UWF math students finish second at Major League Baseball sponsored competition

University of West Florida | news@uwf.edu

Four University of West Florida mathematics students placed second in the Graduate and Professional School Division of the Major League Baseball-sponsored Diamond Dollars Case Competition in Phoenix.

The UWF team of Talia Barraco, Stacey Burchette, Shawn Harrell and Joseph Kennedy finished runner-up to students from Columbia University’s Sports Management Program. Eight teams competed in the division and 18 overall participated in the competition. The event is the first national competition to be based solely on baseball operations issues.

Judges asked each team to 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 said. “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?”

The UWF 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 after the competition.

Dr. Anthony Okafor, a lecturer in the UWF Department of Mathematics and Statistics, accompanied the students to Phoenix. He credited the students for putting in long hours in 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.

Dr. Jaromy Kulh, department chair, said they primarily chose graduate students interested in applied statistics for the competition. Murphy Powell, a UWF Athletics Communications graduate assistant, provided the students a crash course on baseball terminology.

“The group had almost zero background in baseball,” Kuhl said. “They weren’t familiar with the different kinds of pitches.”

UWF plans to participate in the competition again next year. Okafor said only Harrell is graduating, and his goal is to find a replacement who is knowledgeable about baseball.

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.”

For more information about the UWF Department of Mathematics and Statistics, visit uwf.edu/mathstat.

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