Richwoods grad CJ Elger is part of Tampa’s World Series effort
PEORIA — CJ Elger's time on the Richwoods High School baseball team could turn into a World Series ring with the Tampa Bay Rays.
And it's not because of anything he did on the field.
The Peoria native is the data technician in the baseball research and development department for the Rays, who are battling the Loa Angeles Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. Game 6 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Arlington, Texas.
"People think of this as Jonah Hill's character in Moneyball," said Elger, 29. "My job is to make sure the data he gets can be trusted. I work with people in the front office, make sure decision-makers have all the stats and data and the technology they need. I make sure everything that is available gets collected and goes to the right place. It's a lot of computer science-type stuff."
Elger played basketball as a kid. He was a wide receiver for the Richwoods football team. He picked up baseball at Richwoods because he wanted to play in more than one sport.
Then-Richwoods baseball coach Dave Webb was bluntly honest with him.
"He told me, 'I'll be honest with you, you probably won't play a whole lot,' " Elger said, laughing. "There's a time for everyone when you realize you aren't good enough to play. I wanted to stay in sports, work in sports.
"So I started keeping the scorebook for the Richwoods games, and I'd go home and generate statistical reports for Coach Webb, and we'd send stats in to the Journal Star."
And so began his path to the Rays, where he monitors the computer models that provide the data to a team of 8 to 10 analytics experts who help Tampa Bay evaluate players.
Elger went on to earn duel bachelor's degrees in computer engineering and electrical engineering from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He earned a master's degree in data science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Back in Peoria, he worked as an IT analyst for Caterpillar from 2014-17. Sports never left his mind, though.
"Caterpillar was great, but I was always checking Fangraphs, which people in baseball use religiously," Elger said. "Halfway through grad school I saw a job posted there by the Rays, and I thought, 'The job description is literally what I do every day.'
"A college friend had a contact with the Tampa organization and asked them to get someone to look at my application. They gave me a questionnaire with baseball and computer questions, which was easy. Then I had a phone interview, then they flew me down there and I won the job."
This is Elger's fourth season with the Rays. In that span, the team has seen its win total increase each year, from 80 to 90 to 97 and now, in this COVID-shortened season, a win percentage that would have added up to 108.
Elger was standing behind the batting cage at Tropicana Field in Tampa when superstar-in-waiting prospect Wander Franco delivered a moment that still makes the rounds in baseball lore.
The Rays had brought in their top prospects in September of 2018 for a home run derby at Tropicana.
Franco entered the final round down by 10. He had three minutes to hit.
"I'll watch games with scouts all the time," Elger said. "I just don't see what they see. But that day, that moment, everyone could see it. He was 17, and in three minutes he hit so many home runs he won the event. He was down to 40 seconds left, and I think he hit three in his last four swings.
"Randy Arozarena is another good one, we're seeing that in this World Series," Elger said of the player who was acquired from the Cardinals in a January trade, and now has nine home runs in 19 playoff games this fall.
It's an up-close view for Elger, one he normally doesn't have.
He and his fellow data colleagues have been working from home since March 11, when baseball shut down spring training and office sites because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We were told to pack up and leave immediately," Elger said. "It's impressive how our industry, a lot of industries, have adapted."
And now here he is, on the inside of a Rays organization in the midst of a World Series.
"They treat us very well," Elger said. "Our entire front office was put on a charter jet and flown to (Arlington, Texas), where we watched Games 1 and 2 at Globe Life Field (home of the Rangers). We're traveling with the team. It's so exciting."
Back in Peoria, Elger's family is watching carefully, too. His mother and sister are Cardinals fans. He and his father are Cubs fans. That's a delicate calculation in a lot of households in central Illinois.
But they are unified this week.
"They sent me a picture," Elger said. "They were all wearing Rays gear."
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.