Yes, Baseball Scientist for the Cubs is a real job
McMaster Kinesiology grad Michael Sonne is the Chicago Cubs' baseball scientist — a job that manages to be even cooler than it sounds. He talked to us about the team, Wrigley Field and what a baseball scientist actually does.
Mac grad Michael Sonne’s coming off his first full season as the Chicago Cubs’ baseball scientist, a dream job he landed thanks to his expertise in biomechanics — and his love of baseball.
Sonne is part of the Cubs’ research and development department, figuring out how to safely get the players on the field performing at their maximum for as long as possible.
He landed on the Cubs’ radar thanks to his blogging and social media posts about sports, including whether the introduction of pitch clock would put pitchers at greater risk of injury.
Sonne, who earned his PhD in Kinesiology at McMaster, is back on campus Friday, Dec. 8, to deliver a keynote during the Faculty of Science’s second annual Graduate Research Symposium.
Here’s what he had to say when we caught up with him:
Have you added a Cubs tattoo to go with your Blue Jays ink?
I will once we make the playoffs this season.
What was it like stepping onto Wrigley Field for the first time as the Cubs’ baseball scientist?
I never lose the excitement of seeing that marquee out front. Every time I get off the Red Line it gives me butterflies. It’s such a beautiful ballpark and a special place to see a game. The history is just awesome.
You feel like you’re part of that history and you want to do a good job because you know how much that team means to people all over the world thanks to WGN broadcasting games everywhere. You especially want to make the people in Wrigleyville happy.
After the season wrapped up this year, we got to play softball on the field as part of a big front office tournament. I was able to pitch in it and even though it’s slow pitch softball you’re standing on the same mound where Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters, Rick Sutcliffe and Jake Arrieta won their Cy Youngs, and where guys like Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks go to work. Definitely a lifetime moment. There’s an aura around Wrigley.
What’s it like working with MLB players?
The players have a lot more fun than you think. They are very serious when it comes to their jobs but you have to be able to chat about video games, sports, music and other fun stuff with them too. They’re very competitive, so when you want to motivate them, you always make things a contest.
The Cubs put a huge emphasis on culture. The players view the support staff as teammates and they’re always asking us questions.
A few of them just love the job title of baseball scientist so they like to joke about lab coats and having a chemistry set with me at all times.
What was the most rewarding part of your job last season?
This year we played in Toronto and Detroit. I was born in Toronto, grew up in Windsor and still live in Hamilton. It was amazing to share the on-field experience during batting practice with my friends and family.
What was the most unexpected part of your job?
How much you live and die with the results! You really feel for the players and major league staff when things don’t go our way.
The way our season ended this year was pretty tough — hard losses in that last week that could have gone either way.
I think my proudest moment of the season was during the last game. We brought up some veteran minor leaguers to get some service time and all of our coaches and players were in the dugout. They weren’t making the playoffs but they stuck together as one big family.
What’s the one thing fans don’t fully appreciate about professional athletes?
In baseball, I think it’s how long the season is. The pitchers are showing up in mid-February and finishing their season in October. To get ready for that season, they realistically have two to four weeks of downtime before they have to start building up their arms again for the season.
There are great stories about guys doing their throwing on cruise ships, honeymoons, cottage vacations or in parking garages.
I golfed with a major league pitcher once in December, and we went back to his training facility and he threw a bullpen in his golf clothes to make sure he got his work done that day.
Do other ball clubs have baseball scientists?
There are a lot of biomechanists in baseball now. It’s likely the industry that is hiring the most biomechanists right now — so it’s a good time to be a kinesiologist. As far as I know, we’re the only ones with a department of this name.
You spend a lot of time working with players in the Cubs’ farm system. What’s your favourite minor league ballpark?
I think my favourite city has been Des Moines, but Myrtle Beach Ballpark is amazing because it’s always full, the fans are having a blast and the game day staff create an awesome environment.
We also have a bat dog named Slider who’s just about the best boy you’ll ever meet.
Best place to eat near Wrigley Field?
You can’t go wrong with an Italian Beef just about anywhere, but I’ve gone to Michael’s Tavern a few times for thin crust pizza with friends and it is amazing. It’s just a few blocks away. If you’re there in the mornings, go to Cafe Tola on Southport for breakfast empanadas.
How are you spending the offseason?
We don’t have that much of an offseason in the research and development department. Right now, we’re building models for implementation for next season and helping with free agent and minor league acquisitions.
I just got back from a conference so I’m also doing some professional development. The best part is a few more nights in my own bed and hanging out with my friends in Hamilton — plus my daily morning walks down Locke Street.
You’re a player-coach with the Steel City Inclusive Softball Association. What position do you play on the ball diamond?
Definitely the super utility route. As I’m getting older, I tend to be doing the slow pitch pitching, but I love playing shortstop or second base.
Last question. Where do you want MVP free agent Shohei Ohtani to wind up? Jays? Cubs? American League? National League?
He’s the best baseball player in the history of the game. Wherever Ohtani ends up this season, he’s going to make a big difference on and off the field.