Diamond data: Elon students immerse themselves in baseball analytics

A team of sport management and business majors recently competed in the 2019 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) case competition while also providing analytics support for the Elon Phoenix baseball team.

A team of five baseball-minded Elon students recently attended the SABR Analytics Conference, which brings together the leading statistical minds to analyze America’s pastime. Led by Assistant Professor Mark Cryan, the sport management and business majors traveled to Phoenix to compete in the undergraduate division of the 2019 Diamond Dollars Case Competition, a contest Elon won in 2017.

An Elon team of sport management and business majors regularly compete in the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) case competition held each March in Phoenix. This year’s contingent, led by Assistant Professor Mark Cryan (far left), included students Kyle Sarazin ’19, Mark Scola ’19, Daniel Schiff ’21, Daniel Tucker ’21 and Nicholas Rossini ’20.
While victory eluded this year’s squad, the Elon contingent has been helping produce wins elsewhere. In addition to preparing for the SABR conference, the five students have been functioning as the analytics staff for the Elon Phoenix baseball team during the 2019 season.

Prior to the start of the season, the Elon baseball program was provided a Flightscope machine by scouting service ScoutCast, but the team needed to provide the staffing to run the equipment and break down the data. This is where the SABR team students offered their expertise.

“These guys have been doing tremendous work,” said Elon head baseball coach Mike Kennedy. “Our coaching staff is getting an incredible amount of information.”

“Dr. Cryan connected us with Coach Kennedy late in the fall, and we were excited about the opportunity,” said SABR team captain Kyle Sarazin ’19, a senior sport management and statistics double major.

A rotating cast of students, including Sarazin, Nicholas Rossini '20, Mark Scola '19, Daniel Tucker '21, and Daniel Schiff '21, run the equipment during each game, and some practices. Pitch speed, spin rate, spin angle, release point, pitch location and trajectory are among the items measured. The students analyze the data, preparing reports that the coaches request, and look for relevant data that may help the coaching staff and players.

While in Surprise, Arizona, the Elon students visited with Matt Mallian '18, manager of baseball information for the Texas Rangers. Pictured (from left) are Cryan, Schiff, Rossini, Sarazin, Mallian, Tucker and Scola.
​They have also designed a user-friendly interface that allows the coaches to pull up detailed data at the touch of a button. The group's work has helped Sarazin land a full-time analytics internship with USA Baseball after graduation. This post-grad role for Sarazin comes on the heels of a business analytics internship he completed last summer with the Boston Bruins.

 "Analytics is a fast-growing part of our industry,” Cryan said. "Our students have really taken advantage of these opportunities.”

Elon alumnus David Higgins '18, who was a leader of the 2017 case competition champions, is currently working in the baseball analytics department of the Washington Nationals, and other Elon SABR alumni have secured positions with the Nationals, Kansas City Royals and the MLB Scouting Bureau.

The baseball analytics group is led by Cryan, Andrew Greenland, assistant professor of economics, Ryne Vankrevelen, lecturer in statistics, and Duke Hutchings, associate professor of computing sciences.

During his trip to Arizona, Cryan crossed paths with Elon alumnus Grant Flick '17, who is working as a Latin education assistant for the Chicago White Sox this season.
​While this year's team didn't bring home the SABR trophy, the group still had the opportunity to meet Elon alumni Grant Flick '17 of the Chicago White Sox and Matt Mallian '18 of the Texas Rangers. The group also attended analytics presentations from leading industry experts, met numerous staffers from MLB analytics departments and consulting companies, and attended two spring training games.

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 yearly SABR conference.

Over the years, it has become widely known that the SABR analytics competition is a feeder program for organizations seeking analytical baseball minds. More than 50 competition alumni have secured internships or permanent positions within Major League Baseball since 2012. Now, the Phoenix baseball program has also become part of the development opportunities available to Elon students. 

In recognition of the growing importance of analytics in sport, the Sport Management Department is also launching a basketball analytics program. Students interested in joining future sport analytics efforts should contact Cryan. Weekly group meetings in preparations for the SABR competition typically begin early in the fall semester.