Former Ivy League Baseball Star Studying Statistics

BRAWN AND BRAINS
Ang Li

Dan Kantrovitz (right) studying with Harvard professor Carl Morris (left) as he earns a masters in statistics in preparation for a front office job with the St. Louis Cardinals. The former Brown shortstop never made it to Harvard as a player but fate woul

Things have a way of coming full circle for Dan Kantrovitz, which is why it’s no surprise that he’s found his way to Harvard.

At the moment, Kantrovitz is in the Graduate School finishing up his master’s degree in Statistics. Once he’s done, he’ll relocate to the Bay Area, where a job in the Oakland Athletics’ front office is waiting for him.

How Kantrovitz arrived at this point is a tale of coincidence mixed with common sense, and luck—both good and bad—mixed with determination, with baseball always at its center.

When the St. Louis native left his job as his hometown Cardinals’ Director of College Scouting to come to school in Cambridge, it wasn’t the first time he had expressed interest in studying at Harvard.

Over a decade earlier, Kantrovitz was a star high school shortstop looking for a place to play college ball.

“I got some great advice from a high school baseball coach,” he says, “which was to pick your college as if baseball doesn’t exist there.”

With this in mind, Kantrovitz looked for a program that could cater to his interests, academic as well as athletic. Harvard appeared to be such a place, and he visited the school hoping to see if it would be a good fit.

“I didn’t know much about Kantrovitz,” Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh says. “He came to the office and he was interested. I never saw him play in all my summers going out [recruiting].”

Walsh informed Kantrovitz that with established players firmly holding on to most of the infield positions—including Kantrovitz’s natural position of shortstop, occupied by David Forst ’98—Kantrovitz’s playing time would be limited in his freshman year.

He chose Brown instead, where he was part of coach Marek Drabinski’s first recruiting class and was immediately given the chance to start.

Kantrovitz responded with an impressive career in which he picked up 208 hits—good for seventh all-time in the Ivy League—in four seasons from 1998-2001 and made the All-Ivy First Team twice.

“Kantrovitz just went out and hit,” Walsh says. “Left field, center field, right field—he just was a tough out. He was a thorn in our side for a couple of years.”

After Kantrovitz graduated from Brown, the Cardinals selected their city’s native son in the 25th round of the Major League draft.

Playing professionally was just the next step in what Kantrovitz saw as the natural progression of things.

“I was just trying to be the starting shortstop on my high school baseball team and then I was trying to be the starting shortstop at Brown,” he says. “You keep doing that and eventually people start to take notice. I didn’t want to do anything else.”

But Kantrovitz would not make it past rookie ball in his pro career, thanks to a shoulder injury he suffered during his last year at Brown. Kantrovitz had minor surgery “as sort of a Band-Aid approach” to get him through his senior season. Once in the minors, he had another operation to try and fix the shoulder permanently, but the pain lingered and, while he could hit, his play in the field was severely hindered.

“A 5’8 [designated hitter] in the National League is not going to work a whole lot,” Kantrovitz says. “I saw the writing on the wall at that point.”

John Mozeliak, the person who signed Kantrovitz for St. Louis and the big league club’s current General Manager, called Kantrovitz in to his office to inform him that the Cardinals were letting him go.

Of course, neither man could have guessed that Mozeliak would wind up hiring Kantrovitz in a different capacity a few years later.

After Kantrovitz’s minor league career came to an end, he tried investment banking for a year but, as is his nature, started gravitating back towards baseball. He began working for a startup company that offered baseball analysis tools to Major League teams. One of the teams he pitched his product to was the Cardinals, and following a presentation Kantrovitz gave to the St. Louis brass in 2004, Mozeliak offered him a new career in the game he loves—in the front office rather than on the field.

Taking on added responsibility at a steady rate, Kantrovitz excelled as he learned the ins and outs of various aspects of the Cardinals organization, from scouting to international operations to quantitative analysis.

The statistical aspect of player evaluation particularly piqued Kantrovitz’s interest, and he decided to pursue a broader base of knowledge in the field.

“With the influx of data that’s coming out now, I wanted to keep up with that,” he says.

While with the Cardinals, Kantrovitz had forged a relationship with Harvard statistics professor Carl Morris, a former chair of his department who—among his various achievements—has conducted several groundbreaking studies involving the statistical analysis of baseball. To Kantrovitz, studying with Morris at Harvard was the perfect medium through which to take his career to the next level.

“He emailed me several years ago,” Morris says. “I’ve done this kind of sports work my whole life but I’ve kind of kept it under wraps. But somehow Dan got wind of it, and thought this would be a good place to study and I would be a good person to study with.”

While completing an intensive one-year master’s program, Kantrovitz has applied the general statistical knowledge he’s accumulated to enhance his understanding of baseball. In one class, Kantrovitz has “designed an experiment to maximize the sink on a fastball based on a pitcher’s vertical release point, horizontal release point and velocity, with the hopes of finding the optimal combination for individual pitchers,” he explains in an email.

Kantrovitz hopes to bring his findings and experience at Harvard to his new job with the Athletics. He was hired by Oakland earlier this year by the team’s Assistant General Manager—who just happens to be David Forst, the guy who had shortstop held down at Harvard when Kantrovitz looked at the school for the first time.

Forst insists that Kantrovitz was good enough to find playing time no matter who was in front of him on the depth chart, while Kantrovitz is equally sure that he would have been hard-pressed to see daylight at shortstop for the Crimson in his freshman year. Of course, the decision would have been Walsh’s to make, and the Harvard coach’s verdict is in line with Kantrovitz’s thought.

“Forst was…a much better defensive shortstop at the time,” Walsh says. “He was established here at the time.”

“[But Kantrovitz] turned into a good defensive shortstop by his senior year and Forst turned into a very good offensive shortstop by his senior year,” Walsh muses. “It’s funny how their careers paralleled and here they are working together.”

Regardless of who would have started, Forst is pleased with his hire, citing Kantrovitz’s Ivy League education, playing and scouting experience, and quantitative skills.

“We’ve been looking to add somebody to the front office for almost a year,” Forst says. “Of all the things that you’re looking for as a potential employer, Dan almost covers everything.”

Kantrovitz’s job with Oakland will involve a combination of scouting—mostly international—and analytical work in the front office. It is the next step for a person who has already come full circle a time or two, but has yet to veer off his chosen path.

—Staff writer Loren Amor can be reached at lamor@fas.harvard.edu.

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