By STEVE KRAH
As an introduction to liberal arts, freshmen students at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., take tutorial classes.
Eric Dunaway, a BKT Assistant Professor of Economics in his fourth year at the all-male school, has chosen to teach For The Outcome of The Game — a class that class meets 9:45 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and focuses on sports analytics.
So far the class of 14 has dug into the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and went on a field trip to a Cincinnati Reds doubleheader where they enjoyed give-and-take with Lead Data Scientist Michael Schatz.
“It’s something I’m interested in,” says Dunaway of sports analytics. “We’re learning it together.
“I’m thinking about re-tooling it into a sports economics class in the future. I can absolutely teach it again.”
Dunaway is a native of Spokane, Wash., and a lifelong Seattle Mariners rooter.
“I have a strong background in statistics,” says Dunaway. “Sports analytics is new to me.”
“Moneyball” — written by Michael Lewis and published in 2004 — was assigned summer reading for the fall semester elective class. The book tells about how the Oakland Athletics and Billy Beane (who is now Vice President of Baseball Operations) used analytics to their advantage.
“It’s changed how (Major League Baseball) is played — for better and worse,” says Dunaway.
Is it better or worse?
“I try to avoid making the conclusions for the students,” says Dunaway. “We are changing the way we look at what stats matter.
“There is no guarantee that making the sport more efficient will make it more fun.”
The Sept. 1 St. Louis Cardinals at Reds outing was Wabash College’s first excursion since March 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the school from those activities for 1 1/2 years.
“We’re getting back to one of the things Wabash is really good at,” says Dunaway. “We do a lot of great learning in the field.”
Professor of Rhetoric Dr. Todd McDorman, who went with Dunaway and company to Cincinnati, has taken Wabash students to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N,Y. The Society for American Baseball Research member hopes to do so again.
Dunaway, who also advises students, says he received a perspective from Schatz into what classes they should take if interested in sports analytics.
“Statistics and computer science are the two big subjects,” says Dunaway. “Those are the things you have to enjoy to enjoy doing sports analytics.”
Another text for the class is “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won,” written by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in 2012. Moscowitz, a native of Lafayette, Ind., with bachelor and masters degrees from Purdue University, is a Professor of Finance at Yale University. Wertheim is an accomplished sports journalist.
Evan Neukam, Justin Santiago and Jacob White are students in Dunaway’s class. They all shared their takes on sports analytics and baseball.
Neukam, a Carmel (Ind.) High School graduate who is on the Wabash baseball team, had seen the “Moneyball” movie (2011) starring Brad Pitt several times but had not read the book.
“The biggest difference (between the movie and the book) is that the book goes more into detail on how analytics work than the story of Billy Beane and the Athletics.”
Schacht worked with Beane in Oakland.
“It was really interesting how (Schatz) got into his position,” says Neukam. “He didn’t use his college major (Economics). He learned on the job. He learned all coding for statistics on his own.”
Neukam, a Cardinals fan, is finding out about sabermetrics, its terms and how they work.
“I’m not sure what WAR (Wins Above Replacement is,” says Neukam. “But I know that’s pretty important.
“The average Exit Velo (off a hitter’s bat) is more important than batting average.”
Santiago, who grew up a Milwaukee Brewers fan in Mount Pleasant, Wis., and graduated from Westfield (Ind.) High School, enjoys combining his interest in sports and numbers.
“Learning about the field of sports analytics in general has been great for me,” says Santiago. “I knew a decent amount about it. The next few weeks we’re going dive a lot deeper.”
Santiago says tutorial classes help students become more well-rounded so they can write, debate and discuss a subject.
Looking at MLB trends, Santiago says he has been “frustrated with high number of strikeouts and really low batting averages.”
He has been pleased to see the Brewers — which have clinched a 2021 playoff berth — increase batting a average and on-baseball percentage.
“Put the ball in play and you have a chance,” says Santiago. “WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is important for pitchers.”
During the Cincinnati trip, students were able to ask many questions of Schatz.
“I asked about when to move off of a player — when to trade or release them,” says Santiago. “As organization there is balance between knowing talent and this is the major leagues and you can’t give a player an infinite amount of chances. You have to win.”
Santiago learned how Schatz dug into data for right-handed pitcher Dan Straily.
“(Schatz) thought he could be more successful than his numbers showed and can develop into a better pitcher,” says Santiago. “He played well as a Red and traded him to Marlins for (right-hander) Luis Castillo (who has 40 games for Cincinnati since 2017).”
Santiago’s take on “Moneyball”?
“(Billy Beane) did not pan out as a player,” says Santiago. “Scouts valued him because of his physical stature and appearance. They over-valued the physical tools but did not look into the numbers and his flaws.
“That — in a sense — led him to analytics. It’s not all about looking at a player’s tools. You have to focus on the results and what the numbers really say about the player.”
White, a Peoria, Ill., native who pulls for the Cardinals, has his opinions.
“I’ve always been on the analysis side,” says White. “I get the argument where the aesthetics are hurt (by analytics). Basketball is all about 3-pointers and baseball’s Three True Outcomes (home run, walk or strikeout).
“It’s a product of ‘Moneyball’ and the whole analytics approach. Home runs are more interesting. There are less less stolen bases and bunts. There’s something exciting about a stolen base. It’s lost with the analytics.
“If I’m paying money to see my Cardinals I want to see a win, I don’t care how they get it.”
Dunaway’s class is giving former Peoria Chiefs foul ball hawker White and his fellow freshmen “a baseline understanding of how sport’s stats work.”
Also a Chicago Bears fan, White is involved on 22 fantasy football leagues.
“It’s a crude science,” says White of fantasy sports. “I use my best educated guess (to fill out weekly lineups).”