A Philly native is now the highest ranking woman in the Pirates’ baseball ops department

Philadelphia native Sarah Gelles is an assistant general manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Photo: Pittsburgh Pirates)

By Patrick Berkery

March 26, 2024

Sarah Gelles, whose data mining helped the Astros beat her hometown Phillies in the 2022 World Series, has been hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates as assistant general manager, becoming the highest ranking woman in the team’s baseball operations department.

Last November, The Athletic polled nearly two dozen people working at all levels of professional and college baseball in an effort to highlight the rising stars in Major League Baseball’s front office and coaching ranks. No one received more votes than Philadelphia native Sarah Gelles, with one former colleague citing her “amazing ability to oversee dozens of projects and not ever give the appearance that her attention is divided.”

Gelles was the director of research and development for the Houston Astros at the time, helping to solidify the organization’s position as the industry standard for player development and analytics. She joined the team in 2019, tasked with building statistical models to inform on-field strategy, and developing best practices for communicating forward-thinking data to coaches and players.

The information Gelles mined offered hitters predictors of what pitch a reliever might lean on in a certain count, and gave pitchers statistical evidence that their curveball was a better weapon than they might believe. Thanks in part to Gelles’ work, the Astros defeated the team Gelles grew up rooting for with her family, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the 2022 World Series.

“I think my parents probably had a harder time with it than I did; up to that point they had been able to be both Phillies fans and Astros fans,” Gelles said. “I was very much a Phillies fan until I took my first job in the industry. At this point, 15 years into my career, I have a lot fewer mixed emotions than my parents did. No question in my mind I wanted to beat them.”

As The Athletic’s poll suggested, Gelles’ work with one of the most data-driven organizations in the sport was not going unnoticed. And shortly after the poll was published, Gelles was hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates as assistant general manager, becoming the highest ranking woman in the team’s baseball operations department.

Though the Pirates haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2018, Gelles, 35, is now part of an organization that could be on the verge of reversing its fortunes. Headlined by prospects like pitcher Paul Skenes, the first overall pick in the 2023 draft, the Pirates’ minor league system is ranked among the top 10 in the sport by many experts. Add to that promise on the farm a core of young players at the big league level like Henry Davis, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Mitch Keller, if you squint just right, you can envision a scenario where the Pirates have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs within the next couple of seasons.

“Obviously, I won a lot of games with the Astros and I wouldn’t have walked away from that if I didn’t think we had a chance to win a lot of games here too in the near future,” Gelles said. “I’m really excited about the core. I’m really excited about the baseball operations group that they’ve built. I think the relationship between the clubhouse and the front office is extremely strong, and the culture within the front office is really exciting to me. I just want to figure out how I can continue to help push the organization forward.”

Gelles’ career trajectory — internships with the Phillies and Pirates, a job out of Amherst College with Major League Baseball’s Labor Relations Department, and helping to build proprietary statistical models for the Baltimore Orioles before achieving success in Houston and her subsequent promotion with Pittsburgh — is an example of the progress women are continuing to make in reaching the upper echelons of Major League Baseball organizations.

A month before Gelles joined the Pirates last fall, Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng — the first female GM in any of the four major US sports — helped her team reach the postseason for the first time in a full season since 2003.

In San Francisco, Giants coach Alyssa Nakken, who became the first uniformed female staff member in Major League Baseball history in 2020, interviewed for the team’s managerial position last fall. Nakken is believed to be the first woman to ever officially interview for a Major League Baseball managerial job.

The road to progress, however, is not entirely smooth. Ng eventually resigned from her position in an apparent power struggle. Nakken was passed over for the Giants managerial job in favor of veteran big league skipper Bob Melvin.

Those setbacks aside, Gelles is optimistic about future opportunities for women in a field that not too long ago was exclusively the domain of men.

“It’s come a long way since I even entered the industry,” Gelles said. “I hope that people like me getting the opportunity I have (in Pittsburgh) can give more women a vision of what’s possible and that I can help continue to open doors and mentor young women who are interested in breaking in.

“It’s important to have different perspectives and backgrounds in your decision-making group. And I think women are going to have to be a part of that if we truly want a diversity of perspective. I think teams are recognizing that and they’ve put the effort in to make sure people of all different backgrounds are seeing these opportunities.”

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