Cool Class: Sports Analytics

April 13, 2016

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

The sports statistics seminar in progress.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Do statistics scare you to death? A Rollins course uses athletes as an avenue to understand complicated mathematical concepts.

Funny how most baseball fans might feel out of their league talking about correlation, variance, and multiple regression.

But bring up earned run average, slugging percentage, and wins above replacement—and all of a sudden it’s a different ballgame.

With sports as their vehicle, Rollins students are digging into statistical models that can be used for a variety of purposes, including the measurement of player and team performance. As a bonus, they’re building skills that have direct application in multiple career fields, from scientific research to financial management.

The Sports Analytics classroom.
Head women’s golf coach Julie Garner (center left) and psychology professor Alice Davidson (center right).Photo by Scott Cook.

Instructors

Alice Davidson, associate professor of psychology, and coach Julie Garner, director of Rollins’ golf program

The Scoop

Davidson and Garner team up to help students address questions such as:

  • How can we use data to evaluate NBA star Steph Curry’s performance over the past year?
  • What is WAR and why does it now have such an impact on baseball?
  • How does loss aversion affect offensive and defensive effort?
  • Why are psychological and behavioral principles important to study?
Students taking notes in class.
Photo by Scott Cook.

“We’re kind of tricking them into learning statistics and making it applicable to their areas of interest,” Davidson says with a chuckle. “For a lot of students, statistics can be an intimidating subject. But this class makes the material applicable to something most of us really enjoy in life.”

Of the course’s 20 students, most of whom are sophomores, there are seven collegiate baseball players, four soccer players, and one swimmer. Everyone else played sports in high school or has an athletic background.

Those things aren’t requirements, of course, but they sure don’t hurt when it comes to the group research project—analyzing the statistics of a winter or spring Rollins sports team. At semester’s end, six groups will present their findings to classmates and coaches.

The course textbook.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Snapshot

On March 8, the class held an NBA fantasy draft in which groups selected seven players and tracked their basic stats over a four-game span. The information provided talking points for understanding correlation, regression, and other concepts that underpin statistical analysis.

“A student came up to me the other day and said, ‘I finally know what a standard deviation means,’” Davidson says. “By making the topic relevant, it helps so much.”

Students of the Sports Analytics class.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Student Perspective

For Rob Secrist ’18, a double major in psychology and philosophy with a minor in global health, the class blends two of his favorite pursuits.

“As an athlete, I find sports analytics interesting because it relates what I’m passionate about to a part of academia I’ve studied extensively in several psychology courses,” says Secrist, a pitcher on the JV baseball team. “There aren’t many other classes on campus where practice problems involve Steph Curry and discussions revolve around the games that were played the night before.”

Professors Alice Davidson and Julie Garner.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Did You Know?

Davidson, a huge San Antonio Spurs fan, couldn’t help but share the fact that 39-year-old center Tim Duncan still leads the NBA in “defensive real plus-minus.” According to ESPN, the plus-minus metric registers the net change in score while a player is on the court, adjusting for the effects of each teammate and opposing player.

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