The Mets exec who doubles as Oscars wiz

February 24th, 2021

Sure, Ben Zauzmer read "Moneyball" in elementary school, setting his course for a 2020 World Series ring with the Dodgers’ front office and new position as the Mets’ director of analytics.

That career arc sounds familiar in Major League Baseball.

The rest of this story won’t.

In fact, the more relevant "Moneyball" topic with Zauzmer is whether he projected the Brad Pitt-as-Billy Beane film would claim Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards.

Spoiler alert: He didn’t. Zauzmer resisted any pro-baseball bias and correctly tabbed "The Artist" as that year’s winner.

You see, Zauzmer is more than a high-level executive with the up-and-coming Mets. He is an eminent, data-driven prognosticator of Oscar winners, the go-to resource among film industry insiders and aficionados.

Zauzmer, 28, acknowledges the influence of analytical icons Nate Silver, Bill James and Tom Tango on his research. While Zauzmer is too modest to say so, he is their analog in the realm of cinematic awards -- even though his Hollywood “work” remains a hobby.

Zauzmer is in his 10th year publishing his projected Oscar winners, beginning with his first winter as an undergraduate at Harvard University. He published a book on the subject, entitled "Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood," in 2019.

“I’ve always been a big movie fan -- that goes back as far as I can remember,” said Zauzmer, who graduated from Harvard in 2015 with a degree in applied mathematics. “The combination of the Oscars and math didn’t begin for me until college. My freshman year, I just started Googling in December, January, wanting to know who might win that year’s Oscars. ... Being an applied math guy, a statistics guy, I wanted to find the model somebody had built to answer the question of who was going to win in every category that year. Turns out, I couldn’t find anything. So I decided to give it a shot myself.

“I spent about a month in the library on my computer, gathering as much data as I possibly could. There’s not a lot, when it comes to the Oscars. I was able to build some very simple models [and publish them] on a very simple website. ... It turns out, more often than not, the mathematical favorite went on to win that year, including in a couple closer categories.

“It got a little buzz around it. This whole thing grew out of there, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Zauzmer’s theory is rooted in the strong correlation he found between precursor awards shows, such as the Golden Globes and British Academy Film Awards, and how nominees fared in the same categories at the Oscars.

In that way, Zauzmer separates his objective prediction probabilities from personal preference as a devoted fan of films dating back to movie nights with his parents, Bob and Jan, and sisters, Julie and Emily. When asked for his favorite films of all-time, Zauzmer mentions a diverse list: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Back to the Future," "Titanic," "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Gone with the Wind," "The Sound of Music," "The Sixth Sense" and "Beauty and the Beast."

While working in a sport that reveres Cal Ripken’s 2,632 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56, Zauzmer has built an impressive streak of his own: He’s watched every Best Picture winner, from "Wings" -- the silent film that claimed the inaugural award in 1929 -- through "Parasite."

Zauzmer has screened every Best Picture nominee for at least the last decade, and more than half of all nominees since the inception of the Academy Awards.

“There have been 563 nominees,” Zauzmer noted, “and I’m up to 356 of them.”

Today, he has thousands of Twitter followers as the baseball executive who never tweets about sports.

Well, almost never.

Zauzmer allowed himself a humble two-post thread last October 28, less than 24 hours after the final out of the World Series.

Of course, Zauzmer’s 2021 plans have evolved since then. With the Mets, he hopes to help another National League franchise end a championship drought of more than 30 years.

“I’m very excited for this, for a number of reasons,” he said. “Part of it is the team on the field. The guys that are already there on the roster are extremely talented and are going to be very competitive this year. I’m optimistic on that end.

“Also for the front-office side, it’s a very new group there: new owner, new acting GM, returning president. You’ve got a number of new department heads, myself included. It’s a chance to build something fresh and new and exciting, with backing from ownership, to supplement the current team -- which we’ve done a fair amount of recently -- and also build a team that can be a perennial winner as time goes by.”

Zauzmer’s hobby has changed this year, as well, with the Academy Awards moved back to April 25 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ordinarily, baseball season flows neatly into Oscar season, with excitement building for award candidates through the holidays and culminating with the presentation in February or early March.

So instead of revealing his projections as pitchers and catchers report, Zauzmer remains in the preliminary stages of tracking award candidates. He notes that "Nomadland" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" have claimed a number of key nominations, with "Minari," "One Night in Miami," "Mank," "Da 5 Bloods" and "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" generating positive reviews, as well.

Despite the shifting calendar, one ritual should be the same: Zauzmer will watch the Oscars from home, laptop and cell phone at the ready, eager to publish his real-time analysis for his well-informed audience.

“It’s a furious process, where I’ve got pages upon pages of conditional tweets,” he described. “If this and this happens, then tweet this. It’s all ready to go with tons of tweets, most of which I never use, because it comes down to which things actually win -- tracking how my predictions are doing and trivia facts I like to spread on Twitter as the night goes along.”

That’s how he witnessed the surreal conclusion to the 89th Academy Awards, when "La La Land" was incorrectly announced as the Best Picture winner. Amid astonishing on-stage confusion, "Moonlight" ultimately received the award.

“I nearly dropped my laptop to the floor,” Zauzmer recalled. “That has to be easily the most shocking moment in Oscars history -- for the obvious reason they got the announcement wrong, but also the more subtle reason [that 'Moonlight' winning] should have been a shock, mathematically speaking.

“That was the year where the mathematical favorite was wildly off. 'La La Land' was well ahead. 'La La Land' had won nearly every major precursor award going in. Even if they hadn’t messed up the envelopes, that would have been a surprise outcome.”

The 2020 Oscars took place in Hollywood last Feb. 9, to begin a week that became notable on the Los Angeles sports scene for a different reason: Mookie Betts formally joined the Dodgers one day later.

Zauzmer is working remotely from Los Angeles during Spring Training this year, but he plans to relocate to New York in the months ahead. To answer the obvious question, he loves musicals and already publishes projections for the Tony Awards.

Interestingly, there was a movie industry connection to the start of Zauzmer’s baseball career: He was in Los Angeles for an internship with Fandango prior to his senior year at Harvard in 2014, when the Dodgers called to follow up on an internship application he’d submitted several months earlier.

When Zauzmer told the team he’d have only four weeks between the end of the Fandango internship and start of the fall semester, the Dodgers said they’d still be happy to have him. Zauzmer made a strong impression in his month at Dodger Stadium and was hired full-time after graduating. He’s worked in baseball ever since.

And while there’s plenty of excitement in correctly calling the winners at an awards show viewed by tens of millions of Americans, Zauzmer acknowledged that those small celebrations can’t rival the joy he experienced while watching Betts’ game-changing plays in last year’s postseason.

“There’s really no comparison,” Zauzmer said with a smile. “The Oscars stuff is a very fun hobby that I’ve really enjoyed for the last decade and will continue to enjoy for many more. But baseball has become my full-time job, a huge part of my life, day in, day out, in the season and the offseason.

“When you’re working with a group of men and women, all striving for this common goal of winning a World Series, and then you actually in 2020 are able to get closer and closer and achieve it, there’s nothing that compares in terms of the sheer excitement.”