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Old Game, New Math

Old Game, New MathA unique class at Tufts delves into the world of baseball statistics, uncovering the meaning behind the numbers that populate America's pastime.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.24.05] Millions of Americans will tune in this week as the drama of the World Series, baseball's crowning event, unfolds. But for some of those viewers, the game is more than just a game. When a base runner kicks up the infield dirt or a pitcher hurls the ball toward a waiting mitt, there is invisible math hanging in the air, statistics waiting to be calculated.

"Baseball's a great game because it's like a ballet or like a play and there's scripts and there's roles but every night there's a different ending and most of what you see is quantifiable," says David Tybor (N'03, M'03), one of the instructors of the Experimental College course "The Analysis of Baseball: Statistics and Sabermetrics."


AUDIO:

Andres and Tybor talk about the analysis of baseball statistics
Tybor discusses the class curriculum
Andres and Tybor talk about the uniqueness of their class


This unique class, instituted in Fall 2004, implores students to examine the game of baseball from a mathematical perspective, applying statistical analysis to player performance.

"Once I was more interested in baseball and started thinking about it analytically, I realized there was a huge whole other story that could treat baseball as a science and really try to analyze baseball objectively," says Andy Andres (N'99), an assistant professor of natural sciences at Boston University and fellow instructor for the course.

Both Tybor, who is currently pursuing a PhD in nutritional epidemiology at Tufts, and Andres (N'99), who was graduated from Tufts with a PhD in nutritional biochemistry, have ties to the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, but they actually met on a Tufts employee softball team. That is where they, along with Tufts information systems specialist Morgan Melchiorre, first cultivated the idea of teaching a class about sabermetrics (the name for the study of baseball statistics, derived from the abbreviation for the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR).

They pitched the class to the Experimental College, which received the idea warmly. The class proved enormously popular, with 50 people showing up at the first session hoping for a seat. The reception ever since has been positive.

"In the beginning the administration thought this was a perfect class. Then they heard how hard it was, and they liked us even more," jokes Andres.

The class breaks down the fundamental aspects of baseball - hitting, pitching, fielding, baserunning - and analyzes them from a statistical perspective. Michael Lewis' Moneyball, considered a seminal text of the sabermetric community, is required reading, in addition to writings by other noted baseball statheads. They study the history of baseball statistics and figure out how to quantify a player's value.

"The first response when you tell somebody you teach this class is, 'Oh yeah, baseball statistics, what does Derek Jeter hit on Tuesday under the full moon against lefthanded pitching?'" adds Tybor. "This is the science of baseball, this is learning how to sift through the chaff and find out what's real."

"It's an in-depth statistics class," says senior Mike DeBartolo, who took the class last year. "It's just applied to baseball instead of business."

At the end of the semester, students are required to present detailed research projects. Their hard work reaped dividends this summer when two groups of students, in addition to Andres himself, presented research at the SABR conference in Toronto this past August.

"I wanted them to really have the chance to go push themselves to the limit and maybe get some new publishable work out there," says Andres, whose own paper examined the phenomenon of September performance falloff. "The top students really start enjoying that kind of work, when they get the sense that this is new, this is real, this is new research."

Junior Matt Gallagher and sophomore Peter Bendix presented "The Leo Mazzone Effect," examining the influence of the Atlanta Braves' pitching coach on his hurlers, while senior Jesse Gerner and junior Noah Kaufman presented the "The Green Monster Effect," evaluating how Fenway Park's one-of-a-kind left-field wall affects run output.

"I couldn't believe I got into such a high-demand class as a first semester freshman in college," recalls Bendix, who hopes to land a career in the front office of a major league baseball team. "It led to making friends and doing research and The New York Times and Toronto. Who knows where it will lead next?"

There may be no better doorstep on which to run such a class than a Boston-area university, given the emphasis of the Boston Red Sox' front office on sabermetric research. And Andres and Tybor have capitalized on that proximity, bringing in two Sox officials to deliver guest lectures in the class.

The popularity of the course extends beyond the Hill. Besides being mentioned in Newsweek and The New York Times, there is widespread awareness of the class in the burgeoning sabermetrics community and among baseball fans in general.

"It's so awesome to get e-mails from kids in California or kids at MIT who just say 'Oh, Professor Tybor, can I please take your sabermetrics course this semester? Can I please call in everyday and do a webcast from UC Irvine?'" he laughs. "It's pretty cool to know that Tufts has something that you can get in very few other places."

Andres attributes their opportunity to teach the class to the enterprising nature of the ExCollege.

"The fact that the ExCollege is at Tufts affords us the chance to do this, since it is new and different and that's what the ExCollege is all about," explains Andres. "The other part is that [former provost and resident baseball scholar] Sol Gittleman is around, and there's this history of baseball scholarship at Tufts. They're a little more receptive to something like this."

And while the class is serious business, Andres says it's also a pleasure to teach.

"When I come to this class, it can get rowdy, it can get fun," he observes. "People get comfortable with each other. We're all just giddy in class that we can talk about baseball. That's singularly different and a big surprise for me compared to my other teaching."

Indeed, while the sabermetrics class explores the science of baseball, baseball itself is fairly far removed from Andres' day job teaching the natural sciences at BU.

"You walk around and you talk to people about what you do and you say 'Yeah, I teach a course in baseball!'" Andres adds excitedly. "They think that you're a coach or something. Then you go, 'No, I'm teaching the next round of [Red Sox general manager] Theo Epsteins how to be Theo Epstein.'"

But Tybor says that while not all of their students might make it to a major league front office one day, the lessons are sure to stick with them.

"You know that every time they watch a game for the rest of their life, they're going to be thinking about the stuff that we were able to present to them and they were able to grab," he notes. "We had one student last semester who said every Thursday night, his dad would call him at nine o'clock and say, 'Tell me what you learned in class today.' And that was great. That's what we want to do."

Of course, it wouldn't be baseball without a little friendly rivalry

"He was a Yankees fan," the Chicago White Sox fan adds slyly. "But other than that he was a good kid."

 

 

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