Woog's World: "Tom Haberstroh, by the numbers"
Published 1:03 am, Friday, March 5, 2010
High school students pick colleges for many reasons: location, size, programs, cost, friends, weather. Tom Haberstroh was attracted to Wake Forest University because the shortest player in National Basketball Association history -- 5--3 Muggsy Bogues -- went there.
At his first meeting with his Staples High School guidance counselor, Tom brought a list of top-ranked basketball schools. "Which of these has the best academics?" he asked. "Let's start there."
That's how, in the fall of 2004, Tom ended up at Wake -- the second smallest Division I school in the nation. Though he'd played basketball at Staples, there was no way he could make the step up to the storied Atlantic Coast Conference. That was fine.
Tom had always been a numbers guy. At Coleytown Elementary School he was unbeatable in Numbers Munchers -- a computer game in which players direct a gremlin to eat prime numbers and multiples of five. In his Bedford Middle School days, he tallied the box score statistics of televised basketball games -- for, he says, "no particular reason."
Tom tried to apply every concept he learned in school to sports. Invariably, he found a useful connection. During Advanced Placement Statistics at Staples, he realized that ESPN's baseball Player Rater system was developed by a baseball expert who used the same z-score statistical methods Tom was learning in class.
Four years later, that very same guy interviewed Tom for a job.
Tom had always loved athletics. "I think I played every sport in the Westport Parks and Rec directory," he says. His mother Patty -- now family program coordinator at the town's Department of Human Services -- "spent roughly half her adult life in a dirty Dodge Caravan playing chauffeur" for him and his three siblings.
"Sports meant everything to me as a kid," Tom says. "In many ways, it still does."
So in 2008 it was natural to send what he calls "a fanboy e-mail to a guy at ESPN who didn't get fanboy e-mails." The man handled statistics for ESPN's most successful TV shows. Tom, meanwhile, was "a hopeless second-semester trying to land a finance job when there were no finance jobs to land."
Tom says that while he was "bred to apply my math skills in the financial world" -- his father is owner of Castle Keep Investment Advisors, and vice chair of Westport's Board of Finance -- he was "born to apply them in the sports world."
ESPN was impressed that in the summer of junior year Tom started a blog that published sports analysis. That achievement led to the interview process, which he calls -- using a sporting analogy -- "a marathon."
A one-hour sports knowledge exam was as grueling as any Wake Forest final. Tom passed -- and moved on to a phone interview that was "disguised as a trivia contest."
"What's your least favorite sport? Okay, we'll start there. Who won the bronze in figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics?"
He did well enough to be flown up to Connecticut for 12 hours of interviews at ESPN headquarters in Bristol. One was with the man who invented the z-score Player Rater that Tom had presented to AP Stat instructor Jennifer Guidice.
He got the job: breaking down the statistical side of sports. "Working at the Bristol office is like no other occupation in America," he reports. "Celebrities I grew up watching every morning on SportsCenter suddenly were my colleagues."
One day a man held open a door for Tom, so he hustled down the corridor. It was Bobby Knight -- the basketball coach known as much for his temper as his hoops acumen. Tom awkwardly gave thanks, wondering afterward if it was okay to address Coach Knight by his first name.
Tom learned hard lessons. As much as most sports fans believe themselves to be experts, for ESPN employees that's a given -- and then some.
Tom's niche is sports analytics. His expertise is basketball and baseball, the sports he played the most in Westport.
"I watch a basketball game and see a puzzle that needs to be solved," he explains. "I watch a match-up between Yankee lefthander CC Sabathia and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and I see the Prisoner's Dilemma." Tom uses statistical analysis, economic principles and his own athletic experience as tools to find solutions. "There's a hidden science beneath every game," he says.
Analyzing sports on the internet is a strange occupation, Tom says. "You receive instant feedback from your boss, your co-workers and the world -- all at the same time." A number of writers -- many of them with newspaper backgrounds -- demanded the instant feedback feature be abolished.
It took Tom a while to stop worrying about "the cranky .01 percent of the audience." He wrote dozens of articles for ESPN.com. Every one garnered at least one negative comment from readers. "It's the nature of the business," he philosophizes.
These days, Tom contributes to ESPN.com in various ways. His latest piece describes a new technology that will "rock the baseball world. He is also writing on a regular basis for the Hoopdata.com basketball statistics site, and undertaking other research and writing projects. The other night he went to a Boston Celtics game, for his first reporting gig for an ESPN article. He hopes to continue doing sports analytics for a living, for the media or a professional team.
Sports have come a long way from the days of simply reporting scores and scorers. Tom's advice to sports-and-math obsessed youngsters today:
"Your blog is your resume. Treat it that way, and you'll get noticed. Then network to get more eyeballs to your work."
And don't forget to take AP Statistics at Staples.