As the Major League Baseball season heads into its home stretch with the playoffs fast approaching, fans of the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping for a return to championship glory. It has been nearly three decades since the team last appeared in the World Series. While memories of Kirk Gibson’s famous home run and Orel Hershiser’s dazzling pitching performances have come to define that 1988 title, none of it would have been possible without the vision of General Manager Fred Claire, the man responsible for assembling the roster.
Today, the Pasadena resident remains highly involved with baseball as chairman of a burgeoning analytics startup known as Scoutables, a platform that offers machine-generated scouting reports and data-driven insights about every MLB player.
Claire was born in Ohio and spent his childhood there before the family packed up and moved to Southern California when the young sports fan was 15. After graduating from Torrance High School, Claire eventually earned a journalism degree from San Jose State University following stops at Mt. San Antonio College and El Camino College.
He immediately returned south and jumped into the workforce, taking a job at the Whittier Daily News and then becoming the sports editor of a newspaper in Pomona. In 1969, while with the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Claire was assigned to cover the Dodgers. That season, a publicity director for the Dodgers was fired. Claire, who was married with three young children, expressed interest in the vacancy because of its reduced travel demands and was hired for the role soon afterward.
“I saw it as an opportunity to really do a lot of things and have a lot of freedom,” said Claire, who worked his way up to become vice president of public relations, promotions and marketing within six years.
During his tenure in this position, Claire played a key role in creating the phenomenon of “Dodger Blue,” branding that still remains relevant to this day. He was also instrumental in establishing the similarly popular “Think Blue” campaign.
“My vision was to create a true, almost collegiate link between the fans and the Dodgers,” Claire said.
“We created the theme and the ink and the branding, and [Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda] was the guy who helped carry it out. Like a lot of branding, it’s the simplicity of it that really made it stick. And it was the right theme at the right time.”
Claire was in the right place at the right time in the spring of 1987. By then executive vice president in charge of day-to-day operations for the Dodgers, Claire had almost 20 years of experience within the organization.
“There wasn’t anybody in scouting, player development or baseball operations that I didn’t know extremely well,” he said.
On the first night of the season, longtime Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis made controversial comments during a television interview and was forced to resign as a result. The team thrust Claire into the post, putting him in charge of a team that had finished near the bottom of the standings a year earlier.
“I was anxious to get to work because I knew we simply weren’t very good at that point in time,” said Claire.
“My thoughts were then — and in every day that I had the job — a tremendous sense of responsibility because I knew how many people were relying on me, us, the Dodgers organization to move forward.”
Claire wasted little time retooling, releasing high-priced veteran pitcher Jerry Reuss and signing free-agent utility player Mickey Hatcher during his second day on the job. The acquisitions continued throughout the following offseason, including a three-year, $4.5-million contract that Gibson accepted. By Opening Day of 1988, the Dodgers featured a very different complexion.
“There was a feel even in spring training that this is not the team that in the previous two seasons finished 16 games under .500,” said Claire. “We had the whole thing come together as a unit with good pitching, greatly improved defense, timely hitting, and it was just a year where we didn’t start all that great, but as these guys came closer together, we could see that we had a chance to do something really exciting.”
And that’s exactly what happened when Los Angeles defied the odds to beat the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series, four games to one. The unlikely victory prompted the Sporting News to name Claire Executive of the Year in just his second year as general manager.
As Claire basked in the afterglow of ultimate success, a letter from a Caltech student named Ari Kaplan appeared on his desk one day in 1989. The college freshman explained that he had a passion for the analytical side of baseball and requested an opportunity to speak with the general manager. Claire agreed to a phone call.
“I hadn’t really known anyone in baseball up until that point,” said Kaplan, whose research focused on why traditional statistics like earned run average weren’t the best indicators of a pitcher’s performance. “I just remember talking to him on my dorm-room phone. People didn’t have cellphones, so I had to camp out by the phone, practically sleeping next to it for fear that I would miss his call.”
Kaplan hoped to present his findings to players and coaches at the major-league level. Claire was intrigued and invited him to Dodger Stadium.
“I was impressed because he was smart and obviously, at that point, technology-wise very, very advanced,” said Claire, who would remain with the Dodgers until 1998. “But he wanted to get the input from the players and I thought that was pretty good.”
That foot in the door was all Kaplan needed to launch a successful career in sports analytics, one that has seen him combine technology, statistical analysis and business acumen as a way to evaluate players for maximum return on a team’s investment. Kaplan has worked with more than half of all MLB teams and many global sports media organizations while maintaining a successful track record at Fortune 500 companies. The catalyst of several different startups and co-author of five bestselling books on analytics, databases and baseball never forgot about Claire, though.
“When technology was advancing and the data being collected was really emerging [in the late 2000s], Ari was developing his programs and he came to me and wanted to give exposure to his ability in this area and asked if I would become a partner with him to help him advance and get some opportunities in baseball,” said Claire.
The result was a joint venture known as Ariball. Kaplan ended his arrangements with specific teams, but Claire realized that proper funding would be necessary in order for the platform to grow into a viable product.
Most mornings, Claire, 80, can be found nestled into the breakfast counter at Pie’n Burger. Local entrepreneur Mark Goodstein also frequents the popular cafe near the corner of California Boulevard and Lake Avenue.
“Over the years, we would spend different breakfasts talking about things and one of those was Ariball, which I was interested in because I’m a baseball fan,” said Goodstein, who works out of the Pasadena-based startup studio, Idealab. “I’m also interested in starting companies, especially those that have discreet and valuable intellectual property.
Last December, Goodstein absorbed Ariball and the company was rebranded as Scoutables. Its app, which is under active development and has garnered more than $500,000 in funding, provides daily scouting reports on MLB players in a mobile-friendly format. Claire, Kaplan and Goodstein unveiled their product during MLB’s annual Winter Meetings in Nashville.
“We couldn’t go 50 feet without someone stopping us and saying ‘Fred! How are you doing?’” said Goodstein. “I’m not kidding. We would have meetings where it literally took us an hour to walk across the hotel. We would have to get up an hour before a meeting and start walking, so that was awesome. He is royalty.”
Scoutables’ core analytics have been field-tested through years of collaboration with MLB presidents, general managers, field managers, coaches and players. Behind the scenes holding this network together is Claire.
“He oftentimes just picks up the phone,” said Kaplan. “We want feedback from a player or feedback from an agent. The access to them, the personal relationships just accelerate everything. But also you get engaged with people at a certain level of trust and respect. So people are just very open to sharing thoughts and that propels product development and propels the value of what you’re doing tremendously.”
“Fred’s one of the best at relationships and has helped launch a lot of careers. I’m grateful for that.”
Scoutables considers itself a Pasadena-based startup, but currently employs a national staff of around 40, including former MLB pitchers Orel Hershiser and Wally Ritchie along with former MLB trainer Stan Conte.
“An area that we’re spending a lot of time on, which we feel can really be a game-changer, is injury-risk analysis,” said Claire. “When you can use data to be able to be informative and predictive in results, then you have something significant in value.”
Outside of his Pasadena office, Claire enjoys occasionally playing golf with his wife and teaching sports business classes at both Caltech and USC. He is a board member at the Rose Bowl Operating Co. and also spends time consulting retired players on their next career move. But just as when he became general manager of the Dodgers, Claire is focused on the primary task at hand, and that is enhancing the viability of Scoutables in the marketplace.
“There’s a sense of obligation because we have investors,” he said. “We have people who are counting on us to succeed. So that’s a responsibility and I don’t take it lightly.”