Cultivating baseball: Creating a new kind of major leaguer through college classes
MLB 

Harry Kingman is one of thousands of baseball players to suffer a brief fate in the major leagues. A standout first baseman at Pomona College, he made it to the major leagues in 1914. Kingman’s stint lasted four games. He struck out in three of his four plate appearances and didn’t get into another game from Aug. 20, 1914, until his retirement in 1915.

However, Kingman has the unique, if obscure, claim to fame of being the only graduate of tiny Pomona College to play in the major leagues.

Pomona, a Division III school located in Claremont, California, is known much more for its picturesque mountain views and rigorous academic environment than its athletics teams. However, using its intellectual base of students, Pomona has been training and curating a new wave of major league talent of a different kind.

The school is at the cutting edge of a nationwide movement among colleges and universities. Since 2004, schools of higher learning have brought baseball analytics in the classroom. However, the transfer from Bill James and “Moneyball” sabermetrics to newer, more technological methods has sped up in recent years.

Students are getting into MLB front offices right out of colleges due to their experience with real-life data. At Pomona, students get a hands-on opportunity to work with cutting-edge major league technology and create their own data.

Major league teams are no longer solely interested in evaluating new talent. They are increasingly looking into improving what they have. This concept is emphasized in Pomona’s new class, PE 086: baseball analytics.

“Pomona doing player development is big,” said Andy Andres, who has taught a course in sabermetrics at Tufts University since 2004, a groundbreaking step when baseball analytics was a small field at the major league level. “That’s where teams are hiring.”

When Pomona catcher Jack Hanley accepted a full-time job with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019, he became one of 14 recent graduates of the liberal arts school to work for a major league team in a role relating to data and analytics. The college is making efforts to augment that number, introducing its baseball analytics course in the fall of 2019. In it, students collect their own data and perform sophisticated original analysis.

Jake Lialios, left, and Frank Pericolosi, right, listen to Jack Hanley on Pomona College's baseball field. (Photo: Jeff Hing, Pomona College)

Using money from grants, Pomona spent almost $4,000 on a seemingly inconspicuous box-like machine made by Rapsodo, a company that creates data-driven technology and specializes in sports training and simulation. The Rapsodo machine is a vital tool for major league teams, tracking velocity, spin rate, spin axis and many other minuscule yet vital variables in curating a perfect pitch. It does so by filming a pitch, tracking it and offering data – all within 10 seconds.

The course is taught by Pomona-Pitzer baseball coach Frank Pericolosi. (Pomona competes together with Pitzer College as a member of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.) The pedagogical approach of Pericolosi, a graduate of Williams College, is one of experimentation. The first part of the fall semester was focused on re-creating pitches on a pitching machine, with data collected by the Rapsodo machine as a reference. Students started with fastballs before moving to off-speed pitches.

Through trial and error, their data re-created pitches with enough accuracy to be used in batting cages. The varsity baseball team used the programmed pitching machines for batting practice. It was there that the Rapsodo proved itself again, tracking data on hitting and allowing the team to see advanced statistics from one cut in the cage.

“It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience, to kinda see the mechanics and physics behind the data that drives a lot of day-to-day analysis in major league baseball,” Hanley said.

‘We want new ideas’

Pericolosi’s class is the culmination of his 16 years of work dedicated to putting Pomona in tune with baseball analytics. The first alumnus to reach the major leagues in such a capacity was Guy Stevens, a 2013 graduate who works in the Royals’ organization. His introduction to the field came almost by accident. In 2011, math professor Gabe Chandler found himself in possession of a large amount of minor league data. He wanted to figure out which statistics used in the minors most accurately predicted success in the big leagues.

Stevens was supposed to be researching with an economics professor, but Chandler offered him a different opportunity.

“I’d always been interested in baseball, always been interested in stats,” Stevens said. “The combination was pretty natural.”

They found that more advanced statistics were more useful for minor league players, especially in terms of projecting major league success.

“Things like strikeout-to-walk ratio is much more indicative,” Chandler said. “As you move up through the rankings … the standard metrics become applicable.”

In 2012, the duo had their research published, catapulting Stevens’ career.

Chandler has worked with several Pomona students. Hanley is his latest collaborator, with the two teaming up for the catcher’s senior thesis. The two have gathered data using Blast swing analyzer, which tracks swing efficiency. With that bounty of information, they are using functional data analysis to investigate the simple process of swinging a bat.

“The math behind it is really cool,” Hanley said. “The data you get back is really cool.”

For Stevens, senior director of research and development for Kansas City, Pomona students hold a clear advantage over other candidates: They have experience analyzing their own data.

“We’re not looking for a robot to fill into this assembly line we’ve built,” Stevens said. “We want new ideas … really inquisitive, creative people coming in. Pomona absolutely generates that.”

While Pomona has a niche in the market for its ability to offer a hands-on class, it’s not the only school actively pushing students into major league front offices. When Andres started his sabermetrics course at Tufts, about half of the major league teams had an analytics department. Still, Andres pushed on with the class, developing it into an immensely popular course that fills up nearly every semester. Furthermore, it became a similarly successful pipeline for sending college students straight into front offices.

For spring 2020, he’s taking it a step further. Andres and Kathryn Webster, an expert in athlete injuries, are teaching the first official class centered entirely around the concept of player development. While the Pomona class is using the technology itself, Andres and Webster are keeping their inquiry within the classroom. Thus, the class will focus more on organizational structure and how MLB teams use player development departments to contribute to the “makings of a great baseball player.”

Still, Andres acknowledged, the Pomona class is valuable for its exposure to major league technology.

“(Rapsodo) is a great tool to learn if you want to get involved in major league baseball,” Andres said.

Syracuse University, home to the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, started offering a sports analytics major in 2017. The degree compiles a series of fields, emphasizing math, statistics, research methodology and computer programming. Current students have received internships with organizations such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Buffalo Bills.

Jake Lialios, left, Frank Pericolosi, center and Jack Hanley watch as a ball is launched from an automated pitching system on Pomona College's baseball field. (Photo: Jeff Hing, Pomona College)

College teams use analytics

The boom of analytics technology can be seen around NCAA baseball. Tracking spin rate, exit velocity, spin efficiency and launch angle is now commonplace in college, like in the major leagues. Thus, Rapsodo and Blast have become increasingly common along with increasing demands for real-time feedback. .

The access to better equipment and reliance of data accounts has helped initiate a wave of youthful coaches across baseball.

“It’s not just better players coming out of the college ranks because they’ve been leveraging this technology, but also better coaches,” Stevens said.

Offseason training facilities are starting to offer Rapsodo machines as standard equipment and there are success stories from Division I teams that have invested in such technology.

Consistently average before the 2018 season, Michigan hired Chris Fetter, who was in his early 30s and the minor league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers, as its pitching coach.

With the Dodgers, Fetter learned how to evaluate numbers with the most advanced technology, and he made that a focal point of the Wolverines’ pitching development.

A year later, the Wolverines reached the College World Series for the first time in 30 years.

“He’s one of the greatest minds in college baseball right now, especially when it comes to pitching,” Michigan right-hander Jeff Criswell said last season. “I think his background with the Dodgers really took him to the next level.”

The focus for Pomona, and other colleges and universities, however, remains very much in getting players to front offices.

“I think interest is going to continue to grow,” Chandler said. “Especially at Pomona where you have a reasonably large group of people who have made this a job.”

Hanley might be the last of a collegiate generation who’s ahead of the curve. As the accessibility of Rapsodo, Blast and other technologies increases, so too will applicant pools for these jobs.

For now, though, Hanley is the latest Pomona alumnus to make a mark on the MLB landscape.

Where Harry Kingman failed with a bat, or at least opportunity to use it, his successors have succeeded with a machine.

Contributing: Anthony Fenech, Detroit Free Press

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