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Sports stats: the gateway drug to learning about math

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With the addition of talented new players, San Diego Padres fans are rightfully anticipating a successful year for the first time in many seasons. I think they’re good for 89 wins and a trip to the playoffs.

When the Padres’ 2015 season starts on Monday, April 6, fans like me will begin pouring over all of baseball’s glorious statistics: batting average, on-base percentage, earned run average, wins above replacement, fielding independent pitching and more. We love it.

I can credit baseball for leading me (eventually) to becoming a pollster. In fourth grade at Franklin Elementary School, I was in a class alongside the fifth graders who took math while we studied grammar. One day my fourth grade teacher was presenting a lesson I didn’t care about. My mind started wandering over to the fifth grade math lesson of the day. Those kids were being taught about averages. As I listened, in, I had one of those light bulb moments.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is how people figure out a baseball player’s batting average!” As a young fan, I was thrilled the secret was unlocked right in front of me. It was so powerful and vivid to me, I can still remember the exact spot I was sitting in during the class on that day.

This is the kind of magic teachers dream about to get students interested in learning about math and statistics. It worked for me. You could say baseball stats were my gateway drug to math. Learning how data could be used led directly to my interest in survey research. Fast forward, and for nearly 30 years now this interest has been the basis of my career running Competitive Edge Communication & Research.

Before you brush this aside like a pitcher brushing back a batter with a high and tight fastball, baseball data can be incredibly sophisticated. There is an entire field of study based on it. It’s called “sabermetrics,” a term coined by Bill James, one of the founders of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR. Started in 1971, SABR now has 6,000 members worldwide, all of them passionate baseball fans like me who love statistical analysis of our favorite game. The phrase “sabermetrics” is now defined as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” and is generally used to describe any mathematical or statistical study of baseball. Come on, how cool is that?

No, I’m not a member; I do have a day job, after all. But I am the proud owner of James’ early “Baseball Abstracts” in which he deeply analyzes prior baseball seasons from every angle. In one he talks about a new found (to him) statistical tool called multiple regression analysis. Of course that got me thinking about applying his cool tool to politics, which I now do on every CERC survey.

Like most major league sports, there is a ton of money in baseball. Getting even a slight advantage by studying data patterns in hitting, pitching, and fielding and applying the findings can mean a team makes the playoffs and makes a bigger profit.baseball-pic

Sabermetics has even generated its own industry. Baseball Info Solutions is a high-tech company located in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Founded in 2002, it employs its own team of twenty-something baseball nerds to provide statistical data to 21 of the 30 major league clubs last year.

Not every kid interested in baseball stats will grow up to make sabermetrics his or her career, but there are plenty of other businesses now realizing they can use statistics and data about their own industries to make better decisions about products and services, and they’ll need someone to crunch the numbers. So get out those scoresheets, and let’s play ball!

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One Response to Sports stats: the gateway drug to learning about math

  1. Greg says:

    Me too! After learning all of the basics of batting average we moved on to the more complex earned run average. Then we had to calculate the base runners per inning for pitchers, on-base percentage, and at-bats per home run. Doing them over and over again was never a chore because it mattered to us. Strat-o-matic led to Rotisserie, now known as Fantasy baseball. By that time we were creating our own measures of value and predicted performance. Good times.

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