Illini baseball team not in ‘Dark Ages’ when it comes to analytics

Illini baseball team not in ‘Dark Ages’ when it comes to analytics

CHAMPAIGN — Two weeks ago, just before an Illinois baseball team practice, Charlie Young was on the roof of the Illinois Field press box, fiddling around with the small box mounted on a tripod that the Illini baseball team hopes will revolutionize its data collection and use of advanced analytics.

The only hurdle is getting the FlightScope machine to work correctly. The metal poles holding up the protective netting cause interference with the machine's ability to track pitches and hits.

"We're trying to get better data, more precise data," said Kameron Wells, a graduate student who works with data analytics across the Illinois athletic department.

The data that the machine does pick up, though, has already proved useful, and its utility will likely grow exponentially with time.

The Illinois baseball team's data analytics program is still in its infancy. Young, a sophomore studying computer science and astronomy, works with Wells, who played baseball for Champaign Central and Knox College, and Illinois emeritus professor Alan Nathan, who is well-known for his studies in the physics of baseball.

Wells and Young collect data and Young creates software under the advisement of Nathan in order to synthesize it.

Young, though, is no ordinary college sophomore.

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 behind the leadership of Theo Epstein, who used a data-driven approach to end the Cubs' infamous 108-year title drought, the Naperville native googled "How to do sabermetrics."

And thus, his fascination began. He went to the SABR Analytics conference as a freshman, which led to an internship with the Cincinnati Reds last summer. This year, he'll head to Baltimore, where he'll intern with the Orioles. When he read the book "Big Data Baseball," he noticed that one of the sources was Nathan. After the two set up an initial meeting, Nathan hatched an idea.

"I got the idea that, you know, the University of Illinois baseball team is sort of stuck in the Dark Ages," Nathan said. "We have one of the best Computer Science departments in the country, maybe in the world. So there is an army of undergraduate students that would love to get involved with the Illinois baseball team."

The intersection of Young's knowledge of computer science and passion for baseball made him a perfect match.

His first interaction with the team came last season, when he was working on a project for an Android Development class. He noticed the team was charting pitches on paper, and he asked hitting coach Adam Christ how they were used.

"They reviewed them from time to time," Young said, "but mostly they just stack up."

So Young set off to make an app to synthesize that data and turn it into usable metrics. With Nathan's guidance last fall, the team bought a FlightScope radar, which tracks data from every pitch, including spin rates, speed, launch angle and exit velocity off the bat. It also tracks where batted balls would land, which was particularly helpful.

"The thing that I've loved when we're in the cages or in the indoor facility, we get a much better feel," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "In the past when a hitter hits a ball really hard, he'll be saying it's a home run, and pitchers will be saying it's a flyout to the track. Now, we get much better feedback to where the ball would actually land, and we're able to get much more of a scrimmage and it's much more realistic."

Some players use the data to pick apart their games, and sometimes they try to match their measurable statistics to professionals. Jack Yalowitz tries to replicate the swing and launch angle of Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. Pitcher Ryan Thompson used the data to measure the spin rate of his natural cutter against Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who throws the same pitch.

"Spin rate has been a big help for me," Thompson said. "It's really helped me to figure out what's a good time to modify it to get more spin or less spin."

Transmitting data to coaches during a game isn't allowed, but the data gleaned from the FlightScope radar can help create a scouting report over a weekend series.

"Say a kid sits on a fastball a couple of times on Friday night," Wells said, "by Sunday, he should be seeing more curveballs. So we can track their hitters' progressions through series, counts. If he doesn't make great contact with two strikes, we can look at those kinds of things."

Young, though, is waiting to draw ultimate conclusions. The data set is still small, particularly compared to major league teams, which play every day. He's still figuring out the best spot to put the machine in order to curate the best data, although he was able to settle on a spot just behind home plate last week.

In the future, though, possibilities will likely open up. Illinois' players' tendencies will become clearer by the time they're gearing up for the postseason. Hartleb hopes to use it to compare recruits to current former players. Next year, they'll have scouting reports on all past opponents.

"Charlie's unbelievable," Hartleb said. "There are things that he's done in a short amount of time with some different programs and things that have been amazing. I'm learning a lot from Charlie. ... I'm going to be really interested to sit down after this year, look at everything we've compiled and get his feedback on the pros and cons of what we're doing."

As for Young, the future looks even brighter, and a permanent jump to professional baseball in two years is highly probable.

"My guess is that by the time he's ready to graduate, there will be some team ready to gobble him up," Nathan said. "The history of this field is that really smart people who start off as interns ... if they're good, work their way up the ladder very quickly. I think Charlie shows every potential for being able to do that."