Neal Huntington, general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had gathered his front office staff last fall to discuss the team’s options for the 2013 season.
The team had a measly $70 million payroll cap. But Mike Fitzgerald was forthright in making a pitch for free agent catcher Russell Martin, who was expected to command a higher contract than what the Pirates might normally take on.
“We are encouraged to ‘pound the table’ for someone or something we firmly believe in,” said Fitzgerald, a 24-year-old Wilmington native who is in his second season working as a quantitative analyst for the Pirates.
“We did a ton of research, and found that what Martin brings to the table just defensively alone was something worth investing in.”
Armed with his degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fitzgerald is at the forefront of an era in baseball in which statistical analysis helps to drive front offices to make the best calculated decisions on their players and opponents.
“Mike is very good at taking ideas and laying out the “What ifs,” said Dan Fox, the Pirates director of baseball systems development.
“He is great at talking through all scenarios and exploring all available options.”
Fitzgerald’s path to the big leagues was one that he paved through hard work and an undeniable competitive attitude.
A 2006 graduate of Malden Catholic, Fitzgerald excelled in the classroom, ranking third in his graduating class, and in athletics: He was captain of both the football and outdoor track teams.
His efforts earned him a Catholic Conference all-star nod in football, and he was one of 14 recipients of the Globe’s annual Richard Phelps Scholar-Athlete scholarship.
“It’s funny, because the blurb for the Phelps Scholarship says something about my choice of chemical engineering,” said Fitzgerald with a chuckle. “I took two courses for my major [at MIT] and knew it wasn’t for me.”
It took until his sophomore year to discover his path, unearthed after reading ‘Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s acclaimed book that documented the rise of the Oakland Athletics under the direction of GM Billy Beane and his ability, through statistical analysis, to construct a successful team with a bargain basement budget.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s jobs out there like this,’ ” said Fitzgerald. “I picked math as my major at the end of my sophomore year. It’s a broad major with many different options and it helped me get my foot in the door.”
That doorway was the office of Mike Zarren, assistant general manager of the Celtics, for an internship in which Fitzgerald weighed in on potential draft picks.
His work with the Celtics complete, he landed a position with TrackMan, a Danish company that developed state-of-the-art golf measurement systems that track the flight of a ball through radar. The company was also commissioned by three teams in Major League Baseball to test their systems, seeing what type of data could be extracted and used for scouting reports.
After a half year at TrackMan, Fitzgerald received a call from his best friend, DeRon Brown -- the all-time leading rusher on the gridiron at MIT — asking him to join him in the Technology Innovation Department at ESPN in Bristol, Conn. (Fitzgerald is the fifth-leading receiver in program history with 111 catches).
Fitzgerald “is one of the smartest guys I know,” said Brown, now a development engineer at ESPN.
“I knew what he was capable of and we needed a really skilled person in analytics. I couldn’t think of anyone better.”
Seeing it as an opportunity for more steady work and a solid resume builder, Fitzgerald jumped at the opportunity, but it wasn’t before he received another call from TrackMan. “It was out of the blue,” he recalled.
“One of the places where we installed the radar systems was in Pittsburgh, and they were in the process of building up their front office, adding an analytical division to their mix.
“TrackMan put in a good word for me and it was a perfect opportunity for what I wanted to do. I met with them in March of 2012 at the MIT Analytics Conference, and by the end of the month I was out in Pittsburgh right before the season started.”
Fitzgerald fit in from the get-go, thanks to a competitive spirit culled on the football fields and an eager personality that endeared him to the front office staff as well as those in the clubhouse.
“He is always eager to provide information,” said Fox. “He is personable and has a great feel for how to present that info to different audiences.”
So when the free agency period started, Fitzgerald was adamant that the Pirates should make a major play for Martin. They did, outbidding the Yankees with a two-year, $17 million deal.
“We have to continually be different, because our dollars aren’t as good as other teams,” said Fitzgerald. “We knew what we had in Martin defensively. We didn’t realize all of the other intangibles that he brings, so he has been more than worth the price.”
Martin has been a good fit, helping spark Pittsburgh to a 17-14 record with a .272 average, six home runs, and no errors behind the plate.
Years after Anthony and Dominic Pappagallo decided to randomly give Fitzgerald, their cousin, the nickname Russell Martin, the two have now joined to make the Pirates a contender in the National League.
“These guys are pointed in the right direction here,” said Fitzgerald of the Pirates. “My livelihood now is to help this team win. It’s fun to be a part of it.”
Fitzgerald “wants to be a general manager some day,” Brown said of his best friend. “He is well on his way.”