RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live

His numbers are in the ballpark

Eric Van is an eccentric genius who's obsessed with statistics. And this season he's on the Red Sox payroll.

By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / June 23, 2005

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WATERTOWN -- Eric Van wakes his computer with a nudge of the mouse, and moments later the oversize screen is bright with numbers, an elaborate spreadsheet that is impossible to decipher. Moving the cursor across the columns, Van cracks a smile.

''This is interesting, very interesting," he sputters. ''But I'm not able to talk about it."

Van is neither spy nor Secret Service, and the numbers on the screen have no bearing on national security. That would be boring. The fidgety fellow whose shades are drawn on this spring afternoon works for the Boston Red Sox, and these are batting averages.

A 51-year-old Harvard graduate with an IQ of 143, Van was hired quietly by the team in February after owner John Henry read his posts on Sons of Sam Horn, a website popular among passionate Red Sox fans. Van is a statistical savant who's been using numbers to evaluate player performance for more than 30 years, well before ''sabermetrician" -- the term used these days to describe his type -- was in vogue.

''At 16, I knew you could get better players if you looked at the numbers," Van says. ''I knew teams were not being optimally run because there was an illusion about who was good and who wasn't."

That's not all he knows. Van, who entered Harvard as a physics major and walked out with an English degree, is a polymath, a real-life Buckaroo Banzai. Even as he sits in his Watertown apartment creating databases on pitchers and hitters, he harbors dreams of becoming a neuroscientist, a novelist, a composer, a comedian.

''Eric is a very extraordinary guy, like nobody else I've ever met," says John Clute, a novelist and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. ''He has a beguiling way of behaving as if he's just discovered the universe, and often he has."

Arranging a meeting with Van is not easy. In part, that's because the Red Sox have asked him to be discreet about the details of his new job. Although the team makes no secret of its commitment to statistics -- Bill James, the godfather of modern statistical analysis in baseball, is also on the payroll -- the folks in the front office are not inclined to reveal much about their nontraditional methods.

But Van is an elusive character for another reason. For years he's suffered from a sleep disorder that can turn his schedule upside down -- day becomes night, night becomes day. On several occasions, he had to cancel interviews because it was bedtime at 3 p.m. Van's response to his illness has been predictable: He's researched it intensively, and over time developed theories about the brain that he believes could earn him a Nobel Prize someday.

''When Eric gets into something, it's a lifetime commitment," says Erik Lindgren, a musician who's known Van since their prep school days at Mount Hermon School for Boys in Gill. ''It's a lifelong fanaticism."

Crunching the numbers
Growing up in Natick, the youngest of three children, Van inherited his obsession with statistics and the Red Sox from his late father. Edward Van, who owned a lumber company in Medway, used to bet on baseball, and he relied on data to give him an edge.

''We'd fight over the sports section on Sunday because it had all the numbers," Van says. ''We wanted to know who was good. We wanted to know the truth."

When he was 16, Van created a stat of his own, something to measure a hitter's productivity beyond batting average. He added on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and batting average, and called it ''combined triple average."

''I was shocked no one else was paying attention to this stuff," he says.

Today, of course, they are. The popular baseball statistic OPS -- on-base percentage plus slugging -- is a variation of Van's teenage invention.

The ferocity of his infatuation with baseball did not keep Van from cultivating other interests. At 9, he discovered Robert Heinlein's ''Have Space Suit -- Will Travel" and became a fervid science-fiction fan. As a teenager, he read J.R.R. Tolkien's ''The Lord of the Rings" 10 times in five years, and revered the works of Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, and John Crowley.

''Eric once came to my house in the Berkshires and interviewed me for a fan magazine. It was a very, uh, thorough interview," recalls Crowley, who lives in Conway and teaches at Yale. ''When Eric's talking to you about one of his hobbyhorses, there's a moment when the conversation intersects with another of his hobbyhorses, and his eyes glaze over because he knows if he takes a step to the left, he could go on forever about something entirely different that connects at an odd angle.

''It's fascinating to listen to," Crowley says. In 1987, Van and his friend Bob Colby created a science-fiction and fantasy convention called Readercon. Devoted to serious writers and readers, the annual convention in Boston has attracted distinguished authors who don't typically attend such conferences, including Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin.

''Many readers will read anything labeled in a certain way. They might prefer a Chateau Lafite Rothschild '39, but they'll drink cheap vodka," Crowley says. ''Eric is highly discriminating."

The same can be said about Van's taste in music. Sitting on the black leather couch that faces the 55-inch TV in his living room, Van suddenly leaps to his feet and puts on Procol Harum's ''Home." ''When I heard this," he says, nearly shouting, ''something went off in my head, and it was like my brain was rewired." Van, who plays guitar, has written a full-length rock opera based on ''Home" with Lindgren -- one of two rock operas he's composed.

But no band has captured his imagination more completely than Mission of Burma, the celebrated postpunk trio that recently got back together after two decades apart. By far the band's most zealous groupie, Van has written dozens of articles about Mission of Burma, attended more than 230 of their concerts -- including their first one in 1979 at the Modern Theatre on Washington Street -- and he makes more than a cameo in the soon-to-be-released documentary about the band.

''Objectively, they are the greatest thing ever if you want extremely high energy, sophisticated music, and melody," Van says. ''The only reason they're not immense rock legends is that the demand for what they do is pretty low."

Asked about his band's number-one fan, Mission of Burma guitarist Roger Miller chuckles. ''Eric wrote about Burma in Trouser Press magazine before Burma was formed," he said. ''No one else could have done that."

Inside baseball
Until he developed the sleeping problem -- diagnosed at first as narcolepsy, then as a circadian rhythm disorder -- Van led a relatively normal life. He worked for the family-owned business, wrote software, and, briefly, was married.

''I was at a party, and this guy who looked like Tony Curtis was going on and on about Daredevil," says Anita Roy Dobbs. ''The next day I went out and bought a Daredevil comic book."

The couple was together for three years -- married for one -- before Van's other interests, and his sleep disorder, got in the way. So fatigued that he sometimes had to stay in bed for days, Van began studying the mechanics of the brain. Needing to know more, he re-enrolled at Harvard in the 1990s to take courses in psychology and neuroscience.

''He wrote longer papers than any student I've ever had," says Mark Baxter, a former Harvard professor who's now a senior research fellow at Oxford University. ''I'd ask for 10 pages, and Eric would hand in 40."

The result of all this research was a cutting-edge theory about brain chemistry that Van, who disdains drug use and doesn't drink, plans to publish someday in a series of books. In the meantime, he talks about the theory with anyone who'll listen, and his disquisitions can be compelling.

''Once, he walked into a party at my place at 2 a.m. He was all fresh because he'd just woken up," says Timothy Maxwell, founder and publisher of The Noise, a Boston music magazine. ''Things were kind of winding down, and then Eric went into this whole thing about the brain. The women were so in tune to what he was saying. I remember they were actually getting kind of turned on."

Dobbs, who now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., has remained close friends with her ex. She calls his job with the Red Sox a ''beautiful marriage," perfect for both parties.

''The Sox hiring Eric," she says, ''is like the police hiring a psychic to find a missing body."

That may be an apt analogy. For years, Van has been tallying arcane baseball statistics, and posting his conclusions online. Had the Red Sox paid attention to just a few of his findings, he says, the team may not have gone 86 years between World Series wins.

''I want to write a book someday about how inept the Sox management has been," Van says. ''To this day, I'm the only one who recognizes that it was the first George Scott trade that ruined this franchise." (He reasons that if the Red Sox hadn't traded Scott in 1971, they would not have needed to deal Sparky Lyle for first baseman Danny Cater a year later.)

Covering the bases
Van used to post on a Red Sox chat board, but after the Sons of Sam Horn site went up in 2000, he began putting his analyses there. What he likes best about the site, he says, are the informed opinions of the other members.

''The signal-to-noise ratio is very low," he says. ''It's OK if you're ignorant, but I can't stand it when people are ignorant about being ignorant."

Eric Christensen, founder of Sons of Sam Horn, says there are other statheads on the site, but none more prescient or persuasive than Van. '' Eric comes up with theories that are backed up with tables and charts," said Christensen. ''He's very difficult to argue with because he's got his bases covered."

Last season, for example, while most fans were lamenting second baseman Mark Bellhorn's high strikeout total, Van was looking more closely at the numbers.

''Here's a delicious fact," he wrote in June 2004. ''Bellhorn has come up 14 times with a runner on third base with less than two outs and hasn't struck out once. He has hit three sacrifice flies, two run-scoring fielder's choices, walked twice, singled twice, doubled, and homered. He's hitting .444 with a .429 OBP and .889 slugging average."

So what's Van doing for the Red Sox? He won't say, and neither will the team. Owner John Henry did not respond to an e-mail, and general manager Theo Epstein was mostly mum, saying only that Van was hired on a trial basis to ''help work on a stats-based project."

Whatever he's up to, says writer Cecilia Tan, the team is getting its money's worth. Tan, a friend of Van's and an official with the Society for American Baseball Research, says the Red Sox would be wise to just sit back and let Van do his thing. ''As they say in the game, 'let your rabbits run,' " she says.

Van has only one regret about his new job. ''A big breakthrough discovery will show up in Baseball Prospectus eight years from now, and I'll have given it to the Sox yesterday," Van said, anxiously rubbing his hands together. ''Major discoveries I make belong to the Sox. But that's OK because I got all this other stuff going on."