The typical Major League Baseball coach amasses decades of playing and coaching experience before joining a big league staff.
Jonathan Erlichman ’12 never played past T-ball. He never coached at any level. But when the Tampa Bay Rays needed to revitalize their staff in 2018 following the departure of two well-regarded coaches, they still turned to Erlichman.
The story begins with Moneyball, the best-selling book by Michael Lewis ’82. Erlichman had never been particularly interested in baseball before he read it as a teenager. “I was definitely more of a hockey fan as a child,” he explains.
For the mathematically-inclined Erlichman, Moneyball offered a different way to understand the game. He read more books and blogs, and then — after becoming an analytics fan — he became a baseball fan.
In a stroke of luck, Lewis was the Baccalaureate speaker during Erlichman’s graduation week at Princeton. “The theme of his speech was being mindful of how fortunate you are and the coincidences along the way that get you to where you are,” Erlichman recalls. “It’s something that has definitely stuck with me.”
Erlichman’s career in baseball almost never began. He only decided to pursue it toward the end of college, when he parlayed a summer internship with the MLB financial office into a short-term position after graduation with his hometown Toronto Blue Jays. He then latched on with the Tampa Bay Rays in early 2013, where he rose from intern to director of analytics within four years.
“It’s not like I had a bunch of offers from a bunch of different teams and picked them,” he says. “Those were essentially the only offers I had at those particular moments. It’s easy to see if one of them hadn’t materialized, that would have been the end of the baseball pursuit.”
Lewis’s message felt particularly prescient in 2018 when Erlichman was offered a position as a uniformed “process and analytics coach,” marking the first time in baseball history that a data analyst made the transition from front office to dugout. The kid who had given up on baseball as a kindergartener became one of the least likely coaches in the history of the sport.
The role has been a perfect fit for Erlichman, who mixes a sharp analytical mind with humility and approachability. “A lot of it is about being a resource to our players and the rest of our coaching staff regarding the data we have available,” he explains. “The other side is to really bring an outside perspective to what we do: to see a lot of the work that’s done pregame, and to provide a perspective on that, and for me to ask questions based on my background.”
As a coach, Erlichman is more interested in collaborating than convincing. “Some of the best conversations for me are when I go in and I want to talk about a topic with someone, and I bring up some things and they push back and give me a bunch of reasons why I’m wrong,” he says. “Often for me that’s just as good, if not a better outcome.”
Erlichman’s wild journey, which included a trip to the World Series last fall, has made him hesitant to predict what will come next. “I don’t spend much time really thinking about career paths,” he says. “Maybe five years ago I would have... I couldn’t have foreseen this, that this is what I’d be doing at this point.”