Note: To pay tribute to Russell A. Carleton’s decade of excellence at BP and celebrate his new job with the Mets, we’re making some of our favorite “Baseball Therapy” articles free to read today. This one originally ran on June 20, 2016.
The Front Office is at once a mythical place where magical things happen and a very boring office. It’s a place where besuited heroes tame dragons and collect unicorns that will decide the fate of your favorite team, and also a place where a small group of guys (and yes, most of them are men—we’ll talk about that) make boring administrative decisions about the logistics of running something that is one part Broadway show, one part athletic competition, and one part actual business.
Yes, everyone reading this has had the fantasy of being in that office, making those decisions, and petting those unicorns—or, at least, you’ve complained about those who occupy the Front Office of your favorite team, who you figure probably couldn’t slay a dragon if it impaled itself on their lances. There are 30 actual general managers, and thankfully, thousands of other people on the internet who could do a better job than all 30.
The reality of the Front Office is a lot less interesting than the fantasy. Yes, you get to go to work at a baseball stadium and think about baseball all day. But it’s also a job. There are days when you spend three hours banging your head against your desk trying to get something to work, and when it does work the answer isn’t all that interesting. Still, the most common question that we get at Baseball Prospectus is some variation of “I’d love to work in a major-league front office. How do I go about doing that?” At this point, the answer has become somewhat rote. It’s some variation on: “Learn some skills, start building a portfolio of work, build a professional network, and hope that you’re in the right place at the right time to land an internship somewhere.” But of course, even if you do all of those things, there’s cold reality to deal with. What are the chances that these prescriptions will actually work?
The Question actually highlights an odd juxtaposition here at BP. The site has long prided itself as a stronghold of serious baseball analysis. We actually do the #GoryMath here, as an antidote to the oftentimes magical thinking that passes as baseball analysis, the kind that says that victory will go to the player or team that closes their eyes and wishes for it hard enough gives it 110 percent and wants it more than their opponent. But at the same time, we’re still implicitly and perhaps subconsciously peddling a fantasy about the very question that we get asked the most. We’re proud of the BP writers who have gone on to work for teams, and certainly those are the success stories that prove one can ascend to the ranks of the magical unicorn-riders who get to push the baseball-shaped elevator buttons that take them to their offices. It’s easy to believe that if you read enough Baseball Prospectus articles, you too will eventually get to push those elevator buttons. The reality, of course, is a little different. It’s also not entirely pretty.
This article is the first in a four-part series that will address this question in a manner befitting Baseball Prospectus. We’re going to look at the data and try to answer the question: Where do front office workers come from? There are thousands—perhaps millions—of people who would love to do the job. What can we learn from studying the ones who actually made it? Parts two, three, and four will appear over the rest of this week and will explore some of the issues that we’ll raise today in more detail.
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
First off, let’s define some terms. A baseball team is a business. (It just so happens that people pay a lot of attention to their product.) Baseball teams have departments like “accounting” and “marketing” and “janitorial,” like any other business does. But of course, when people ask us The Question, they usually aren’t thinking about mopping the floors or processing expense reports. They want to work in departments like Baseball Operations, Scouting, Analytics, and Player Development, the departments that help shape the product that eventually ends up on the field. And yes, since this is BP, plenty of them have dreams of doing “the big data thing.”
The good news for those who want to do the “big data thing” is that research by BP alumni Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur shows that teams have been on a bit of a hiring binge in that area over the past few years. Ben and Rob found that the number of positions that could be classified as “analytic” in front offices has increased by about 112 league-wide from 2009 (the first year that they were able to collect data) to 2016.
It’s not clear whether the trend line on hiring will eventually plateau, or if it will simply expand until all 7 billion inhabitants of Earth eventually do analytics for a major-league team, but for now it’s worth noting that even the 112 new analytically based positions introduced over seven years means only 16 new jobs per year across the entirety of the game. That’s it. There’s no big bang of hiring going on.
However, in addition to the universe of available positions expanding (if slowly), more positions open up through attrition. Certainly, people in the front office will come and go, but how often? It’s common for baseball teams to promote from within the system, either in-house or from another team. Most new GMs were either a former GM somewhere else or were an assistant GM. Most new assistant GMs were department heads of player development or scouting or baseball operations. Most new department heads were assistant department heads. You can see where this is going. Teams will not hire a GM from off the street (sorry, sports talk radio!), but they will hire someone to replace the player development assistant who moved up to replace the old director of PD who jumped to another team as an AGM when they promoted their AGM to their open GM spot. To figure out how many open spots there might be, we’re going to have to make some reasonable assumptions and do some back-of-the-envelope math.
Baseball America keeps a database of executives for each team (dating back to the 1950s), and you can search each team’s GM and director of scouting. (For some reason, the database only appears to be current through 2014.) Still, we can look through these three positions and get some idea of how much churn goes on in a major-league front office. While no one will go directly from BP reader to GM, a GM opening might mean that someone moves up from AGM to GM and someone moves up from Director of Baseball Operations to AGM and, somewhere along the line, an entry-level position is open.
From 2005 to 2014, there were 32 changes among general managers and 33 changes among scouting directors among the 30 teams. That’s a turnover rate of about three openings per year, or a 10 percent turnover rate per year. Honestly, the number isn’t even that high. For example, Jack Zdurencik left his job as the scouting director for the Brewers to become the General Manager in Seattle. In the accounting above, that would count as two vacancies, though really only one opening was created for somebody else to slot into. There are also cases where General Managers “leave” one team only to emerge as GM of another team. The same thing happens further down the line with one team’s former scouting director being hired by another team to fill a vacant scouting director role with another team. The answer is probably less than 10 percent. We’ll estimate about 5 percent.
Teams vary in how many people are part of the “Front Office” and how those positions are structured and titled. On some teams, “General Manager” means the person who is at the top of the food chain. On others, there is a President (or some other official) who really makes all the decision while the GM plays a second-banana role. As part of our research for these articles, we researched the American League (not picking on the Junior Circuit, but it was simply a way to cut our work in half) and looked at how each team’s front office was structured. We tried to identify people in positions that were directly involved with making baseball-related decisions in some capacity. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Of course, the General Manager made that list, as did the assistant GM(s), the directors of scouting and analytics and baseball operations and video scouting and player development, and their assistants. But there are some workers whose responsibilities cut across areas. What to do with someone who handles the details of rule compliance and contracts? That person’s job is part “business end” and part “baseball end.” Is the person who maintains the team’s proprietary database an IT worker or is that part of Baseball Ops? Does that person get input on free agent signings?
If we assume that an “average” team has a GM and two lieutenants, plus a director of pro scouting, a director of amateur scouting, a director of baseball operations, a director of player development, and a few “assistant directors” or “coordinators” for each director, plus (again, based on the research by Messrs. Lindbergh and Arthur) an analytics department of four, that’s roughly 15-20 people per team in the front office who shape on-field decisions. Again, this is a phantom “average” team, but based on our research that’s about right. Even if we assume that 5 percent of those 450-600 positions turn over each year, that means that within each year there are 30 positions that are open through attrition in front offices leaguewide.
So, between the 16 new positions per year created by the analytics hiring “boom”, and the 30 or so open positions created by attrition, that means that in a given year there are roughly 40-something openings in front offices. Some of those openings will be filled by workers who are currently on the periphery of the system (i.e., they had worked for a different team, and are currently un-attached, although they can’t really be considered “outsiders” at this point.) Some of those positions will simply not be filled. It’s not like teams advertise on Monster.com that they need a new Assistant Director of Player Development. Who exactly gets these jobs?
Well, there’s one other type of front office worker whom we’ve only briefly mentioned: the intern. Most teams do take on interns in their front offices. They do a range of work from menial tasks to helping decision-makers prepare for major events on the calendar, such as the Rule 4 Draft. The pay is often minimal and the hours are long, but in return, the intern gets the proverbial “foot in the door.” When one of those coveted positions in a front office comes open, the intern can say “I’ve worked in a Front Office before,” and probably “I’ve made a few friends and they can vouch that I can do this sort of work.” And in an ecosystem that is so small (and likes to remain closed), having done an internship might be more than just a “bonus” line on a resume. It might be a requirement.
As part of our research, we looked into how many of the decision-making full-time front office employees we had identified had served as interns at some point in their career. We used two sources for this information: LinkedIn profiles for those whose have allowed their information to be public and published news stories that were accessible via Google. (A few teams also were kind enough to link media guide blurbs for their front office workers off of their webpages.) Thankfully for our research, journalistic tropes served us well. In many cases, front office employees, from General Managers on down, recounted their days as an intern as a badge of honor, as part of the story of how they had given it 110 percent and wanted it more than everyone else. All told (again, American League only), among the people in decision-making roles that we identified, we found positive evidence that about a third of the employees had started out in the front office as interns, either with a team or, in a few instances, with MLB. (Fewer than you might think—less than 10 percent, it appears—began their careers as pro ballplayers.) The actual number with intern experience is probably a bit higher than that, because there are likely some front office workers who did serve internships, but that fact didn’t turn up in what we could access through Google.
But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The rise of the internship as a pre-requisite for admission to the front office seems to be a more recent phenomenon. Among those workers who graduated college within the last 10 years and are now working full-time in a front office job, a whopping 72 percent had been interns prior to accepting their full-time job.
The fact that a great number of front office workers—even GMs—started out as interns probably isn’t all that surprising. Everyone needs to start somewhere and that’s the lowest rung on the ladder. MLB is hardly unique in the general world of business for moving to an internship try-it-before-you-buy-it model of hiring, and given that internships produce low-cost labor from an extremely large pool of ever-so-eager applicants, there’s a certain business sense to the model. Some front office workers had done multiple internships (which has the unsettling implication that one qualification for landing an internship might be already having done an internship). But the fact that so many front office workers started out as interns suggests that a wide swath of the path into the front office runs through that particular door. (Part Two of this series will look deeper into some of the issues that stem from that.)
If the gateway to a front office job is through an internship, then how many internships are there? We asked around to various “friends” who work for major-league teams as to how many interns their team had over the course of the year, specifically in their baseball operations-related departments. The responses varied as different teams had different ways of structuring internships—some interns were assigned to a specific department, while others were more general. But in general, “four or five” was the median, in addition to video interns stationed at minor-league affiliates who might also be counted. There are also internships for teams in departments that are not directly related to baseball operations (marketing, finance), and there are cases where current front office workers started in one of those areas but ended up in Baseball Ops. We’ll assume that every year there are 200ish internships per year that can be considered tangentially related to baseball operations (again, this is an estimate, but one that’s at least in the correct ZIP code) available per year across MLB. If there are roughly 46 open positions in Front Offices, if all 46 went only to those who were or had been interns (not always true), that’s somewhere around a 20 percent chance of securing a Front Office job even after securing a place as an intern.
If you think that sounds formidable, wait until you look at the odds of actually scoring an internship with a team. We don’t have systematic data on how many applications teams receive for positions that they post. However, we do have some anecdotal evidence to draw from. For example, BP alumnus Keith Woolner held a chat in 2009 at BP, two years after he left BP to work for the Cleveland Indians. During that chat, he answered a question from someone who wondered whether there might be room for someone with a law degree in a front office. His response (in part):
I have been astonished at the volume and quality of resumes that come in unsolicited to a major league front office. In fact, my first day of work in Cleveland I had two letters from prospective interns waiting for me. There are tons of lawyers, physicists, grad students from elite universities, and Wall Street quants (especially lately) that are willing to work in baseball for peanuts. It’s very hard to be noticed in such a torrent. [emphasis added]
Current Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi reported that he got his start with the Oakland A’s by beating out “more than a thousand applicants” for the position. While that may be slight exaggeration, it is not gross hyperbole. Baseball teams have no shortage of people who want to work for them—even at entry level and unpaid positions—and the reality is that there are only 30 teams and not all that many positions to fill. On top of that, some positions are filled by invitation, rather than application, but when they do put out the call to the public, there are plenty of applicants. If there are 200 or so internship spots and a few thousand people chasing them, it doesn’t take more than a simple calculator to figure out that the percentage chance of landing one of them is in the single digits.
The chances of actually getting a job—any job—in a front office, even in this era of increased hiring, are actually rather remote. And while we certainly feel for all those kids out there who have dreams and cardigans, the glut of applicants creates a problem for teams as well. How can they fish through all of those would-be employees and find the good ones? And are they doing a good job?
Hey Now, Don’t Dream It’s Over
You deserve to know the truth about that dream that you have. No, it’s not impossible. It’s just not likely, and the hardest door to get through is the first one. We won’t swear to the exact probabilities that we’ve calculated here. They are meant to be estimates, but even if they are off by a little, they would still tell the same story. The rise of Baseball Prospectus and other sabermetric sites has allowed a path where outsiders can and have made it into the front office based on skills they demonstrated on the internet. Compared to the previous couple of decades where there simply was no path, it makes the current situation seem like a golden age of outsiders in front offices. But as good statisticians, it’s our duty to inform you it’s really only faintly yellow.
However, if you still want to give it a shot (and hey, if that’s what will make you happy in life, you only get one of them), there are a few lessons to be learned. One is that you should have a good backup plan in case it doesn’t work out. Even if you get an internship, it’s no guarantee of future work on “The Inside”—though, of course, you’ll still have a real internship with a real business on your resume, and you’ll move on to whatever’s next with a few cool stories and the ability to drop the name of a real GM. But you also need some sort of hook that will make your internship application stand out from the rest. It’s just that finding such a hook that no one else has is kinda hard.
The biggest takeaway from this is how important that internship is. So much of the hiring network in major-league seems to stem from that one node, and it’s also the hardest part of the system to crack. It also means that the system that teams set up to pick out their interns will be the one that de facto governs the identity of a lot of the people who will end up in those front office positions in a few years. We know what the internship system does for the chances of those on the outside trying to work their way into the game, but in Part Two tomorrow we will look into what that system’s effects on major-league baseball are.
 Just ask them, or wait long enough. They’ll tell you.
 In good news for those who want to work as scouts, across the same time period, the number of full-time scouts increased as well.
 Maybe. The team might simply eliminate a position and save money that way. These are businesses, after all.
Thank you for reading
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