As a young boy, Jonathan Erlichman was a hockey fan. Maybe it was because of family–his cousin, Mike Cammalleri, played 15 seasons in the NHL. Or maybe it was simply because hockey was a way of life for most kids who grew up like him in Toronto’s Yonge and Eglinton area.
He later developed an affinity for numbers, and no sport features as many as baseball does. So as a teenager, Erlichman started feeling his sporting allegiances shift toward baseball.
“I got into it more from the analytical side,” Erlichman explained. “There’s a lot of data available and a lot of public research into baseball. I was always into math and science in high school, so it was sort of natural to get into it from there.”
Erlichman’s interest in numbers led him from Toronto to Princeton, where he earned a degree in math. His interest in baseball compelled him to pursue a career in sports while his friends pursued work in finance or consulting after college. Erlichman’s passions had him on a path to becoming Major League Baseball’s most unique coach.
Just 29 years-old, he now finds himself in uniform every day with the Tampa Bay Rays, wearing the distinctly hockey-like No. 97 on his back as the sport’s first ever “process and analytics coach.” In this role he works to improve decision making and practice methods while also acting as conduit between players, coaches and front office staff.
In other words, he’s not telling manager Kevin Cash when to bunt or showing Blake Snell how to grip his change-up, but he might help other coaches interpret data or share some findings with an interested player.
“A lot of my role is to provide a different perspective on the things that we’re doing here,” Erlichman said last weekend from the visitor’s dugout at Rogers Centre. “Some of it is me providing thoughts spontaneously to people based on what I’m seeing. Some of it is people asking me questions about things that are going on in the game or things they saw the previous day. Things they’re seeing in an advance report or in the data they’re looking at.”
After graduating from college in 2012, Erlichman interned in the Blue Jays’ baseball operations department for a few months, but it was the Rays who first hired him on full-time. Nicknamed ‘J-Money’ by former Rays executive Andrew Friedman, Erlichman increasingly took on more responsibility. By 2017 he was overseeing Tampa Bay’s research as director of analytics, a role he remained in for two seasons.
Along the way, he built strong relationships with Cash and others. Eventually, all involved determined that a move from the front office to the field made sense.
“Kevin and our staff have always been curious and open to different ideas – this move is a great example of that,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ senior vice president of baseball operations. “I think it’s a credit to the strength of the relationships that Jonathan has built with our field staff, and to Kevin’s humility and hunger for any perspective that can help our club win. The hope was that having J-Money all in with our staff and fully immersed would lead to a lot of great insight that we wouldn’t otherwise get – for everyone involved. In the early going that’s exactly what we’ve seen.”
Like other coaches, Erlichman is in uniform during batting practice, observing closely as the Rays take their practice cuts. It’s safe to say there aren’t many big-league coaches out there with math degrees from Princeton, but as analytics continue to gain importance within the game, the skillsets required from coaches are changing. In this instance, playing experience was deemed less important than communication skills and analytical thinking.
“It teaches you a good way of thinking and problem solving skills,” Erlichman said of his math background. “That way of thinking applies to a lot of things I’m doing now, even if the specifics aren’t the same.”
As the season unfolds, the job will evolve to meet the demands of the team, but that unpredictability’s nothing new for Erlichman. After all, when he first started following baseball he could never have predicted that this role would exist.
“It just sort of worked out this way,” Erlichman said. “The staff and players are really open to anything that can potentially help us win more games. It’s been received really well.”
Over the weekend, the Rays took two of three from the Blue Jays to preserve their spot atop the AL East. The next time Tampa plays Toronto, Erlichman hopes for a similar outcome. In baseball, at least. When it comes to hockey, his Canadian upbringing still shows.
“It’s still the Leafs,” he said. “I know the Lightning are big in Tampa, but it’s still the Leafs.”