- Peter Keating
IN THE MIDDLE of the night six years ago, Eric Van smiled. As numbers cascaded down the spreadsheets on his computer, Van transformed and transposed columns, his dark eyes and shock of graying hair glowing in the phosphorescence of the screen. He laid one set of statistics across another like latticework, then stared at the results, which suddenly made so much sense. There, in the office nook of his apartment in Watertown, Mass., the waves of data crested to an inexorable conclusion.
Kevin Youkilis had a hot girlfriend.
See, Youkilis had holes in his record, but they weren't easy to isolate by looking at traditional splits. He hit horribly in day games, but only some: day games following night games at home. Something's keeping him up, thought Van, then working for the Red Sox baseball operations department. So he sent an email to the team suggesting that whatever Youkilis had going on romantically, the man needed better nights of sleep.
It turned out that Youkilis had started dating a woman named Enza Sambataro. (Sambataro had earlier made Boston headlines for dating Ben Affleck after Affleck broke up with Jennifer Lopez; she and Youkilis broke up in 2010.) It's not clear how the team conveyed Van's advice, but Youk thereafter adjusted: He hit .344 in day games in 2008, and the splits that Van detected never returned.
This was Eric Van at his best: a stats savant of a consultant for the world champion, sabermetrics-friendly Red Sox, with not only the analytical chops to make obscure numbers sing but the narrative flair to name their tune. And it was supposed to be a harbinger for how the brave new world of baseball worked: smart teams hiring geeks without a background in MLB, or even in sports, who in turn would help GMs find hidden talent and develop heterodox strategies.
In ESPN The Magazine, Peter Keating profiles Eric Van, the former sabermetrician for the Boston Red Sox, and other mathematical minds like him. Although MLB is more inclined toward numbers, the anti-geek culture hasn't changed.