The Numbers Game: Johns Hopkins Alums Help Orioles Rise to the Top

October 6, 2023

Six months ago, the chances of the Baltimore Orioles making the MLB playoffs sat at just over 10%, according to Fangraphs, a leading site dedicated to baseball statistics, analytics, and projections. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of future success.

Fast forward to fall, and the Orioles have defied all preseason prognostications. Projected by Fangraphs to finish with a record of 76-86, they won more than 100 games for only the sixth time in the franchise’s 123-year history, finished first in the vaunted American League East division, and enter the playoffs with the second-best record in all of baseball.

Led by a host of homegrown players and a youthful core anchored by catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson—frontrunner for the American League Rookie of the Year Award—this year’s Orioles team has blended talent, tenacity, and an analytical approach to player development and performance that has unlocked enormous potential, raising hopes that Baltimore may soon capture its first World Series title in four decades, since 1983.

Two Johns Hopkins alums with a mutual passion for analysis and baseball—Mike Snyder, Engr ’19 (MS), and Ashwin Pasupathy, Engr ’23 (BS)—have played notable roles behind the scenes of this winning franchise. Both Snyder and Pasupathy started with the Orioles as interns, share an applied mathematics background, and have embraced the organization’s increasingly data-driven approach to the game.

“We have a gritty, homegrown group that wears their hearts on their sleeves,” Snyder says. “The personalities are fun, the resilience is a treat to witness, and the games are competitive night after night.”

Though some diehard baseball fans might balk at the growing use of analytics in the game, the Orioles are not alone in realizing the potential on-field benefits of data analysis. Organizations across Major League Baseball—and teams and athletes around the world, from basketball and soccer to golf and auto racing—are increasingly looking to numbers and technology to gain a critical edge.

That’s where people like Snyder and Pasupathy come in.

For Snyder, his path to Camden Yards started in 2009 with a long-awaited offer to intern alongside the Orioles’ baseball operations and international scouting teams. By 2015, he had become the director of the team’s Pacific Rim Operations & Baseball Development. But while attending a conference focused on baseball operations, Snyder says, he bolted from a dead sleep at 4 a.m. with an urgent thought: “I want to get a master’s in math.”

This impulse led him to apply to graduate programs the following week. After researching which schools would allow him to “spend 90% of [his] time on the mathematical underpinnings of [programming] models,” Snyder found the right fit at Johns Hopkins. The university’s Applied and Computational Mathematics master’s program struck the right balance, he says, of deep diving into both data science applications and its theoretical foundations, while also enabling him to work around a demanding baseball schedule.

Snyder’s department had long appealed for the Orioles to better utilize the then-new datasets available to them. Earning his master’s degree was Snyder’s way of honing his analytical skills and becoming more educated about the concepts they hoped to implement, ranging from financial modeling to deeper investigations into how aging impacts player performance.

Today, Snyder is the Orioles’ director of pro scouting. He oversees evaluations for players who have signed professionally, whether in the majors, the minors, or international professional leagues. Snyder helps ensure the pro scouting team has the processes, evaluations, and culture in place in order for Mike Elias, the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager since 2019, to make the most informed decisions about player movements—whether internal or external, via waiver claims, trades, or free agency.

Though he’s solidly aligned with Elias’ vision for the Orioles as an analytically-focused organization, Snyder is mindful of the backlash to the use of numbers in the game. Asked what he makes of the opposition among some fans, Snyder says it’s important to consider history as a guide for decision-making moving forward. The Orioles’ baseball operations team “tries its best to push the boundaries in terms of reliance on new data streams, video, and technology, while also marrying that with the traditional old-school scouting image of the boots-on-the-ground player evaluation at ballparks.”

When you can combine new technology and analysis with traditional scouting methods, Snyder says, though you might not get a flawless prediction, those different approaches pointing in the same direction at least suggests you’re on the right path.

Having seen the Orioles endure five consecutive losing seasons before going 83-79 a year ago, Snyder knows first-hand how painstaking it is to build a winning culture throughout the organization while avoiding the temptation of quick fixes. He’s excited to now be on the other end of that process. “We’re hopeful that this is just the beginning of our competitive window,” he says.

For Pasupathy, pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering was always the plan. At Hopkins, he double majored in chemical and biomolecular engineering and applied mathematics and statistics while engaging in education-oriented extracurriculars like serving as a teaching assistant and tutoring local children.

Ashwin Pasupathy

Image caption: Ashwin Pasupathy/ IMAGE CREDIT: ASHWIN PASUPATHY

Though his aspirations for teaching were clear, Pasupathy still wanted to participate in activities that reflected other personal interests. Enter Anton Dahbura and his sports analytics research group. While Dahbura’s primary appointments include serving as the executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute and as co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy, it was his research focused on sports analytics and scheduling optimization as an associate research scientist within the Whiting School of Engineering’s computer science department that captivated Pasupathy, a former high school baseball player.

Beginning in December 2022, Pasupathy contributed a few hours each week to Dahbura’s Orioles-oriented research focused on optimizing the team’s lineup. A discussion following an end-of-semester presentation coupled with Dahbura’s connections with the Orioles—including with Sig Mejdal, vice president and assistant general manager of analytics, Di Zou, director of baseball systems, and data scientist James Hull—eventually led to Pasupathy’s first full-time role out of college. Between graduating in May and starting his PhD program in chemical engineering in late August, Pasupathy served as an analyst fellow with the team this past summer.

In his role, Pasupathy sat in on major events, including the 2023 Major League Baseball Draft, where he saw the Orioles make speedy Vanderbilt centerfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. the team’s top draft pick. But day to day, Pasupathy built on the project he started as an undergraduate research assistant with Dahbura. He sorted “functional data”—derived from Major League Baseball’s innovative camera system that precisely calculates the location of the hitter’s joints and bat at any point in time during the interval of a pitch—and proposed questions to Hull, who then helped him define action steps toward developing answers.

In a broad sense, Pasupathy wanted to know if he compiled enough functional data on each player’s unique movements, could he derive models that maximized player hitting success rates? Could he develop models that can distinguish “good” swings from “bad?” While his summer internship “probably concluded with more questions than answers,” Pasupathy was excited to take ownership of the project and collaborate to explore possible approaches.

With the Orioles’ baseball operations staff, Pasupathy found an enthusiastic data- and curiosity-driven culture under Elias’ leadership. The Orioles’ cultural openness mirrored his experiences as a Hopkins undergraduate, where he had the freedom to pursue his interests. And his Hopkins experience positively shaped Pasupathy’s work approach with the Orioles by encouraging him to learn from peers with divergent backgrounds and perspectives, including on topics he may not necessarily incorporate into his own career moving forward.

Though Pasupathy’s stint with the Orioles was short, he left Baltimore with many memories and lessons learned. Moving from one curiosity-driven environment to another, he’s entering his PhD program with newfound confidence and “positive momentum.”

Regardless of this year’s playoff outcomes, Pasupathy saw the Orioles flourish on the field and played a role on the dynamic baseball operations staff that dutifully worked behind them.

For both, October baseball—and a promising future—awaits.

This article originally appeared on The Hub >>


JHU Information Security Institute