The founding members of Colby’s Baseball Analytics Club had done well.
Launched in 2014, the club was an extension of its founding members’ shared background. In high school, their love of math and stats was rivaled only by their passion for baseball. All played ball to some degree—Schoenfeld is a pitcher for Colby—but their major league dreams focused on the front office.
“The idea of using objective measures to challenge baseball norms was something that appealed to me,” O’Donnell said. “I came to see analytics as sort of my ticket into the game.”
At Colby, their academic programs gave them fluency in the language of stats and analysis, and courses such as Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biosciences Herb Wilson’s “Science and Baseball” and GIS and Quantitative Analysis Specialist Manny Gimond’s “Exploratory Data Analysis in R” immersed them in the statistical programming language R, an MLB analytics prerequisite.
By sophomore year, Meyer had figured out that technical skills alone might not earn him his dream job. Eager to demonstrate his fresh thinking toward generations-old baseball problems, he posted prolifically on fan-driven sabermetrics websites like Beyond the Box Score, said to be frequented by high-level MLB officials.
With coauthor Alex Smith from Cornell University, Meyer made waves with the article “Geographic Biases in the Amateur Draft.” In early 2015, he was asked to give a talk on the article at a conference in Phoenix. Soon afterward, the Seattle Mariners were calling.
Competition for these positions is fierce. “There are thirty teams and each maybe will hire one to four interns per year,” Meyer said. “So basically you are talking about fifty or so openings a year. We turn away extremely qualified candidates, many of whom have experience or hold secondary degrees.”
Still, his clubmates had seen Meyer get in the MLB door. So following his lead, Schoenfeld and O’Donnell took to the sabermetrics blogs. With more than 10 articles each, they developed their analytics skills in public, gaining name recognition and building impressive portfolios.
The Diamond Dollars Case Competition was the next step. Sponsored by the Society for American Baseball Research, the competition gives college analytics clubs six days to compose analyses of real-world baseball problems. Each November the clubs travel to New York to present before a judge panel consisting, in part, of MLB officials.
After an unsuccessful but instructive 2014 competition, O’Donnell and Schoenfeld returned in 2015 with new members Leah Cooney ’16, Carlo Macomber ’19, and O’Donnell’s brother Jimmy O’Donnell ’18. Asked to rank the value of 10 ace pitchers entering the free-agent market that fall, their analysis measured the monetary value of a single win and projected this over each player’s expected future performance. Their presentation earned first place in the undergraduate competition.
For the 2016 competition, Tom and Jimmy O’Donnell, Soren Denlinger ’20, Nile Dixon ’20, and Ben MacLean ’20 were posed the question, “Who are the three most valuable position player assets in baseball?” Using a k-nearest-neighbors algorithm (for the analytics-minded readers), the team calculated the value of current top players by evaluating the career trajectories of past players whose stats they had most closely replicated over the previous three seasons.
The Colby club won again.
With connections earned through these competitions and Meyer already in the bigs, club members no longer viewed front-office jobs as distant dreams. In 2016 Schoenfeld confidently shopped his résumé around to MLB clubs before receiving the offer from the Royals (the offer was later extended to the following year, and Schoenfeld expects to return again in 2018). Tom O’Donnell did likewise in 2017, earning his internship with the Blue Jays. He has since been hired to a full-time position with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to begin in 2018.
Although the club’s last founding member graduates this year, early signs indicate it is in good hands.
Ahead of last November’s Case competition at NYU, so many new members were interested in joining the five-person team that a questionnaire was used to narrow the field. Three first-years—Jonah Katz, Patrick Forelli, and Sam Leathe—were chosen to accompany Denlinger and Jimmy O’Donnell to New York. With its model for predicting players’ future BABIP (batting average on balls in play), the Colby team won its third straight first-place prize.
Why so successful? Jimmy O’Donnell cites not just the sophistication of their analysis—including acknowledgment of their statistical model’s limitations—but the teamwork of their presentation. “Some teams had just one or two guys talking,” he said. “We all took turns, and we all sounded like we knew what we were talking about.”
Katz, a Mules baseball catcher who intends to major in economics, said the future of the club is bright. “It’s a club based on the passion of its members,” he said, and “we have four or five in the freshman class who are very passionate about baseball, for sure.”