Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Fuld defies odds, lands in Cubs' outfield
By Anna Katherine Clemmons
ESPN The Magazine
Sam Fuld didn't carry around the typical teddy bear or worn-down baby blanket when he was young. He carried a book of numbers.
"He had a baseball stats book with him all the time, like a security blanket," said his mother, New Hampshire state senator Amanda Merrill. "He kept the history of the game and numbers. That's what he loved."
Those dual devotions have stayed with the 27-year-old Durham, N.H., native. Despite toggling between Triple-A Iowa and the Chicago Cubs' active roster this season, the 5-foot-10 outfielder has become a fan favorite for his diving, acrobatic defense (like his July 1 somersault throw to home plate, timed perfectly to force out the runner). In his September 2007 major league debut, Fuld earned the Chicago Tribune's nod for the 'play of the year' after making a wall-crashing grab and rocket throw resulting in a double play, known to many Cubs fans as "the catch."
Yet his most adept tool might be his mind. An economics major at Stanford, Fuld has long been a student of stats, signs and spreadsheets, even interning with Chicago-based Stats Inc. Though he can't devote as much time to math these days, his number-crunching coupled with his habits as a learned student of the game are paying dividends in full.
Sam's father, Ken, is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. The elder Fuld has completed several research studies within his specialty, vision, as they relate to sports. He says his son's studies started much earlier.
"He was only 5 or 6 and he was already computing batting averages and ERAs," Ken said. "He'd sit in the bathtub, and I'd say 'If a guy goes 17-for-37, what's his batting average?' What struck me is that he'd perform these operations in very creative ways -- not just that he got the right answer, but his methodology, adding in a factor and then dividing by 10, etc. I'd watch him and say 'wow,' just like I said 'wow' when he used to hit."
Fuld's earliest baseball memories are playing wiffle ball as a 3-year-old with his grandmother. While other sports intrigued him, baseball was his first love.
"When we were younger, he was bigger, stronger, faster than everyone else," said childhood friend Chris Gale, a former minor leaguer who now works in baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles. "He had a tremendous ability and knew the game so well so early."
As the years passed, Fuld stopped growing while his peers continued. So he honed in on the technical tenets that were controllable: speed, productive at-bats, and a tenacious in-the-dirt defensive style often popularized by smaller players. "When I realized I was going to be limited physically, I looked for guys in the big leagues who were little," Fuld said. "I'd buy baseball cards and find anyone under 5-10 who played in the outfield and say, 'That's my guy; there's hope.' "
He also continued to develop his gift for numbers. "In elementary school, we were in, say, third grade and he was doing 10th-grade math or something," Gale said. "He always had these math notebooks that were years ahead of where we should've been."
By age 12, Fuld was competing in a league of 14- to 16-year-olds. Because he wanted to play baseball in a warmer climate, he turned down scholarship offers from most Ivy League schools and headed to California.
Fuld started in center field all four years at Stanford and still holds the school record as the all-time leader in runs scored (268) and at-bats (1,071). During his sophomore year, he broke Stanford's single-season record and led the Pac-10 with 110 hits. He also had the record for the most hits (24) in the College World Series before it was broken by North Carolina's Dustin Ackley (27) in June. The Cubs drafted Fuld after his junior year in 2003, but he opted to stay at Stanford and finish his degree. The Cubs drafted him again the following spring.
While diving for a ball in his second-to-last collegiate game, Fuld broke his shoulder and tore his labrum. He had surgery and sat out for a year before beginning to play again in 2005 for Class A Peoria. That's when he read Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball," learned about Stats Inc. and applied through their Web site for an internship.
"I was one of their reporters, which meant that I looked at game video and plotted the 'TVL' -- type, velocity and location -- of every pitch," Fuld said. "They have this grid where you click on exactly where the ball crosses the plate. Play the tape, pause and repeat." A monotonous job, no? "It sounds tedious, and it was, but for whatever reason I handled it," Fuld says. "I guess there's a lot of baseball nerds out there."
He also began employing his own tracking system, seeking out stats that weren't already kept.
"There's so many statistics out there that I thought 'There's no stats on foul balls,' so I picked a few players and started tracking them, thinking I'd find something," Fuld said.
So did he publish a world-famous study? Not quite. "I lost it," Fuld laughed. "There' s a U-Haul that takes your stuff from spring training to the minor league sites, and my bag with the notebook of all my stats was stolen."
|Sam Fuld has played in 22 games for the Cubs this season, either in center field or left field.|
Still, chances are slim there was a stats geek out there coveting Fuld's tracking data. "I think they were probably more excited about the digital camera," Fuld said.
Fuld has been productive at the plate for the Cubs, often entering the game for key at-bats in later innings, and says he doesn't let himself get too caught up in the numbers.
"Now I try to separate what I read and discover off the field from what I do on the field," Fuld said. "It can be tricky, but I'm using my instincts. As a guy who's not a big power hitter, it's important to see pitches and walk a lot and fill that role as best I can."
That includes being a good listener. After spring training, Cubs manager Lou Piniella commented on Fuld's need to focus on speed and increase his stolen bases. "I heard that, and this spring I had 20 stolen bases at the halfway point; that was better than I'd done in any season previously," Fuld said.
Though he's quiet and reserved off the field, Fuld's relentless, wrecking-ball style of play has earned him a growing fan base. "His catch at Wrigley, jumping into the padded wall and then throwing a guy out, that was one of the best plays I've ever seen," said Cubs second baseman Mike Fontenot. "When you come up and you do well and make diving plays, the way Sam plays the game, the fans really like that."
Fuld was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in childhood and has to give himself two insulin shots a day and watch his diet. His quiet handling of the disease has earned him respect from friends and teammates.
"He doesn't take the opportunity that he has here for granted," said Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot. "With his diabetes and what he deals with on a daily basis, it's amazing for him to come out here and do this."
In his downtime, Fuld says he's a voracious reader. One of the Web sites he likes is sporcle.com, which contains (surprise) challenging trivia and numbers games. And after baseball, he might return to math.
"I've always liked numbers and how baseball uses a lot of numbers," Fuld said. In the winter after the 2006 season, he began a masters statistics program at Stanford, and has aspirations of completing the graduate degree.
He married his high school sweetheart, Sarah, a few weeks ago, and newlywed life, his father says, has both grounded and pleased his son in a way that numbers and baseball never have.
Perhaps Fuld's breaking into the majors has been the biggest surprise to his family's computed expectations.
"We know about math and probability, and the probability of him ending up in the big leagues given all the great players out there was really small," Ken said. "So his being a pro never really entered my mind. I'm sure he dreamt about it, but we never talked about it. It's amazing to see it happening."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
[Sam] doesn't take the opportunity that he has here for granted. With his diabetes and what he deals with on a daily basis, it's amazing for him to come out here and do this.
-- Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot