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Baseball + Math, UWF Students Place in National Competition

A team of University of West Florida mathematics students have taken second place in a competition sponsored by Major League Baseball, which requires students to use data sets to determine how difficult a pitch is to hit.

“The group had almost zero background in baseball,” said Dr. Kulh, department chair of UWF’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, in a statement. “They weren’t familiar with the different kinds of pitches.”

The team of four UWF students — Talia Barraco, Stacey Burchette, Shawn Harrell and Joseph Kennedy — ended up finishing runner-up in the Graduate and Professional School Division, just behind Columbia University’s Sports Management Program.

Last month’s Diamond Dollars Case Competition in Phoenix, Ariz., requested teams use Baseball Prospectus’ new “pitch tunneling” data to come up with questions and insights for a major-league front office. Tunneling is a pitcher’s ability to mask different types of pitches.

“Baseball Prospectus started measuring different points of the pitches,” Kennedy explained. “They asked key questions, like, where are they releasing the ball, what are the differences three-quarters to the plate, and what are the differences over the plate?”

Students identified how difficult a pitcher is to hit by taking into account tunneling data, soft-contact rate and whiff rate, which divides the number of pitches swung at and missed by the total number of swings.

Kennedy said the students considered an array of possibilities before choosing what he described as quality over quantity.

“We didn’t want to put anything out that wasn’t sound,” he said. “We wanted to be able to back it up.”

Executives from Major League Baseball organizations interviewed Barraco and Harrell about their research following the competition.

Dr. Anthony Okafor, a lecturer in the UWF mathematics department, who accompanied the students to Phoenix, credited the team with putting in long hours during the six-day window that organizers permitted teams to work on their projects. He said some nights the students worked until 2 a.m.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group in the sense that they figured themselves out and figured out how to coordinate,” Okafor said.

Kulh said UWF primarily chose graduate students interested in applied statistics for the competition. With UWF Athletics Communications graduate assistant Murphy Powell providing the students a crash course on baseball terminology.

Kennedy said he gained an appreciation for baseball after delving into the data that major-league front offices analyze to make decisions.

“Just the amount to which baseball is observed and studied is impressive,” he said. “When I started getting into it, it seemed to be a very static game, but there’s a cadence to it. I’m much more interested in it now.”

The event in Phoenix is the first national competition to be based solely on baseball operations issues. UWF plans to participate in the competition again next year; only Harrell is graduating, with the remaining team members eligible to compete again.

jeremy morrison :