Meet Craig Breslow, the smartest man in baseball

Craig Breslow

Craig Breslow Bruce Kluckhohn

Craig Breslow would rather you didn’t call him that.

He’s gracious enough about it. “There are a lot of worse things I could be called,” he says, seated in the Twins dugout hours before a game. “You see the trouble other athletes have gotten into. If that’s what makes me notable, I’m smart enough not to dispute it.”

As he talks—confidently, articulately—it’s clear he wants you to see him as a left-handed reliever, a guy who can get that critical out or two to shut down a rally and rescue his predecessor from a jam. To wit, just one of the guys doing his part this summer to help the overachieving Twins.

“I’m as much a baseball player as anyone else in the clubhouse.”

Ah, but baseball is always looking for what sets guys apart. It seizes upon those characteristics to fashion the most eloquent sobriquets in sports: “The Left Arm of God,” “The Yankee Clipper,” “Blue Moon,” “The Splendid Splinter,” “Sweet Music.”

So Breslow becomes “The Smartest Man in Baseball.”

He still loved baseball, but it had become an unrequited love.

He still loved baseball, but it had become an unrequited love. Bruce Kluckhohn

That’s thanks to Lavelle Neal, the Star Tribune’s baseball beat writer, who gave Breslow the name during his first go-round with the Twins in 2008. The following year Jason Turbow of the Wall Street Journal upgraded Breslow’s intellectual dominion: “Judging by his résumé, Craig Breslow is the smartest man in baseball, if not the entire world.”

Here’s why: Breslow graduated from Yale. Through May, only six of the 1,052 players who have appeared in a Major League game this year graduated from the Ivy League. Six.

Two you’ve heard of: Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ pitcher from Dartmouth, and Chris Young, the Royals’ pitcher from Princeton. Three you haven’t: Danny Barnes (Blue Jays/Princeton), Matt Bowman (Cardinals/Princeton), and Brent Suter (Brewers/Harvard)—all pitchers.

Breslow not only graduated from Yale. He did so with a 3.5 GPA. Majoring in molecular biochemistry and biophysics.

Smartest Man in Baseball.

There have been other bright guys to play the game, sure. Moe Berg, who played for five teams in the 1920s and ’30s, graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School. He also spoke seven languages.

Leon Feingold, who played in the Indians’ farm system in the mid-’90s, is now president of the New York chapter of Mensa. More recently, we’ve had Mike Mussina, a Stanford man who pitched 18 years for the Orioles and Yankees and did the New York Times crossword puzzle.

But the title now belongs to Breslow, who does the USA Today crossword (“because I know I can finish it”), reads two or three books at a time (at the moment: Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics), and has been accepted to medical school (after scoring a 34 on the MCAT).

“We took graduate courses in molecular biology and he could follow things like how we use imaginary numbers to figure out the crystal structures of proteins,” says his former Yale classmate and teammate Matt McCarthy. “That’s not easy to do, especially at 21.”

Breslow aims that keen intellectual curiosity on baseball too. During the Twins’ May swing through Baltimore, he met with Dave Kirilloff, a former college coach and current hitting guru (and father of Alex Kirilloff, the Twins’ No. 1 pick in the 2016 amateur draft). Breslow listened to Kirilloff explain his theory about the way a batter’s dominant eye accounts for a hole in his swing and reviewed the charts of data he had compiled on hitters such as Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve. “He’s willing to take information from anyone, process it, and put it in his files to have when he can use it,” Kirilloff says.

Breslow was the first pitcher to seek out Kirilloff to learn how he might be able to exploit that weakness to his advantage. “That’s the kind of guy Craig is,” says his agent, Bob Baratta. “The scouting report on a guy might be ‘keep the ball down.’ Craig wants to know why.”

When Breslow was with the Red Sox, Josh Beckett bet a teammate that Breslow was so smart he could calculate the number of rotations a baseball makes from the pitcher’s hand to the plate when thrown 90 miles per hour. Beckett won the bet.

“There are a lot of variables, but I put in some figures and came up with answers for a fastball, curve, or slider,” Breslow told a reporter. “It’s rather simple once you do it.”

Well, simple if you have gray matter like his. Smartest Man in Baseball.

You might expect a guy with such cognitive capabilities to be an ill-adapted brainiac. Not so. Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn

You might expect a guy with such cognitive capabilities to be an ill-adapted brainiac. Not so. Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn

At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Breslow is slight by MLB pitching specs. On the mound, he tugs his cap low so his ears pop out, making him look like a little brother who fast-talked his way into a game with the older kids.

Cap off, the ears recede and his smile takes over. Large spread of white teeth. Boyish, warm, yet confident, knowing, accompanied by a pleasant demeanor. Put him in a suit, and it’s easy to imagine him meeting with clients at Ameriprise. He has the air about him of a guy who could be successful at whatever he chooses to do.

You might expect a guy with such cognitive capabilities to be an ill-adapted brainiac. Not so. The résumé belies his regular-guy appearance and manner. There in the dugout, outfitted in a snug long-sleeve blue top, athletic shorts, and Nike sneakers, he blends in among the other players milling about the field. Just one of the guys.

He can recite long passages from movies like Happy Gilmore and Dumb & Dumber, and knows nearly the entire canon of rap lyrics from the ’90s. In addition to books by Nobel laureates, he reads thrillers by the likes of Vince Flynn and David Baldacci. He watches the same shows on Netflix you do. He and his wife, Kelly, just finished Homeland and are now into Sneaky Pete. He and fellow reliever Matt Belisle, who sit next to each other on flights, are into Blacklist.

After New York Jets coach Rex Ryan’s foot fetish surfaced in internet videos, Breslow agreed to do the spoof “My Pretty Left Hand,” in which a woman ogles and asks to touch his hand. (A comedy troupe approached him with the idea to use the video in one of its shows and agreed to donate proceeds from ticket sales to Breslow’s foundation.)

Unlike Ryan’s situation, the video did not go viral, and women did not approach Breslow in real life to admire his pitching hand. “I don’t know too many people who saw it,” he says, adding somewhat sheepishly: “Most of the views were by me to see if anyone else had looked at it.”

His sense of humor and down-to-earth demeanor have allowed him to blend in seamlessly over his 15-year career.

“He fits in well in all sorts of clubhouses,” says Andrew Miller, Breslow’s former teammate on the Red Sox, who now pitches for the Cleveland Indians. “If he didn’t have a reputation as someone who fits in on your team, he wouldn’t have worked for seven teams. Those guys get filtered out pretty quickly.”

This speaks to Breslow’s social intelligence. “He is able to develop friendships with people from any walk of life, just because he is so genuine,” says Jon Steitz, another former Yale teammate.

Since signing with the Twins in February, Breslow has eased back into the Twins’ clubhouse, which has undergone a wholesale turnover since his last stint with the team in 2008-09. Only Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins remain. He recently entertained his bullpen mates with Al Pacino’s famous speech from Scent of a Woman.

“He’s very bright, but he is every bit a roll-with-the-flow-of-the-clubhouse guy,” Belisle says.

Still. For a guy with that kind of mental horsepower and not drafted until the 26th round, you would expect him to be practicing medicine by now, like his former Yale teammate McCarthy, a fellow pro pitcher turned physician after attending Harvard medical school. Breslow did apply to med school after the Brewers released him in 2004 (he bested McCarthy’s score on the MCAT) and was accepted at New York University.

His fascination with medicine began during his formative years in Trumbull, Connecticut, where both of his parents were teachers. When he was eight, he broke his wrist playing soccer. It mesmerized him that a physician could set the bone, wrap it in a cast and, six weeks later, his wrist was healed.

Four years after that, his older sister Lesley was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had it removed. (Today she is healthy, symptom-free, and the mother of two children.) “That has a pretty powerful impact on one’s childhood,” he says.

McCarthy believes Breslow would be a thoughtful and caring physician. Yet despite his potential and fascination with medicine, Breslow has deferred his medical school acceptance four times so he can keep playing baseball. Med school is the mother at the door calling her boy home for supper, but Breslow’s shouting back, “Not yet, Ma. The game’s not over.”

Here’s another misconception. You might think being known as the Smartest Man in Baseball, a game where most of the action takes place between the ears (or 90 percent of the game is half mental, to quote one of the game’s philosophers), would be a good thing. But you would be wrong. Because you have not walked a mile in the cleats of the Smartest Man in Baseball.

Breslow looks out at the gray clouds hanging low over the infield and says ruefully, “It has typecast me.”

For nearly a decade—a seeming eternity in the life of a professional ballplayer—he has dragged around that label like Jacob Marley with his chains. “I have this stigma that follows me.”

He doesn’t mind the way teammates expect him to know everything. They ask him what time the bus is going to leave, if it’s going to rain that day, what they should tip in restaurants, how to get their iPad working, why a manager made a certain move—and expect him to have answers.

And it’s not the teasing from friends, which he takes in stride. McCarthy tells him the title is like being “the loudest whisperer—the bar is not that high.” Steitz ribs him as though he has superpowers. If something goes wrong, say a rental car breaks down, Steitz tells him, “You can figure it out. You’re the smartest man in baseball.”

(This, of course, is not always the case. When the Oakland A’s signed Breslow in 2009, he moved in with Steitz and his wife in the Bay Area. They would occasionally ask Craig to look after their baby. One day the child woke crying with a soiled diaper. Breslow had to call his mother back in Connecticut to ask her how to change it.)

It’s not even that the rep from Akadema, who supplies his gloves, sent him a glove with SMIB imprinted on it as a joke. One of four in his locker, Breslow wears it to play catch but would never use it in a game. “I prefer to give hitters no reason for extra animosity toward me,” he says with a smile.

No, the label becomes a burden when it makes others think Breslow isn’t serious about baseball, that his gifted mind is elsewhere. “If something is going wrong —I’m having trouble getting guys out—people think I’d rather be doing something else, but there is nothing I’d rather be doing.”

It bothers him. He wants you to understand that baseball is not a passing fancy for him. He’s not marking time. This is his passion. 

So forgive him if he gets a bit testy when asked what he is thinking about his future. “I’m thinking about how to get the Astros out,” he says. The game starts in less than three hours. “While I’m here, I’m going to stay focused.”

He is good at that, as you might expect. His concentration has been a critical element in his success as a major league pitcher. Steitz, a former pitcher himself, confirms. “He is very focused. I have always thought that’s what separates him from folks with more physical ability. He has an absolute lock in the moment, the ability to focus on repeated delivery to spots—bam, bam, bam on the corners.”

Yet concentration alone cannot guarantee perpetual success. After two separate stints on the disabled list in 2014 and 2015, Breslow was healthy in 2016, but he couldn’t seem to get batters out. The Marlins demoted him to AAA New Orleans, then released him in July.

The Rangers picked him up, but released him 10 days later after three rocky appearances with AAA Round Rock, Texas. On August 8, his 36th birthday, he was home in Newton, Massachusetts, healthy but unemployed.

Others might have taken fate’s hint that his career was over. Lesser men have. Not Breslow. He wasn’t ready to quit. He had gotten through tough times like this before.

Drafted by the Brewers in the 26th round —that’s so late it can’t even be considered an afterthought—he paid his dues in the lower rungs of the minor leagues before getting cut mid-season 2004. That’s when he took the MCAT and applied to med school. He also grabbed a spot on an independent team in the lower minor leagues.

He did well enough for the Padres to give him a $1 signing bonus (yes, you read that right) after a 2005 spring training tryout. Assigned to AA, he got a call-up to San Diego. His first day there, someone mistook him for the batboy. Mr. Breslow, meet ignominy.

It was a prolonged introduction. The Padres let him go in December. He pitched two summers in the Red Sox organization, mostly in AAA. The Indians claimed him off waivers in March 2008, and Breslow made the opening day roster, but lasted only seven weeks.

That’s when the Twins claimed him off waivers. He spent the next nine seasons mostly in the majors with five teams (Minnesota, Arizona, Oakland, Boston, and Miami) until he found himself out of work last summer.

That would have been the time—if he truly had been playing with one eye on the future—for him to matriculate at med school. Thing is, he still loved baseball, but at that point it had become an unrequited love.

His wife gave him the nudge he needed. “You’re a baseball player,” she told him. “It’s in you. Figure out a way to keep playing baseball.”

So the Smartest Man No Longer in Baseball drew upon his greatest asset to reinvent himself. He pored over data in PITCHf/x, which tracks the velocity, movement, spin, release point, and location for every pitch thrown in MLB games, to determine what made certain pitches work better than others.

He quizzed friends like Andrew Miller about his slider and Rich Hill about his breaking ball. “It wasn’t about being able to throw the same pitch. But I figured if I could replicate the spin [on their pitches], I could get similar movement,” he says.

To do that, he calculated a need to lower his arm a couple of inches on his delivery. He bought a $3,000 3D camera called Rapsodo that allowed him to measure how much the ball moved horizontally and vertically from different delivery points, as well as velocity, spin rate, spin efficiency, and pitch location.

It wasn’t easy. Those two inches felt like two feet. Think learning to ride a bicycle having to turn the handle the opposite direction you want to go. Or cutting your hair in a mirror. He had to instill new memory into muscles accustomed to pitching in a specific way. But he believed in his analysis.

And, lo! Two months later, he started seeing reliable progress. By the time he was ready to unveil his new delivery in a showcase for scouts before spring training, he had added half a foot of side-to-side movement on his breaking ball and ten inches to his fastball. He was also getting six inches of additional drop on his two-seam sinker and developed a slider.

Breslow could not only show scouts his new delivery, but back it up with data gathered by the Rapsodo camera. “Every agent calls a team and says, ‘My client is in the best shape of his life,’” he says. “I had a data-driven profile that is easier to digest, less refutable.”

It worked. Sixteen teams wanted him on their 2017 rosters. He chose the Twins, though they offered less money than some others, because he found a kindred spirit in Derek Falvey, the team’s new chief baseball officer, a fellow believer in the power of analytics.

Falvey wanted him to be a leader on a young team. The two talked for hours. “He recognized that the totality of my value could continue beyond the mound,” Breslow says. (Falvey did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

The leadership role comes naturally for Breslow, who captained the Yale baseball team. He will turn 37 in August, which makes him the second-oldest member of the Twins, two months behind Belisle.

Breslow is not the kind of guy to organize post-game clubhouse dance parties like Torii Hunter. Nor is he prone to motivational speeches of the Kirby Puckett variety. He leads by example. Teammates recognize him as someone who takes every pitch seriously. Who does not pout or throw tantrums when things don’t go his way.

In short, someone who’s a good role model to younger players learning how to conduct themselves in the majors.

Through the first two months of this season, Breslow has demonstrated modest improvement. He is striking out fewer batters than he has over the course of his career, but he’s also giving up fewer walks, hits and earned runs. By throwing more breaking balls, he’s also inducing more groundballs, which are less likely to go for extra-base hits.

Breslow insists he is still adjusting to his new delivery and expects continued improvement. “This is a work in progress,” he says. “I haven’t reached my ceiling.”

The accumulation of data and new technology like Rapsodo could put baseball on the cusp of a revolution, allowing pitchers to retool their deliveries. Those coming back from surgery, or those who have never been able to achieve their identified potential, would make likely candidates to use what he’s learned. And this could provide a second career once he’s done pitching. His experience gives him credibility absent in the pure sabermetricians.

Those skills are already in demand. Last winter Breslow received unsolicited offers from multiple teams for front office jobs. But he’s not ready for that. “I still intend to play for a long time,” he says.

And then? Though he long imagined himself practicing medicine, Craig Breslow, M.D. is seeming less inevitable. Baseball has its hooks into him. “I long envisioned my impact as a physician,” he says. “The longer I’m in the game, though, the harder it is to imagine a life where I’m not.”

The possibilities are plentiful: He could be a manager, a general manager, or the guy able to interpret data and instruct players in its application.

It’s worth mentioning that Breslow has already made an impact in the field of medicine. In 2008, he founded the Strike3Foundation to raise awareness and funds to research childhood cancer, inspired by his sister’s experience. The foundation has raised $3.3 million through galas and an annual Wiffle Ball tournament. Breslow and his wife Kelly oversee it. The foundation’s website lists his email as executive director, and he replies personally to inquiries.

That dedication is what initially impressed Kelly Shaffer (now Kelly Breslow) who met Craig at one of his foundation’s fundraisers in 2010. “Knowing he has a high-pressure day job, but then seeing him within 10 minutes of the last out of a game respond to an email to his foundation, I realized the caliber of guy he was,” she says.

It also has impressed those he works with. The Red Sox nominated Breslow twice for MLB’s annual Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball on and off the field.”

Kelly and Craig married in November 2013, 10 days after Breslow won the World Series with the Red Sox. They had twin boys in 2015.

That means Breslow now spends much of his time off being a dad. He takes the boys for morning walks in the stroller. Packs them into the Burley for family bike rides. At night after games, he faithfully unloads the dishwasher and prepares the boys’ bottles for the next day.

It takes a certain kind of humility to do those things, something Breslow also has in abundance.

Breslow does not get a chance to get out any Astros this evening, but manager Paul Molitor summons him for duty in the seventh the following day. The Twins have scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth to pull within one, 6-5. But the Astros respond with four runs and now have men on first and third, no outs.

Two days earlier against the Astros, Breslow had his worst outing of 2017. In the eighth inning, the bullpen gave up 11 runs. Three of those were Breslow’s after allowing three hits and managing only one out.

Now it looks as if the bullpen is about to explode again. Two relievers have already failed to record an out this inning. It is Breslow’s shot at redemption.

He quickly records two fly ball outs. The first scores a run. The next batter hits a groundball to second, but Brian Dozier has cheated to his right. It goes through cleanly for a single.

Breslow pitches too carefully to the next batter, All-Star Jose Altuve, and walks him to load the bases.

Breslow sweeps the rubber with his foot in frustration. He steps behind the mound to collect himself, then faces Carlos Correa, who already has three hits on the day.

He throws an off-speed pitch for a strike. Then another. Correa pops it to Dozier. Breslow trots from the field. The crowd cheers. Disaster is averted.

Molitor selects Jason Wheeler to start the eighth. His first pitch lands in the left-field bleachers. It doesn’t make Molitor look too smart. But the Smartest Man in Baseball is in the dugout, having proved his worth for another day.