The 2016 Major League Baseball (MLB) season was barely underway and Colby Conetta ’17, the president of the Syracuse University Baseball Statistics and Sabermetrics Club, stood in front of club members in a Falk College lecture hall and led them through a This Week in Baseball rundown: who’s hot (Orioles with a 7-0 start), who’s not (the winless Twins and Braves), and some random observations (legendary broadcaster Vin Scully made a Socrates reference). “I would like to proclaim the Twins dead one week into the season,” said Conetta, a sport management major.
No disagreement there among members of the club, which formed in 2013. But hang around long enough and there’s sure to be debate—for these students are aficionados of advanced statistical analysis, or sabermetrics, a term coined in 1980 by baseball stats guru Bill James and popularized by the film Moneyball. “The whole evolution has become this constant struggle to find in the data something that will give your team the edge,” says Falk College sport management professor Rodney Paul, a sports economist and the club’s faculty advisor.
Data analytics is an instrumental part of the world of professional sports these days, and in recognition of that, Falk College launched a new bachelor of science degree program in sport analytics. The first of its kind in the country, the program, in collaboration with other schools and departments on campus, helps students develop expertise in such areas as database management, computer programming, and sport economics. “Our students will be prepared to think conceptually and analytically while applying these principles to real issues in sport organizations,” Paul says.
Paul attributes the program’s genesis to student interest, the success of several recent sport management graduates entering the field, and the sabermetrics club’s stellar performances in research competitions, including a strong showing at the Diamond Dollars Case Competition, held in Phoenix as part of the annual Society of American Baseball Research Analytics (SABR) Conference. The team was tasked with assembling an ideal bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates and presented its findings to a panel of MLB executives. “We pretty much had to construct a bullpen from scratch, with certain rules in place,” says club vice president Joey Weinberg ’17, a sport management major. Club member Matt Russo ’17 enjoyed the challenge of fielding questions about their methodology and decision-making process from baseball executives. “It was a little intimidating, but it was really great to do and we had fun,” says Russo, a sport management major.
Our students will be prepared to think conceptually and analytically while applying these principles to real issues in sport organizations.
In 2014, the club presented a research paper on “The Effects of Atmospheric Conditions on Pitchers” at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. The research, which members collaborated on with Paul and a co-author, was also featured in ESPN The Magazine. “Virtually everybody with the club at the time was involved in one way or another,” Paul says. “It was a fun project.”
In conversation, club members wield such acronyms as WAR (wins above replacement), wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), wOBA (weighted on-base average), and FIP (fielding-independent pitching). They revel in the ammunition the stats provide as a way to compare players, past and present, and fuel their debates, which some day could take place in the halls of an MLB office. “All sports have randomness,” Conetta says. “In baseball, stats are the best way to control the randomness. You can find a pretty decent picture of what’s going on through all the noise and clutter.”
This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Crunching Major League Numbers” in the issue of Syracuse University Magazine.
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