DENVER -- Scott Van Lenten’s former co-workers with the Nationals, especially from the baseball operations department, turned the past week into a celebration, with a party and gifts. One was a signed baseball with the inscription: “Don’t worry, you can still root for me -- Juan Soto.”
But Van Lenten was not rooting for Soto when the Nats star outfielder hit a long homer off Jon Gray on Sunday in the only game the Nats took from the Rockies. The other two results of the weekend series -- Rox wins on Friday and Saturday -- were more pleasing. His first project as the Rockies’ new director of research and development, is to turn his son, Foster (6), and daughter Devyn (4) into Colorado fans.
“More so for my son -- he’s a little bit older, he understands more,” Van Lenten said. “We’re transitioning to telling him, ‘You’re no longer going to be rooting for the Nats.’”
Van Lenten, 38, is leading the club’s R&D expansion going into 2022. While he has not completed the move to Colorado, the work has begun. Van Lenten returned to Denver with the club to begin interviews for three posted jobs -- web developer, data engineer and data architect.
Van Lenten first interned with the Orioles, then worked for the Nationals as an analyst from 2017 until August this season. He was promoted to senior analyst after the Nats won the 2019 World Series. The baseball experience helped him land his new job, but Van Lenten views his experience outside the sport as a key to putting him in position to lead the Rockies’ R&D team.
A Glen Rock, N.J., native who played corner infield and outfield -- and cheered for the Yankees -- through high school, Van Lenten majored in statistics and communication at Miami (Ohio) University. He joined Steiner Sports Memorabilia mostly in web development, but also went to the dwellings of athletes such as new Hall of Famer Derek Jeter to help with signings. Looking for a new challenge, he joined his now-wife, Amanda, who had moved to Chicago after college, and soon landed a job with Northwestern University and worked on a longitudinal analysis project -- how children’s behavior changes over time.
So Van Lenten handled web development and stats, but also worked with people. He pulled his development together further by earning a master’s degree in developmental psychology from Arizona State University. His interest in baseball never waned, and he felt he could bring a human touch to the burgeoning role of R&D in the sport.
“Oftentimes people will start right out of college -- they get an internship in baseball and then they continue on in baseball. But for me, being able to spend some time growing as a person and working in other industries helps you learn how to deal with people, learn how to work together as a team. You communicate to people who are technical and non-technical.”
Van Lenten landed an internship with the Orioles under general manager Dan Duquette. The department included current Astros assistant R&D director Sarah Gelles; Cleveland assistant director of R&D Kevin Tenenbaum; and Athletics assistant director of R&D Pike Goldschmidt. He and Van Lenten had family in the Baltimore-Washington area, so the internship and the full-time job with the Nats fell into place.
The Rockies had a small R&D department, lost employees during the pandemic, then entered this year under a hiring freeze. The situation with the Nats was different, but has parallels.
“It was a really small group, which is in a lot of ways similar to what it is now in Colorado,” Van Lenten said. “When the Rockies reached out and were interested in talking to me, I was excited but I wanted to make sure what I was getting into. I wanted to make sure they were going to provide the resources, make sure they were going to be supportive and have a real vision and are going to have the resources to do it the right way. They were very supportive.”
The first phase is to solidify all facets of the baseball information system at the Major and Minor League levels, whether data involves player development, coaching, on-field strategy or player acquisition projects. The next phase is original research, with analysts being hired for ideas and information, with everyone working to implement it all efficiently.
When Van Lenten’s hiring was announced internally, Rockies coaches and scouts and front-office members flooded him with texts. In public and private conversations, Rockies personnel are buoyed by a long-awaited commitment to a more modern approach to their jobs.
The Rockies have taken criticism for being behind the curve in R&D; however, that should not be confused with their personnel being obstinate about it. The team has made an increased investment in modern technology and analysis for pitchers, which is showing in the development of starters. Coaches and players seek information, and incorporate current staff into their plans.
Now they have someone who will build systems and policies to streamline the info.
“He’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s got a good feel for baseball,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He’s personable. He’s easy to engage with. That’s important from our perspective.”
The baseball from Soto will always bring a smile to Van Lenten’s face. But the other gift from his going-away party intrigues the Rockies: a framed photo of Van Lenten and the Nats’ R&D group on the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park, after the team defeated the Astros to clinch the 2019 World Series.