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Sitting Down with One of the Most Progressive Minds in Baseball: Ehsan Bokhari

· Baseball,MLB,Sports Technology,Sports,Sports Business

Sitting Down with One of the Most Progressive Minds in Baseball: Ehsan Bokhari

Recently, Rebellion Research had the honor and pleasure to sit down with Ehsan Bokhari, Senior Director of Player Evaluation for the Houston Astros, to talk about baseball, his career, and the role of analytics in Major League Baseball today.

In just five years in the MLB, Bokhari has built an impressive resume. In 2015, Bokhari joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as one of the first members of its Research and Development (R&D) team. He then moved to Houston to lead the Astros’ R&D department.

Bokhari, a baseball fan since childhood, attended the University of Arizona and completed a dual bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Statistics. He furthered his studies at the University of Illinois, where he received a Ph.D. in quantitative psychology. A believer in higher education, Bokhari credits Arizona and Illinois not only for the lessons taught in classrooms, but also the relationships developed with classmates and mentors.

At Illinois, Bokhari was intent on pursuing a career in academia. However, he was able to pivot his focus to align to one of his passions - baseball, when the Dodgers expressed interest in him for a newly formed R&D department. He joined the Dodgers’ first R&D department, a team of eight, and played a key role in its growth to twenty members during his tenure.

Bokhari praised the leadership of his supervisor, Doug Fearing, during his tenure with the Dodgers. “He built such a wonderful team in really just a short period of time,” Bokhari noted, “not only was he able to hire some of the brightest people that I’ve ever been around, [but] he [also] put together a group that got along remarkably well.”

While arguably building a best in class R&D department widely admired and emulated by its peers in the industry, the team itself fell short of winning a World Series during Bokhari's tenure.

When asked if a team can be fairly judged based on playoff losses, given the inherent randomness of a seven game series, Ehsan claimed the judgement was justifiable: “Winning a World Series is ultimately what we’re trying to do. And it’s what the fans want and care about, as they should. So I do think it is fair to judge a team by the final results. Self-reflection of performance should be based on process and how disciplined one is to that process. And that process should be dynamic. But fans and media aren’t privy to processes of a front office, and it’s very easy to come up with counterfactuals as evidence of a failed process after the fact, especially if it tells a good story.”

In 2018, Bokhari left L.A. and moved to Houston to head the Astros’ R&D team, illustrating the talent drain, a significant and recent trend in MLB front offices. Over the past few years, the best and most successful brains in baseball have left their original teams to take up bigger leadership roles on other teams.

While this phenomenon may cause front offices to become more secretive about their work, Bokhari believes that the talent drain is ultimately great for Major League Baseball.

It gives employees the opportunity to get otherwise unavailable jobs and allows teams to bring diversity of thought to the table. Additionally, the talent drain is good for teams when they lose an employee because it suggests they are doing something well, either in recruiting talented individuals or helping improve those people. Further, it forces teams to be and stay creative and constantly adapt.

In his first role with the Astros as the head of R&D, Bokhari inherited a truly remarkable team: “I inherited a strong R&D team with a diverse set of skills. Sarah Gelles, who came from the Orioles, joined at the same time I did; this gave us a lot of different perspectives, which is something I find very valuable. R&D was previously led by Mike Fast, and I have a lot of respect for the work that they did under him. Coming in from the Dodgers, which also has a very talented R&D team, I wanted to both honor and continue the work that had been done at the Astros while also pursuing my vision of how we could make the team even stronger. Working to achieve that balance was both exciting and challenging.”

Bokhari’s new role, as Senior Director of Player Evaluation, highlights how the Astros provide their talent with unique opportunities to succeed in areas that may be deemed unorthodox: “Not only do I appreciate the opportunity I've been given with this role, but I think it puts the Astros in such a unique and advantageous position. I don't know how many teams have someone so closely tied to the R&D overseeing their scouting departments.”

While Bokhari is a true believer in data and analytics, he notes that the biggest shortfall of analytics comes when people place unconditional trust in data and believe unequivocally that modelling will solve their problems. Presenting results as facts and ignoring uncertainty can be misleading. Uncertainty is what makes models so valuable. Failing to embrace that uncertainty can lead people astray.

According to Bokhari, analytical models have a lot of built-in subjectivity, and treating them as objective and everything else as subjective does a disservice to model-building. Sometimes, when making a decision about which model to trust, teams make a lot of decisions based on subjective forces such as “gut” and experience.

Since data has become so accessible and dedicated fans can find an extraordinary amount of data on the internet, many wonder how much asymmetric information exists between the data in Front Offices of the Major Leagues and the general public. Bokhari actually noted that there is a fairly large difference between the public data that any fan can track online and the more advanced models that Front Offices work with.

The analytical focus on the amount a player is worth to a team does not include the intangibles of an athlete; for example, effort and interpersonal skills. Of course, chemistry is such an important part of a team sport, and sometimes the most important players to a team’s success aren’t the biggest stars on the stat sheet.

When asked how a player’s personal relationship with an organization can affect a potential contract or trade deal, Bokhari noted how hard it can be to quantify such an intangible quality. However, he also noted that players with strong and likeable personas are very highly valued, and it does have the potential to benefit a player with future contract negotiations.

In Ben Reiter’s book on the Astros World Series, Astroball, he cites Katerina Bezrukova and Chester Spell’s study on fault lines. Fault lines, according to the study, describe the “in-groups” and “out-groups” of a team’s players. The study concludes that how divided a clubhouse is, can contribute to three wins or three losses in a given season.

When we asked Bokhari for his thoughts on the idea of fault-lines, he said that he finds it improbable that an effect size of three wins could be attributed to the makeup of a clubhouse.

“Not impossible,” Bokhari pointed out, “But I’m skeptical.” There are many reasons, including clubhouse fit, to consider when pursuing a player not projected to perform as well as another. Ultimately, however, the team will not make a decision solely based on the presumed causal relationship of three wins because they believe a player is a “good clubhouse guy.”

Lastly, we asked Bokhari how he believes the data and analytics in baseball stack up to the other major sports. Historically, baseball has been very data driven and was a pioneer in looking at sports through a statistical lens, which Bokhari attributed to the nature of the sport.

Still, Bokhari believes many other sports have actually taken the lead in advanced sports analytics.

The player tracking technology frequently used in basketball and soccer, for example, could expose another perceptive way to judge a player’s effectiveness on the baseball field. Bokhari was a huge fan of the work other sports are doing to analyze the game, and hopes baseball can keep adapting.

Notwithstanding Ehsan Bokhari’s baseball knowledge, we were most struck by his kindness and respect. On behalf of Rebellion Research, we thank him for giving us a new perspective on sports statistics and analytics and for kindly giving us the opportunity to talk to him.

Written by Ethan Samuels & Shaw Rhinelander

Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Antonella Dec-Prat, Thomas Braun, Corina Perez-Cobb, Lorenzo Lizzeri, Jason Kauppila, Gihyen Eom & Ramsay Bader

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