Diamond kings: Elon students win division in SABR Analytics Conference competition

An Elon team of business and communications students won its undergraduate division in the 2017 Society for American Baseball Research case competition and was the only team invited to present at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 9-10.  

Considering the SABR Analytics Conference brings together the leading statistical minds in baseball each year, it might be difficult to impress such a group with analysis of America’s pastime. But a group of Elon University students did just that – with one expert calling their work “genius” – en route to winning its undergraduate division of the 2017 Diamond Dollars Case Competition.

Following the Diamond Dollars Case Competition at the SABR Analytics Conference, Elon’s award-winning team poses with SABR President Vince Gennaro (far right). Also pictured (from left) are Assistant Professor Mark Cryan, Grant Flick ’17, Robbie Nanna ’18, David Higgins ’18, Kyle Jankowski ’17, Brad Clark ’17 and Kyle Sarazin ’19. 
Other division winners included Columbia University in the graduate division and Washington University in St. Louis in the other undergraduate division, but only Elon’s team was selected to present to the entire conference on the day after the competition.

“This was our third year at the competition, and the students have learned from the conference’s speakers and team officials about the thought process and tools being used in the industry,” said Andrew Greenland, assistant professor of economics and one of the team’s faculty advisors. 

“They also learned about presenting complicated information in a way that is easily understood,” added Mark Cryan, assistant professor of sport and event management and the team’s co-advisor. “That’s why we were the only team selected to present to the whole conference.”

Cryan and Greenland led the students in their preparations, first laying the groundwork in the fall semester. Six Elon students, accompanied by Cryan, then attended the sixth annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona, to participate in its case competition held on March 9-10. The contest pits representatives from colleges and universities against one another, requiring the student teams to evaluate a baseball operations case problem and present their analysis to a panel of judges that includes MLB executives.

In this year’s case, students were asked to use Baseball Prospectus’ new “pitch tunneling” data to come up with insights that might be useful to a front office staff.

To identify any potential competitive advantages, the Elon business and communications students – led by team captain David Higgins ’18 – developed an interactive “Pitch Machine,” which incorporated over six million data points to make predictions of what pitch, in what location, gives the pitcher the best chance to achieve the desired outcome, such as a swinging strike. The tool can provide this information in real time, based on a specific pitcher/hitter matchup and count.

Team members Kyle Jankowski ’17, Robbie Nanna ’18, Grant Flick ’17, Brad Clark ’17, Kyle Sarazin ’19 and Higgins utilized nine years of pitch tunneling and pitch fx data in their entry.

The Elon group celebrated its Diamond Dollars victory by taking in a March 10 spring training game at Camelback Ranch-Glendale stadium, home to the Los Angeles Dodgers. 
​Perry Husband, the originator of the concept that the case was built around, didn’t mince words calling the Elon group’s work “genius,” according to Cryan. Likewise both SABR officials and several judges noted that Elon’s presentation was head and shoulders above the strong competition, which included teams from Cornell University, New York University, Oklahoma State University, Syracuse University and several other notable institutions.

Higgins said the Elon team was able to separate itself from the pack by digging deeper than just data.

“Our team focused on building a tool that would have a practical application in front offices across Major League Baseball,” he said. “Most other teams simply analyzed the data provided while we used the data to build ‘The Pitch Machine,’ which we believe can make a profound impact on the game of baseball right now.” 

And the benefits of the tool aren’t just limited to the front office, according to Cryan. “This could be used in a Major League dugout to help pitchers select more effective pitches and locations, or could also be a great predictive tool for broadcasters,” Greenland said.

This month’s victory is the culmination of several strong showings in previous SABR case competitions, Cryan explained. While Elon does not have an official baseball analytics club or organization, the School of Communications and the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business have jointly funded informal groups to attend the SABR conference each of the past three years. Cryan and Greenland co-lead the group, but rotate who accompanies the group. In 2017, it was Cryan’s turn.

This year’s cohort was an experienced bunch, with most of the current members having already participated in the Diamond Dollars contest before. In fact, 2017 was Higgins’ third trip, but his first as team captain.

“This victory represents a culmination of years of hard work, preparation and lessons learned from past experiences,” said Higgins, a statistics major, who also minors in sport and event management, economics and information science.

Greenland echoed those sentiments, noting how valuable past competitions were to this year’s success. “Our students learned a tremendous amount from previous winners as well as MLB contacts about what it is they are looking for in data analysts,” the economics professor added.

The group also attended a March 11 game at Goodyear Ballpark, the spring training home of the Cleveland Indians.
​While the victory is a great addition to the students’ Linkedin profiles, the win’s real value comes from face-to-face meetings after the presentations. In fact, Cryan said he was approached by several of the “best known baseball analytics companies” in attendance, inquiring about the availability of the Elon students for internships.

Over the years, it has become widely known that the Diamond Dollars competition is a feeder program for organizations seeking analytical baseball minds. And the numbers back that up. More than 40 competition alumni have secured internships or permanent positions within Major League Baseball since 2012. One can guess the 2017 participants didn’t overlook that statistic.

Higgins and his team members reveled in the networking opportunity and the potential possibilities ahead. “It has been incredibly exciting to have already garnered interest from a number of baseball executives as a direct result of our competition victory,” the junior said.

Following their presentation in Arizona, the Elon group attended multiple sessions at the three-day gathering. The highlights included several panel discussions featuring former major league players and prominent front office executives, including Chicago Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer, Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson and noted author and baseball historian Bill James.

According to Cryan and Greenland, the SABR conference experience checks a number of significant boxes.

First, students are interested in the topic. Second, it’s an obvious complement to the business school’s “Baseball Analytics” course, taught by Greenland. Finally, and most importantly, there’s a growing industry emphasis on analytics in sports, both on the field and on the business side. 

In recognition of this growing importance, the Sport and Event Management Department has also added Bill Squadron, the former president of Bloomberg Sports, to its faculty beginning next fall.

Students interested in being part of future analytics teams should contact Greenland or Cryan. Weekly group meetings in preparations for each spring’s competition typically begin early in the fall semester.