Baseball by the Numbers

Tufts undergrads use their math smarts to determine savvy moves for major league managers
Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels is more than pitcher—he was also the subject of a Society for American Baseball Research competition. Photo: Depositphotos
July 20, 2015

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Pitcher Cole Hamels has spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Phillies, debuting for the big league team in 2006 and winning the World Series with them in 2008. But Hamels signed a $20-plus million contract in ’09, and this year the Phillies are not expected to make it to the playoffs, so many observers expect the team to trade the popular Cy Young contender. What’s a general manager to do? Move the guy? For whom? And for how much? (Wait for it—the answer is below.)

That was precisely the problem given to college teams that participated in the 2015 Diamond Dollars Case Competition held during the national conference of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) this spring in Phoenix, Arizona. Out of 11 undergraduate entrants, the two Tufts teams—captained by Caleb Pykkonen, A16, and Morris Greenberg, A16—were among the top three contenders, just behind eventual winner Stanford University.

SABR members take a sophisticated statistical approach, eponymously known as sabermetrics, that dives deeper than a hitter’s runs batted in (RBI) or a pitcher’s win-loss record to analyze a player’s strengths and weaknesses. Both of those old-timey baseball stats depend heavily on the rest of a team’s collective talent. Sabermetrics, popularized by the 2003 book Moneyball, allows seamheads to look more closely at individual player performance by making use of the reams of data generated in each ballgame.

The Tufts teams competing at the SABR event were born out of an Experimental College class on sabermetrics taught by Andy Andres, N99. Like many of the other students enrolled, Greenberg and Pykkonen were already into baseball and baseball stats when they took the class as freshmen. “I’ve always been intrigued by the sabermetric side of things, the rigorous, objective, quantitative thinking about baseball,” says Greenberg, a math and quantitative economics major. (Pykkonen is also a math and econ major.)

When fellow Ex College classmate Matthew Yaspan, A16, decided to rekindle the Baseball Analysis at Tufts (BAT) club on the Medford/Somerville campus, Greenberg was quick to lend a hand. “We don’t do the analyses at BAT meetings, but we talk about what relevance they have, what kind of potency they have for analyzing the game,” says Greenberg.

“It provides a way for people to be involved with sabermetrics outside the classroom,” adds Pykkonen.

Analytical Thinking

From left, Alex Merberg, Max Cohen, Derek Shin and Morris Greenberg at the 2015 Diamond Dollars Case Competition.Greenberg says the BAT group has swelled to about 20 members over the last few years. Still, he and Pykkonen would like to have a bigger roster, a more robust rotation. That’s why they served as teaching assistants when Andres taught the Ex College course last spring. Greenberg himself will instruct the course in the spring of 2016, and more BAT members, including Pyykonen and Yaspan, will assist.

Pykkonen entered his first SABR competition after freshman year. “It was definitely a great team,” he says, though Tufts didn’t advance to the finals. That’s why he was eager to repeat the experience this spring, spending four hours a day working on the Cole Hamels problem the week before the competition. “Before the actual presentation, none of us thought we would win,” he says. “We all were just really excited about doing the analysis. It was fun.”

But it’s not all just fun and games. This summer Greenberg landed an internship in the front office of an MLB team. He can’t disclose which one—teams don’t like to divulge their secret statistical weapons—but he lets slip that Andres fields numerous inquiries from pro teams looking for potential employees trained in the science of sabermetrics.

Greenberg and Pykkonen aren’t sure what they will do after graduation next year, but both say the exposure to the sophisticated statistical methodology has served them well. “Taking that class definitely changed what I was interested in,” says Pykkonen. “It helped me focus more toward analytical thinking—not just in sports, but in terms of solving problems and doing research with a more quantitative outlook.” 

Speaking of problem solving, what solution did Pykkonen and his teammates come up with for the Cole Hamels conundrum? Back in April, they thought the Phillies should have traded the 31-year-old lefty for Kyle Schwarber, who was then a promising draft pick in the Cubs’ minor league system. It seems the Tufts students were onto something.

By mid-summer, the Phillies held the worst record in MLB, which no doubt comes as a surprise to readers in Boston, who thought the Red Sox surely held that distinction. Hamels’ 7-plus ERA for the first half of July did not help the club any, and it’s a good bet the team will trade him. Meanwhile, when the Cubs called Schwarber to make his Big League debut in June, the young catcher/designated hitter got four hits in five plate appearances and batted in two runs.

With Major League Baseball’s trade deadline approaching on July 31, maybe a smart baseball GM will give a call to some Tufts undergraduates, looking for advice.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.