Finding An Edge: A Sports Analytics Approach

By: Mike O'Brien

A variety of head and assistant coaches sat around a conference table in the Founder’s Room of Alumni Gym on Sept. 19 as Amherst men’s soccer head coach Justin Serpone led a brainstorming session of his latest proposal. The idea? Implementing a sports analytics program for students and student-athletes that would improve the overall student body as well as Amherst athletics.

Sports analytics and saber metrics were introduced to the sports world in 2003, when author Michael Lewis released his book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” which inspired the feature film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. The movie “Moneyball” opened in theaters on Sept. 23, 2011 and grossed $19,501,302 in its opening weekend and totaled $110,206,216 worldwide in 16 months. The movie, based on a true story about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, showed a new approach of assessing and formulating competitive athletic teams using sports analytics.

For decades, Major League Baseball was divided between big-market teams like the New York Yankees and small-market outfits like the Minnesota Twins. The big-market teams were routinely more successful because they could sign the top free agents, winding up with payrolls three times those in smaller markets. Despite the Oakland A’s fielding a squad with a $40 million payroll compared to the Yankees $126 million in 2002, the team found ways to win. The A’s reached the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2003 and won the American League West three of those four seasons, defying the conventional logic that many held regarding small market teams’ inability to compete.

Author Bill James of “Baseball Abstract” and an army of statisticians developed statistical analysis for over 25 years and general manager Billy Beane took advantage of it. Many people in baseball focus on traditional stats only, such as batting average and runs batted in, but Beane was a devotee of James and his fellow sabermetricians who revolutionized the ways in which a player’s performance can be measured.

Beane and his front office absorbed James’ book and understood that on-base percentage (including walks) and total bases are far more determinative of a team’s success than the traditional measures. Arguably more important is the shift to relying on objective stats as opposed to subjective measures of performance like a player’s arm strength or speed around the bases. These insights had dramatic implications on drafting, promoting and trading players and Beane used these advantages to build a winning club.

With the interest in saber metrics rising throughout recent years, Serpone has spearheaded this movement to bring a statistical analysis program for students to Amherst College. A strong believer in the approach, he presented his idea in a department-wide email to Amherst coaches. In that Thursday morning meeting at Alumni Gym, Serpone opened up the room for discussion and brainstorming in hopes of implementing his proposal.

“Currently in the real world there are three (Amherst alumni) GM’s in major league baseball,” said Serpone to start the meeting. “There’s a number of guys in basketball (NBA) in the front offices, there’s a lot of really smart people; smart student-athletes, smart students, smart people in our community that are interested in sports. There’s a ton of momentum right now for sports analytics within the professional world, college sports world, all over the place.”

“The whole premise behind this was the merger of really smart, talented students that could get something out of looking at sports analytics and the fact is, we are figuring out in sports that this stuff helps us become better teams.”

Over the years, this approach has gained traction and was introduced in NCAA Division I men’s basketball by Butler’s head coach Brad Stevens, now with the Boston Celtics. Stevens, a two-time national champion runner-up at Butler, used advanced statistics to turn a tiny Indianapolis mid-major with only 4,000 enrolled students into a national title contender with the help of Ken Pomeroy’s website. Pomeroy, a meteorologist based in Utah, created an advanced basketball statistics website that helped Stevens determine the trends in losses and to identify team’s strengths and weaknesses.

There are only a handful of schools in the country that have a sports analytics program, one of those being Harvard. With Amherst’s impressive track record of MLB GM’s, students with dreams of one day working in a professional front office could benefit from such an opportunity. Ben Cherington ’96, the Boston Red Sox general manager, has turned around a Red Sox team that finished last in the division a year ago to first place in 2013 after a blockbuster trade and several key acquisitions. Dan Duquette ’80 is the GM of the Baltimore Orioles, who are vying for a playoff spot in a competitive American League East and Neal Huntington ’91 has done wonders with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who clinched their first playoff berth in 21 years.

The initial thoughts of the program would match one or two students with the teams of their interest. Serpone made it clear early on that it’s imperative the students who are involved get something tangible out of the program either academically or for their own benefit. The men’s soccer coach reached out to faculty and most specifically math professors, to devise a plan that would benefit the student as well as the team.

In an email presenting the idea to student-athletes, 27 replied with an interest to meet and hear what Serpone has to offer. Of those who replied, one was Justin Aoyama, a first-year player on Serpone’s nationally ranked men’s soccer squad.

“I love soccer, I love sports,” said Aoyoma. “When you break it down into numbers, that’s when I think it gets really interesting and I was really intrigued by the email.”

Several questions were raised during the meeting. How will it work systemically? Which sports will benefit from it? Men’s lacrosse head coach John Thompson, with his laptop full of statistics in front of him, brought up an important issue of making sure stats are accurate for the benefit of both the student and the team.

Men’s ice hockey and golf head coach Jack Arena ’83 has been instrumental in streamlining the issue as well. The head coach brought in Matt Hulsizer ’91 to speak to the Jeffs hockey team regarding his experience in the pursuit of buying a NHL squad. The 1991 Amherst graduate spoke about using statistical analysis to evaluate hockey players and teams and looking for inefficiencies in the market that could lead to the under or over valuation of different players.  

It’s just the beginning phase, but the idea is in place and interest is rising as Amherst looks to become one of the few schools in all of the NCAA to provide such an opportunity for its students. With the growing popularity of sports analytics and the impressive resume of Amherst alum in the professional sports circle, this program could be a great learning tool for sports minded individuals.