By Gary Brown
Ask people what they think of sabermetrics and you’re likely to get, “Yeah, that was really cool in Star Wars.”
But ask Caltech student-athlete Susan Ballentine about it and she’ll say it’s what she wants to do for a living.
Sabermetrics is a highfalutin term for how the Society for American Baseball Research (thus, SABR) uses metrics, or statistics, to evaluate players and teams. Many of the statistics sabermetricians rely on aren’t found in box scores. For example, the conventional idea of a player’s batting average determining his value is turned on its side in sabermetrics. Sabermetricians instead evaluate that player’s ability to “generate” runs (not necessarily by driving them in, either) – as that player’s true worth. Runs, after all, are what win games.
It’s what most people would call “inside baseball,” which is just where Caltech’s Ballentine wants to be.
Ballentine, who says she’s been going to baseball games almost since birth, says just about every Major League team has a sabermetrician on staff. That might have been ludicrous 10 years ago, but since author Michael Lewis popularized sabermetrics in his 2003 bestseller “Moneyball,” it’s become more of a way of business for franchises.
Moneyball the book, which was turned into a hit movie, helped vector the mathematically inclined Ballentine on to baseball stats when she was assigned to do a presentation as a freshman in high school on “a modern branch of mathematics” that she found interesting.
“It took off from there,” says the Richmond, Va., native, whose high school performance enabled her to take off to a prestigious university 3,000 miles away.
Ballentine, who actually plays basketball at Caltech (she’s trying to start a club softball program there), has been consumed with sabermetrics since. Some math purists might consider using all that talent on a game as heresy. Not Ballentine.
“The reason that the field of applied math has always interested me is because it can be applied to so many different things,” she says. “Every field is looking for applied mathematicians to help them. I don’t think baseball is that much of a stretch.”
Ballentine stretched her skills last summer to complete an unusual project assigned to her by ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia co-editor Gary Gillette. The task was to develop a ballot of candidates for Manager of the Year – for years before the award was created. Baseball Encyclopedia has done that for the Player of the Year award, but Gillette challenged Ballentine to develop parameters for managers, too.
Ballentine reviewed winners of the existing award and analyzed why she thought they had won. “That’s challenging, of course, because the winner is based on a vote and not statistics, but I was looking into the factors that I thought persuaded the votes,” she says.
The second half of the project was to compile a list of nominees she believed would be good candidates based on all the factors she determined as contributing to performance. Gillette is currently assembling a panel of experts who will vote, and the results could be included in next year’s encyclopedia.
Ballentine also has become Caltech Sports Information Director Stephen Hinkel’s right-hand gal when it comes to keeping stats for the Beaver sports teams. “She’s certainly mastered Stat Crew for baseball, soccer and volleyball,” Hinkel says. “And she’s getting there in basketball, too.”
What’s her favorite stat? Well, it’s complicated (of course), but Ballentine is currently infatuated with WAR, which for you greenhorns out there is “wins above replacement.” It’s essentially a formula to determine how many more wins one player would be worth to a team than a replacement player from the bench or from the minors.
That’s OK. This scribe didn’t understand it, either.
“Yeah, it’s pretty complex,” Ballentine says.
It’s inside baseball, to be sure.