To host its personnel close to its Dhahran headquarters, Aramco created a society unlike anywhere else in Saudi Arabia, or even the world. Beau Branton was born in this camp and describes the city as a "utopia," designed somewhat like an American suburb, but inherently different.
"The whole community is based around [Aramco]," Branton explained. "The schools, the restaurants, everything there is for the people who work for the company. … It's kind of got its own place, I guess, in terms of towns or little cities in the world.
"I have a lot of good friends that I keep in touch with over there. It's hard to explain in words, but I have very fond memories growing up there."
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Some of the biggest similarities between the Dhahran camp and life in America revolved around communication and sports. English was a very common language and opportunities to play youth baseball, football, soccer and basketball were plentiful. Branton remembered that he gave the other sports a try but was ultimately drawn to baseball.
"I guess I was just pretty good at baseball growing up, through tee-ball and Little League," he said.
His family's living situation provided the young Branton with a unique opportunity. With many baseball-loving ex-pats at the camp and few Little League chapters elsewhere in the Middle East, the Arabian American Little League became a regional powerhouse that's qualified for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 23 times since 1983, including consecutive appearances from 2000-2011.
"That, growing up, was like a major accomplishment within our community," Branton said. "I looked up to all the kids in our Little League that went to Williamsport, and that's really what first drew me to playing baseball."
Branton went with the team to Williamsport twice (2007-2008) but remembers losing every game against the advanced competition. A decade later, Branton is again an underdog on the diamond, but his numbers don't show it.
The 838th overall pick of this year's Draft slugged his way out of the Rookie-level Arizona League in short order and batted .317/.378/.390 with two extra-base hits and five RBIs over his first 10 games in the California League.
"There are no small mistakes, small mental errors or physical errors," Branton said of facing Class A Advanced competition. "The pitchers have much better command of their fastball and their off-speed stuff. … In the [Arizona League], there were guys that throw 95, 97, but they didn't always know where it was going. It's refreshing to be challenged here at this level. The guys really know how to pitch in and out and they have total control of the zone."
In 21 games with the AZL Mariners, he compiled a .423/.529/.549 slash line with three triples, three doubles, 11 walks and 12 RBIs and was promoted to the Nuts on July 21.
"My dream was always to play professional baseball," he said. "I just needed the opportunity and I'm thankful that the Mariners took a chance on me. To be honest with you, going throughout my college career, baseball didn't look to be a part of my future."
Branton left Saudi Arabia for Honolulu before high school and was a standout baseball player at Punahou High, earning all-state honors in his sophomore and senior seasons and winning the Interscholastic League of Honolulu regular season batting title with a .460 average in his final year, 2014.
He committed to Stanford and played 51 games as a freshman but batted .220 with five extra-base hits and 23 RBIs. Branton didn't see his name penciled into the starting lineup for two more years and appeared in 29 combined contests in his sophomore and junior seasons.
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A National Honor Society student in high school, Branton went into college open-minded about his choice in major. He wasn't swayed by his father's career but ultimately chose a similar path.
"I didn't think that I wanted to be an engineer, although I knew I was pretty good at math, pretty good at sciences," he said. "I took a year to figure out what I wanted to do and came across the major, 'management science and engineering.'"
Branton said that the direction he took follows a less common track than most students with engineering backgrounds. While a mechanical engineer might design or build physical objects, his major applied more to businesses and organizations, relying on data analysis that uses engineering principles to solve problems in the business world.
With his baseball career in a holding pattern, Branton thought it best to explore other options for life after graduation. He held internships at the Mitsubishi Research Institute in Tokyo, as well as a local real estate company in Honolulu and a San Francisco-based consulting firm, and was offered a job as an industrial engineer with Disney at their Disneyland resort in Anaheim, California, upon graduation.
| "I think that the analytics that are being used today are very helpful to hitters and pitchers throughout the game. I'm just thankful that I'm living in a time where I can use that to my advantage and help myself out."
-- Beau Branton
Branton described industrial engineers as internal consultants who work on different projects that add value to the company in various ways. He first used a park restaurant as an example of a subject of an industrial engineer's research -- they might use data, for instance, to determine which menu item might be most profitable in different seasons.
He then outlined the analytical thinking and inventiveness required of industrial engineers.
"Let's say they're building a new ride for the new 'Star Wars' Land and they want to figure out how many cars to put on each of these rides," Branton explained. "The industrial engineering team would just perform a lot of research, collect a lot of data, do some capacity analysis to figure out how many cars we should put on this sort of ride. Very exciting to me."
Suffice it to say, the job's salary would have eclipsed the $5,000 signing bonus he got from the Mariners after being drafted. But his life, no matter where he's traveled, has always gone back to baseball.
After a couple seasons of barely playing for the Cardinal, Branton got an opportunity to revive his baseball career during his senior season. An oblique injury kept All-Conference infielder Duke Kinamon out for the year and opened the door for Branton to get more playing time.
"I always thought I could hit. My whole life, I could always hit," Branton said. "I didn't have a chance to prove it at the highest level playing in the Pac-12, but I knew I could do it."
By the end of the season, Branton had played 44 games and gotten 170 at-bats, and he led the Cardinal with a .353 batting average -- finishing ahead of even Cubs first-rounder Nico Hoerner, who batted .345. He compiled 60 hits, including six doubles, a triple and his first homer.
"When I finally got my chance this year, I wouldn't say that I wasn't surprised, but it wasn't like it was a miracle or some sort of spirit that possessed me," Branton said. "I was just doing what I can do."
Although the Disney job was on the back-burner, the analytical mind still went to work. Fortunately, modern baseball provides plenty of opportunity for Branton to flex this muscle.
"Today, we have all these great tools, especially working at Stanford, working [in Modesto], they have a whole bunch of technology nowadays that can help you see what you're doing with your swing -- launch angle, exit velocity and that definitely helps," he said. "I like to use that, look at videos of my swing. You kind of take all of those numbers that they give us and incorporate that into my training."
He often uses this research to prevent from falling into patterns at the plate and identify instances where he might feel better suited to go up the middle or try and put the ball in the air.
"I think that the analytics that are being used today are very helpful to hitters and pitchers throughout the game," he said. "I'm just thankful that I'm living in a time where I can use that to my advantage and help myself out."
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Branton acknowledges that the game can't be predicted with data, but he makes daily use of the heat maps and pitch tendencies within a pitcher's scouting report. The heat maps show where pitchers tend to throw a particular pitch against right-handed hitters. The scouting reports also come equipped with percentages of how often they throw each pitch in every count.
"Every day, I take a look at that sheet and it's in the back of my mind when I'm in the box," Branton said. "If I get down to an 0-2 count, I'll remember, 'Oh, it says he's 60 percent with his curveball in 0-2 counts,' and it's normally inside or outside.
"But, at the same time, you don't want to overthink. You can't think too much when you're playing baseball, but it definitely helps out in some situations."
During his senior season at Stanford, Branton developed an unorthodox batting stance that suggests he might know something most everyone else doesn't. He holds his hands high around his ear and points the end of the bat toward the pitcher, similar to 23-year Major League veteran Julio Franco. The stance is an example of what must be left to feel for the game, rather than something derived from analytics.
"I'm trying to get on plane and as quick as possible, which is how my stance kind of originated," he said. "My stance is always changing. It's always evolving based on how I feel."
Should he reach the Majors, he will be the third Saudi-born player to do so. Tigers reliever Alex Wilson was also born in Dhahran to an Aramco employee. But for now, the well-traveled and intellectually oriented Branton seems to have found a home on the baseball diamond, wherever he plays.
"I have a bat in my hands, and I step into the box. It's pretty much the same game I've always played my whole life," he said. "I'm sure having experience playing in Williamsport, playing college and playing in front of a whole bunch of fans helped out in terms of pressure. But to me, it's exactly the same game."