By Chris Weikel
Since Bill James released the Baseball Abstract in 1982, the professional baseball world has adopted the study of data into every aspect of the game. College baseball, on the other hand, has been far less receptive. That is now beginning to change. Five small D1 programs are now incorporating analytics into their programs and soon many more will be joining the trend.
The leader of this movement is the UC Santa Barbara’s Gauchos, who have been making huge strides in this untapped market under Director of Analytics, Evan Short. Short started as a student manager for the team, but when he graduated, the staff realized the importance of his data analysis, so he was hired full-time as one of the first directors of analytics in college baseball history.
Although the collegiate game still lags behind the pro game, Short has been able to conduct game-changing work in baseball analytics. Short brings a data-based view to almost every facet of the program, whether it be player development, scouting, or recruiting. He employs a variety of techniques, including analyzing data traits, developing new metrics, and performing statistical modeling, all in the hopes of maximizing the potential of a player or a team’s talent. Short describes it as finding the “low hanging fruit to make players immediately better, as well as long-term developmental goals to build towards as players progress through their Gaucho careers.” He has used the data to tweak players’ pitch mix and design as well as position fielders in their ideal location for each play. Short’s wide-ranging influence played a key role in UCSB’s recent success, including its 2016 College World Series run.
Part of the reason analytics has been slow to take hold in college baseball is often there is pushback from old-school coaches and players who are intimidated by the changes data analysis brings. UCSB has been successful because of its progressiveness and willingness to do anything to gain an edge. This opened the door for Short to make an instant impact, gaining full support of the players and staff. UCSB needed an edge, as conference powerhouses Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton dominated the region, and Coach Andrew Checketts may have found it through Short’s industry-leading work.
One of the newest trends in baseball is non-conventional pitcher usage. Whether it be the opener, tandem starters, or varying closer usage, all of these strategies focus on one thing: extracting maximum value out of players. It’s no surprise, then, that Short’s latest work has been in these blossoming fields. All of them add basically free value to a team. Short said the one catch is the ever-changing rosters of college baseball. “It is a little tricky to figure out how best to use our pitching staff right now, since a lot can change between now and when games start in February, therefore these ideas are dynamic and subject to change as team composition is never fixed from one week to the next,” he said.
This changing roster also can create various challenges in data analysis. Because players change quickly and the season is far shorter than the MLB season, it can be difficult to gather sample sizes large enough to find statistically significant changes before the player moves on. However, Short has been able to overcome these issues to assist UCSB in becoming the leader in the most drafted players on the West Coast in 2018. With his emphasis on maximizing player potential and finding small drivers of value, Short has made the school a hot spot for MLB talent and has helped a small program compete with some of the nation’s best baseball schools.