Field of Dreams—and Stats

By Mary K. Zajac

alumni-rany-jazayerli
alumni-rany-jazayerli

Number cruncher: Rany Jazayerli’s analytical approach has added a whole new dimension to the world of professional baseball.

Photo: Will Kirk / Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

 

When Rany Jazayerli ’95 was just 6 years old, he asked his dad for a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, a 2,500-page tome stuffed full of statistics. He devoured it.

As Jazayerli’s childhood unfolded—he grew up in both Saudi Arabia and Wichita, Kansas—he attended only one major league game, when he saw his beloved and beleaguered Kansas City Royals play at Royals Stadium.

That quickly changed when he got to Johns Hopkins. Beginning in September 1991, Jazayerli estimates he attended at least half a dozen Orioles games at Memorial Stadium before the regular season ended on Sunday, October 6. “It was fantastic,” he says. “I was a man dying of thirst, and a fire hydrant opened on me.”

Once the baseball season ended, the biology major became a regular in the computer lab, where he connected and argued with other sports fans on Internet bulletin boards. He also began playing Strat-o-matic, an early form of fantasy baseball that Jazayerli describes as a “very nerdy, very geeky hobby that kept me out of trouble.”

Plenty of baseball-obsessed students have studied at Hopkins over the years, but few are able to make baseball an integral part of their professional lives. Jazayerli is the exception. In 1996, he became one of the founding writers of the Baseball Prospectus, the compilation of baseball articles and statistics that has become the fantasy baseball player’s go-to reference. Since then, he has regularly contributed baseball analysis and opinion to ESPN.com and Grantland; created his own blog, Rany on the Royals; and continued to write for the print and online Baseball Prospectus.

And, oh yes, he also manages his own dermatology practice in suburban Chicago.

“I’m kind of an accidental writer,” Jazayerli admits. “I started writing about baseball because I was frustrated with the way the Royals were run, and pretty soon I’m writing for a national audience. It’s not something that I planned to do.” Given the demands of his medical career and his growing family (he has four children under the age of 12), most of Jazayerli’s writing occurs between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., long after the children have been tucked in.

Jazayerli was still in college when an analysis he wrote, of minor league pitching prospects, caught the attention of Gary Huckabay, another bulletin board poster with an idea for a book on baseball statistics. The first Baseball Prospectus, printed without a formal publisher on white stock paper, was released in 1996, while Jazayerli was in medical school. The annual publication is now in its 19th edition.

The first Baseball Prospectus coincided with the baseball world’s growing interest in sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball espoused by writer Bill James and practiced perhaps most famously by Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, the subject of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball (which was also made into a 2011 film).

This heightened attention to numbers began to influence the ways players were recruited and managed. Jazayerli contributed the concept of Pitcher Abuse Points, which posited that if pitchers threw more than 100 pitches per game, their rate of injury would greatly increase. In 1998, pitchers routinely threw up to 130 or 140 pitches per game, often blowing out arms and requiring surgery. Today, all across Major League Baseball, few managers allow starting pitchers to throw more than 110 pitches. Jazayerli takes no credit for the new limits on pitch counts. But he does concede that his statistic might have added to the conversation baseball management was having around pitcher injury. “The reality of the game is that 30 major league teams have decided collectively yes, limiting pitch count is important.”

“The greatest success of that statistic is that it has basically rendered itself obsolete,” he adds.

Some baseball fans still critique sabermetrics as reducing the game to numerical odds, but Jazayerli argues that statistics can add a deeper dimension to baseball. The numbers are what drew him to the game in the first place, he says. But he’s also moved by the history and inclusiveness of baseball.

“Baseball has long appealed to immigrant kids, and as the son of immigrant parents, being able to attach myself at a young age to the heart of Americana was important,” says Jazayerli. That appeal deepened at Hopkins, he says, where he had two distinct groups of friends: those who were similarly baseball obsessed and those who shared his Muslim faith. “I realized that at Hopkins I could be passionate about the most American of pastimes,” he explains, “and at the same time, be true to my faith and my identity and that there was no conflict of terms there.”