Brady Baker recalls numbers, particularly as they pertained to sports, always drawing his interest.
“My grandmother used to make fun of me for not liking the pictures on baseball cards but liking the stats on the back of them,” the 2015 Central High School grad said recently with a laugh.
That fascination with statistics would lay the foundation for what would later become Baker’s chosen career path. A realization midway through his high school years -- that his athletic ability as a baseball and basketball player wasn’t going to offer him a prolonged future in either sport -- set things firmly in motion as he looked for alternatives to keep sports a part of his future.
Baker was in his sophomore or junior year at Central, he recalled, when he started to study more closely the concept of statistical analysis and its growing impact in sports.
By that point the movie “Moneyball,” based on the book of the same name, was a couple years old and the use of advanced sabermetrics in professional baseball that both portrayed had become widespread. Then came the “3-point revolution” in the NBA, Baker said, and with the MLB seemingly reaching its peak in the world of statistical analysis, basketball, to Baker, seemed like the next “natural route just in the advances they were making.”
“The increased focus I guess in the media was the first thing that really set me in the place,” Baker, 21, said in a phone conversation on Wednesday of his interest in the statistical side of sports, “and then I was able to comprehend some of the formulas and stuff going into the advanced stats, so I figured it was a pretty good chance to at least start paying a little bit more attention to it.”
By the time Baker, who played three years of varsity baseball and two years of varsity basketball for the Falcons, graduated from Central in 2015, he’d decided he wanted to pursue a career in the professional sports industry and went to North Carolina State University to study sports management. While in Raleigh, Baker determined that in order to land a front-office job, he’d need to fully commit to numbers and analytics and switched his major to statistics, which he paired with a minor in business administration.
Baker interned with two professional sports organizations before graduating from N.C. State last December, spending two summers with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes -- one year on the video side and another in analytics, he said -- and spring 2018 with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.
In January, Baker landed in an entry-level position as a basketball analytics quality assurance assistant with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. He took some time prior to the Spurs’ Wednesday night tip-off against Miami last week to describe the responsibilities involved in his newest venture.
“A lot of my tasks are helping kind of the higher-up analytics people work on their bigger projects, which comes in terms of valuing players in the NBA based on statistics, valuing players in college based on statistics that we’re looking at in the draft process, as well as kind of being a statistics liaison for the coaching staff and front office to help make decisions,” Baker said. “I work a lot with our G League team in Austin and their coaching staff to help prepare for scouts and looking ahead on guys and kind of what they’re doing based on what statistics are showing us. So kind of translating a lot of the stuff the NBA gives out as well as kind of building new metrics and statistical modeling to hopefully give us a better edge on the competition.”
Baker’s responsibilities are “pretty all-encompassing,” he said, and change on a daily basis. With the end of the NBA regular season drawing closer, Baker said a lot of the analytics work now delves into draft prospects and free agency while simultaneously focusing on playoff prep. Recently, he added, the analytics department was tasked with preparing San Antonio’s scouts for the NCAA conference tournaments.
Game days, Baker said, tend to be some of the most relaxed when it comes to his job. Advanced scouting and statistical analysis for games are typically completed a week in advance, he said, and aside from being available during morning shootarounds should the team’s coaching staff need something, members of the analytics department are primarily responsible for compiling data from box scores and advanced statistics during games and presenting them to head coach Gregg Popovich and his staff at halftime. The idea is to inform coaches what the numbers are telling the statistical analysts, providing data to back it up and making sure both parties are on the same page.
“It’s a lot of translation to get it into a digestible content for our front office and coaching staff,” Baker said, “as well as kind of looking at how impactful those metrics are just because it is a lot to go through based on how granular things are getting with the advances in technology.”
Baker praised the Spurs organization -- and that of the Pacers -- for making sure he’s deeply involved in the analytics process despite being on the lower rungs of the hierarchical ladder.
Getting the chance to work with familiar names in the NBA world, Baker added, gave him a “starstruck feeling” at first.
“Now that I’ve been lucky enough to have been doing it for about threee years or so, it’s still a very surreal experience, just the people that you’re sitting down with on a daily basis that you’ve sometimes seen in halftime interviews and stuff like that,” Baker said. “I think the best part about it is the ability to kind of see, even if it is more so on the inside than what people are seeing, seeing how you’re impacting and how your work is impacting some of the biggest decision-makers that, if you have enough of a fandom for a sport, you kind of grow up knowing who these people are, kind of know at least the big GMs, big coaches and stuff like that. Being able to see that side of things and actually make personal relationships with those type of people has probably been the most surreal feeling.”
Baker, who said he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now without the support of his family, hopes to one day be one of those decision makers who help construct the path of a professional franchise.
“It’s a pretty fickle profession,” Baker said. “A lot of things are bound to change up probably faster than most industries, so I think just trying to cement my place in the league would obviously be the first step. Being in a place where I feel comfortable presenting ideas, helping decision makers, and then obviously far down the road the ideal dream is to get into a decision-making role as GM, assistant GM, somewhere in there where you’re making decisions.
“But I try to be realistic about things and commit to the analytics side of sports and get into a place where at least I’d have a little bit more influence on those decision makers if I can’t make it into that role and head up some analytics projects from some teams and stuff like that.”