In 2009, Gelles was a Pirates intern. Now, she's part of the front office

April 1st, 2024

MIAMI -- Sarah Gelles grew up in Philadelphia, one of the most passionate sports towns in the country. Her family took her to her first baseball game when she was just six weeks old, and she credits them with helping her fall in love with the game.

But making baseball a career? She attributes that to reading Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which she pored over when it came out during her freshman year of high school.

“I was fascinated by the analytics aspect of it, but I think also, it gave me an idea of people that didn’t play baseball professionally that made careers out of being behind the scenes of a Major League front office,” Gelles said. “From that point on, I set my sights on this as a career.”

In 2009, Gelles got her first taste of making that dream a reality during her junior year of college by being a baseball operations intern with the Pirates. This winter, she returned to the Pirates -- this time as an Assistant General Manager.

Gelles learned plenty of what goes on behind the scenes since that internship with Pittsburgh. In 2011, Gelles joined the Orioles and helped build their analytics department, rising to become their director of Analytics and Major League Contracts. During the 2018 offseason, she moved to the Astros’ front office. Just a year later, she was promoted to Director of Research and Development.

This winter, general manager Ben Cherington and the baseball operations group determined they needed to add another senior position. They conducted an expansive two-month search, and ultimately landed on Gelles as their pick. While her focus is on the analytical side of the game, she will be taking part in much more in this role.

“It was just clear through that process that it was Sarah who could help us the most,” Cherington said at the Winter Meetings in December. “She has a real interest in the people leadership side of the game. She’s worked in two very different places in Houston and Baltimore, and she’s thrived in both. We’re excited to bring her in. She’s going to help us a lot.”

In the 15 years since Gelles got her first break, analytics teams and research and development teams have blossomed in baseball, going from a handful of people to fully fledged departments. That information is also much more accepted and utilized. She was drawn to the Astros, in particular, because they welcomed the perspective that R&D teams bring and wanted to leverage that in their decision making.

Gelles sees the Pirates having the same enthusiasm and desire for that type of information, which again drew her to a new opportunity.

“I think the relationship of R&D and front office has with the clubhouse, with our coaching and development groups, scouting group, there is a lot of the same common perspective that I saw in Houston, and think really propelled the Astros to the success they had,” Gelles said. “Makes me really excited about the direction we’re headed here too.”

Like many STEM fields, R&D departments across the sport are male-heavy, though Gelles foresees them continuing to become more diverse. R&D is, after all, one of the few departments that tends to not have many former players, if any. Teams also post their jobs online frequently, which widens the amount of potential candidates, rather than just limiting the candidate pool to people who may already know someone in baseball.

“I think it’s probably been one of the easier departments for women to break into in baseball, because I think it’s easier for people to effectively evaluate candidates,” Gelles said. “Women have the ability to separate themselves just like a man would: on merit.”

Gelles’ rise through front offices is proof she has made the most of her opportunities. It’s also been noticed league-wide. Shortly before being hired by the Pirates, Gelles was named one of The Athletic’s 12 potential stars in management and coaching.

There’s likely to be more to come for Gelles who, alongside Cherington and company, is aiming to help end the Pirates’ playoff drought -- and then some. She has already been a trailblazer for most of her career, even if she jokes that “it’s not my personality.”

“At the same time, I really am excited about being able to be that role model for women who come after me,” Gelles continued. “I do hope seeing people like me with the opportunities I’ve been given can help more women see this as a feasible career path.”