O'Hara a trailblazer in Tigers' analytics dept.

Former UChicago softball player parlayed skill on field, love of numbers into big league job

June 21st, 2018

DETROIT -- Maggie O'Hara was a college softball player with a theory.

"I thought one of our catchers seemed to be maybe not framing pitches as well," she explained.

O'Hara was not a pitcher, so she didn't have a personal stake in this. But she was the team captain. She was also an economics and statistics student at the University of Chicago. She read "Moneyball" when she was in middle school, and it changed the way she looked at baseball when her father took her to Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

O'Hara was not somebody with a wealth of data to research. There is no Statcast™, no strike zone mapping for University of Chicago softball. There were box scores and play by play. But she was resourceful.

"We kind of had pitch-by-pitch data," she recalls, "but it was absolutely nowhere near the depth of what we have now. It's kind of an anecdotal hypothesis that I wish I could prove, and I dug into whether our one pitcher was walking more players when she was catching. It ended up being relatively basic in that the walk rate really was higher. We had inside-outside pitch data that I could kind of see, but it never got nearly as deep as it could've gotten here. But it was interesting to have to navigate. This was not great data, but can I prove any of my hypotheses? Can this be useful for us on the field? Can it be anything?"

Between the walk rate and pitch data, O'Hara found what she needed to prove her theory right. One of the catchers left the team before they could test anything out on the field. The other took the data and her positive reinforcement to heart.

"I never got to have the follow-through, which was kind of a bummer," O'Hara said. "But it was interesting nonetheless, and it gave me a chance to actually talk to people about data."

More importantly, she had found her passion. O'Hara was a bright student looking for a way to stay involved in sports while putting her passion for numbers to work. She met a Chicago grad who was working in analytics for the Cubs and showed her the path to get a foot in the door on baseball's analytics hiring trend.

A year later, O'Hara had an interview with the Tigers, who gave her data and a project to work on. She used her experience and gave them a result.

Her work landed her an internship with the club last year.

"I had done those for 10 or 12 clubs at that point, and I ended up getting the offer from them," O'Hara said. "It worked out perfectly, but it was definitely kind of surreal, because the gap between when I realized that this was a job to have one the next year was, 'Whoa.'

"I had just no idea what really I wanted to do. I remember thinking maybe I wanted to be a math teacher. I didn't really know. I liked sports, but I didn't really know what that route would be or if it was a thing. And then all of a sudden, I saw it."

Now, through Major League Baseball's Diversity Fellowship program, O'Hara is working full time with the Tigers, part of the team's push to integrate analytics with scouting and build their organization around it. She's also trying to help out other women hoping to follow her footsteps.

MLB created the Fellowship Program last fall as part of its Front Office and Field Diversity Pipeline Program, to attract people from different backgrounds and experiences into the game and offer them guidance and mentoring toward careers in baseball. Twenty-two fellows were selected. Some were placed with clubs, other in the Commissioner's Office, working in various departments.

The Tigers were already interested in keeping O'Hara, having been impressed with her work. O'Hara liked working in an up-and-coming department where she had a voice. The fellowship not only helped, it provided mentoring and networking avenues.

[Senior director of baseball analytics] Jay Sartori and [baseball analytics manager] Jim Logue brought it to me and said, 'Hey, we think you should apply to this,'" O'Hara said. "'We would love to keep you here for sure, but we also think this is a great way for you to network with other people.'"

Sartori worked in the Commissioner's Office, with the Blue Jays and for Apple before joining the Tigers in 2015. Logue worked with the Yankees before coming to Detroit.

"All of us in the Tigers' baseball-operations department feel fortunate to work among many talented, intelligent and passionate individuals -- a mold that Maggie fits perfectly," Sartori said. "With an elite education, a competitive nature and a great understanding of the game, she is very well equipped to provide meaningful contributions to the organization. Maggie has been a terrific addition, and we're thrilled she accepted our offer to join us in a full-time role."

The work is wide-ranging, and the hours can be long, especially on game days. Analytics impacts everything from offseason player moves to Trade Deadline deals to the just-completed MLB Draft. The data analyzed also impact on-field strategies; manager Ron Gardenhire has consulted with analytics on lineups and defensive shifts.

O'Hara remembers walking into the office and being amazed by the amount of data available, wishing she could've had that for her softball project. As the Tigers have integrated analytics onto the field more, the feeling of seeing their work demonstrated in something tangible that fans can see has been rewarding, as well as the communication they've formed with the coaching staff.

"There's a lot of times when we sit in front of a computer and are running all of this data, and it would be really easy for us to sometimes say, 'OK, now just do this and it will work.' I think there's that missing piece sometimes, that now there's also a human element," O'Hara said. "These are people."

And with people, there are no absolutes, just probabilities. It's a factor they have to note sometimes when it comes to defensive positioning -- whether it's an all-out shift or simply moving an infielder a step over.

"You only ever remember the ones when it doesn't work," O'Hara said with a laugh. "Everyone's kind of risk-averse in that way. You won't remember the time that shifted over and it's hit right to him, but we'll be like, 'Yes!' But a normal fan is going to remember the one that sneaks through, or the bunt."

O'Hara is the only woman in the Tigers' analytics department. She is part of a growing segment of women in analytics across baseball, and she's trying to help that effort. After meeting others in similar jobs, she teamed with baseball writer Jen Mac Ramos to start a Facebook group called Non-Cis Men in Baseball Analytics to not only connect women involved baseball analytics, but to provide a place for advice for women interested in pursuing the same career.

"It's really helpful to be able to say, 'I went through this; here's what I've done, here's a bunch of resources, and if you ever have questions, reach out to me,'" O'Hara said. "I'm really enjoying kind of throwing out an olive branch. That's one of the biggest gaps for more women getting into the front office, is seeing people like them there and being able to talk to them about their experiences."

Talking with her father, a lifelong Cubs fan, about her work has been an enjoyable experience in its own right. After all, he fostered her interest in baseball and in math from his business career. Still, he has had to connect his old-school baseball upbringing with her new-school line of work.

"He's a pretty heavy math guy, so I think he's kind of always been interested in sabermetrics," O'Hara said. "He definitely stemmed my interest in that. But there are times when we'll have a little spat about things and I'll come at it with real data and he'll come at it with anecdotal evidence. There's some push there, but it's good. It's definitely been kind of funny.

"He plays fantasy baseball all the time. I think he sometimes thinks he can do my job. It's fun for him, because I got him set up with the MLB Trade Rumors app, and he's amazed. It's been kind of fun to interact with him on that side."