Sam Fleischer stands with wife and baby at Dodgers stadium. Each are wearing white and blue Dodgers jerseys.
Dodgers family: The Fleischers cheer on their team.

Career curveball: Former NASA analyst applies data to major league baseball

Sam Fleischer stands with wife and baby at home during the holidays. There is a decorated Christmas tree behind them.

What do outer space and baseball have in common? For Sam Fleischer, M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’20, the answer is math. The alum’s path to becoming a data analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers first began with a mathematics internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.

Fleischer interned at JPL as an undergraduate to work on software for the Cassini project, a space-research mission to explore Saturn. After earning his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from UC Davis, Fleischer’s internship led to a full-time job as a Systems Engineer providing statistical consulting for various projects. His favorite projects were in planetary protection, a division for ensuring that space exploration doesn’t contaminate other planets and moons with microorganisms from Earth.

“Once I got to JPL I thought, this place is incredible,” he said. “I’d walk out of meetings where we’d be talking about life on other planets and moons and think, is this really my job?”

He worked on planetary projection for Europa Clipper, set to launch in October 2024, an interplanetary mission in development by NASA to learn more about Jupiter’s moon and investigate whether it could be suitable for life. He also developed the planetary protection model for Europa Lander, a potential future follow-up to Europa Clipper to land on the surface and investigate the ice up close.

Outside of planetary protection, his work included several cost modeling tasks for early project formulation and risk avoidance for the Mars Sample Return campaign to ensure the Perseverance Rover doesn’t damage the sample tubes deposited on the surface.

“I think a lot of people gain inspiration from space exploration. I felt like I was part of an effort by humanity,” he said.

Numbers change the game

Fleischer acquired many skills in data analytics while at JPL and formed a group with colleagues to study a statistics textbook and expand their knowledge.

“Learning more skills in statistics allowed me to look at data science more broadly than what I was currently doing,” he said.

A search for new opportunities led him to baseball, where the increased amount of data collected in games over the last 20 years—such as the characteristics of each pitch (speed, spin rate, spin axis) or the trajectory of each batter swing—has transformed how the sport is played and created a market for analysts.

“One of the things that appealed to me about working in baseball was the wealth of high-quality data that you get from each game. Working in a big data environment like that was super exciting,” he said.

In 2022 he landed a part-time job with the Tampa Bay Rays and the following year began his role as a senior quantitative analyst with his hometown team, the Dodgers.

Fleischer builds and delivers statistical models that make predictions to help inform personnel decisions made by team executives, such as which players they should draft and trade, or move up and down the Dodgers Major and Minor League development system.

He and his team also develop models that help coaches with in-game decisions like defensive positioning, lineup creation, and stolen base opportunities.

“I was surprised by how quickly the decision-makers were asking for my input,” he said. “In my mind sometimes I’m still just a Dodgers fan.”

A highlight for him so far was being in the Dodgers 2023 draft room and seeing his group’s work being applied in real time. Growing up in LA, Fleischer has always been a fan of the city’s sports teams and has attended many games. Baseball and the Dodgers, however, have always been special to him. 

“There’s just something romantic about baseball. It’s a special sport.”

Importance of community

While working on his Ph.D. Fleischer enjoyed being part of the teaching community, leading his own classes, developing lesson plans and consulting other Teaching Assistants at the Center for Educational Effectiveness.

“I have many fond memories of UC Davis. I had a core group of friends that really helped me get through the Ph.D. program.”

Throughout the twists of his career, he’s been most surprised by how that sense of community has followed him in different workplaces.

“From UC Davis, JPL and now the Dodgers, I’ve always met people who really care about my long-term career trajectory,” he said. “It’s been so nice and refreshing to have people around who are looking out for me.”

Fleischer’s path has been far from straightforward—he also pursued acting before beginning his math studies in community college—and he notes the importance of following what feels right.

“Acknowledging that something’s not going well and then making a change is a big theme in baseball. If you’re a batter and your swing is not working, then you change your approach. Being able to recognize when something isn’t fully right for you, and making that change, is very helpful.”

Primary Category

Secondary Categories

Alumni Profiles