies, other style points come first. The World Series drought that finally ended for Los Angeles thrust Sammy into select company as a baseball operations analyst for the newly crowned champions. And it’s a limelight that he’s shared with only a handful of similar analysts on other teams who have come into prominence in recent years as the national pastime undergoes a strategic revolution.

Now managers and coaches rely as much on reports from guys like Sammy as they do on their hunches to determine the course of a ballgame.

Sammy’s father, Jeff Elias, flew out to Los Angeles for Game Six of this year’s covid-inflected World Series; here he stands with Sammy.

After pitching in the 2008 Maccabi games and at Northern Valley Old Tappan High School and Wesleyan University, Sammy went undrafted by big league teams. But his on-field pedigree meshed beautifully with his degree in economics and his penchant for statistics and analytics. The avocation merged into the vocation during a journey that has taken him from growing up in Norwood to living the dream in downtown Los Angeles, close to his workplace at Dodger Stadium. At 27, after slightly less than two years on the job, Sammy has become an integral part of the organization sitting atop the baseball world.

It’s been an asymmetrical but highly satisfying trajectory.

“After the way the playoffs ended for us the last five years with such talented teams, it was a relief to finally get a championship,” he said emphatically. “I am elated. It especially feels good to do it for Dave Roberts,” the Dodger’s manager, “and Clayton Kershaw,” its leading pitcher, “who have unfairly taken the blame for our recent post-season outcomes. The Game 4 loss this year was definitely tough and very frustrating, so winning it all makes that collapse hurt less.”

Sammy was referring, of course, to Game 4, when the Tampa Rays tied the series 2-2 after several egregious Dodger errors on one critical play. It gave the team with the lowest payroll in baseball a chance to shame the team with the highest. And if that scenario had played out, it would have prolonged the Dodgers’ post-season agonies, which date back to its last championship, in 1988, and before that, to its many years of frustration (with a few successes thrown in) as the beloved Bums of Brooklyn.

Sammy Elias pitches for his college team at Wesleyan.

But the star-studded Los Angeles lineup, including Mookie Betts, who had tormented his new team just a year ago in the previous World Series as a member of the triumphant Boston Red Sox, rebounded to win the last two games and capture the crown. “I really exhaled after Mookie hit that home to put us two up going into the final inning,” Sammy said. In a perfect bonding experience, his father, Jeff, a retired financial officer, flew in from Florida — where he and his wife, Peggy, Sammy’s mother moved a few years ago — to take in the clinching a game at baseball’s covid bubble, Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers just outside Dallas. Although a confirmed Yankees supporter, Jeff rooted for the Dodgers and said he was thrilled for his son. Meawhile Peggy, an account executive with the Jewish Standard, cheered for the team from the family home in Delray Beach.

“I grew up a Yankees fan,” Sammy admitted. “I was big on Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte. Once you work for a team, you try to put your past fandom behind you.  But I still root for them. It would have been contentious in my family if the Dodgers played the Yankees in the World Series. Maybe we’ll see that matchup in the near future. If so, we’ll deal with the situation then.” And if it happens, it would rekindle Sammy’s memories of going to the Bronx ballpark as a kid, especially during playoffs. “I still haven’t seen an atmosphere that matches a playoff game at Yankee Stadium,” he said.

Sammy’s North Jersey roots run deep. When he was growing up, he and his family went to a Reform synagogue, Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine. Although he’s been unaffiliated since relocating to Los Angeles, he’s “been watching services online like a lot of people in these days of covid,” he said. When he was 15, Sammy pitched for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades at the 2008 Maccabi games in Detroit, and his coach, Howie Spielman, praised his performance after the team finished fourth, just a notch below medaling, losing in extra innings.  Sammy told the Jewish Standard at the time that his dad had encouraged him to get involved and he treasured the experience of coming up against the “good kids on every team. If you won, it would be a great accomplishment. And if you didn’t, you knew you played against great teams.”

Sammy continued as a pitcher and outfielder at Northern Valley, where he also played basketball and caddied at the Alpine Country Club. When it came time for college, he chose Wesleyan in Connecticut and majored in economics.  Soon, he advanced from relief pitcher to starter for the Division 3 Cardinals and went on to become an All-American at that level. But after he graduated and went undrafted by major league teams  (just not quite enough hop on his fastball), Sammy decided to put his degree to immediate use and joined NERA Economic Consulting as an analyst in the New York area.

These guys all are in the Dodgers’ baseball operations department. From left; Sammy Elias, Ethan Levitt, Craig Weinhaus, and Pat O’shea.

That was in 2015.  But baseball continued to tug at him, and when a college friend from a sports analytic club who was with the Dodgers called and offered him a position, Sammy joined the front office as an  associate at the beginning of 2019.

He  was promoted to operations analyst just nine months later.

“My three years working in economic consulting definitely prepared me well for my transition to working in baseball operations,” Sammy said. “In both jobs you are trying to analyze data and present your conclusions in the simplest and most persuasive ways possible. We mostly did litigation cases, so there was an aspect of winning and losing, but the feeling of winning a consulting case was nowhere near as exciting as winning the World Series.

“I make a lot of reports to prepare the team for each game and each series,” Sammy continued. “I worked on our advanced scouting presentations for the coaching staff before every playoff series, so it feels good to play a part in our wins. I also analyze how players are doing to help them perform at their best, and to make sure there aren’t red flags affecting their performance.”

Sammy explained that much of what would normally be done face to face with the coaches was done by email and Zoom during a year turned on its side by the pandemic virus.  He singled out first and third base coaches George Lombard and Dino Ebel and pitching coach Mark Prior as those he worked closest with. “My specialty was defensive positioning,” he said. “I mostly worked from my apartment, but I was able to go to all the home games. I felt lucky to be one of the few people to see baseball in person this year.”

Does Sammy think analytics exerts too much of an influence in today’s competition, replacing bold, managerial moves with cold, statistical data? “When I think of the analytics revolution in the game, I think at its core it is about utilizing as much information as possible to make the best decision you can,” he said in his own analytic fashion. “The best organizations and managers know how to digest the numbers while also using their general baseball knowledge and seeing what’s actually happening to make optimal decisions.”

Perhaps the Dodger greats of the past who performed in that bandbox of a ballpark known as Ebbets Field in Flatbush would be a little mystified by these observations. But for Sammy Elias and the fans of his generation, analytics has become an essential part of the game. And speaking of the fans who were deprived of a normal baseball season this year, Sammy hopes for better times ahead.

“Sports are a good distraction, for sure,” he said. “It’s unfortunate folks couldn’t be at games, and the atmosphere does suffer from that. Hopefully, we can safely have fans for the 2021 season.”

But regardless of whether the stadiums are full or empty, Sammy Elias will continue doing his analytic homework.

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