Whitman athletics utilizing new tactics to increase wins

Riley Foreman

Whitman’s liberal arts curriculum may require students to complete three quantitative analysis credits, but for varsity athletes, practice with numbers doesn’t necessarily stop at calculus homework.

Whitman College is joining a long list of schools whose athletic departments are developing an interest in sports analytics. From basketball to baseball and even volleyball, sports teams are increasing wins by collecting and analyzing data on their own players as well as their opponents.

The surge of statistical analysis at the collegiate level is largely a trickle-down from professional sports leagues such as the MLB, NBA and NFL, which are able to hire full-time statisticians to help develop their players and win games. Nowadays, even small Division III schools like Whitman are testing the waters of sports analytics.

For example, junior Karen Vezie performed an integral role on the volleyball team last season despite never having played a single match. When Head Women’s Volleyball Coach Matt Helm discovered that she was a mathematics major, he offered Vezie a unique internship throughout which she would attend practices and games and record statistics such as kills, digs and blocks. She also spent time outside the gym analyzing these numbers and comparing them to their opponents in the Northwest Conference, looking for ways to improve.

“I was looking at what the top three schools [Pacific Lutheran, Whitworth and University of Puget Sound] were doing and comparing [the data] to us in order to see where we needed to do better,” she said.

During the latter part of the season, Vezie shared her findings with the team.

“Some of the results I found were that blocking didn’t matter in whether you won or not, and blocking was one of [Whitman’s] strong suits so that was interesting to see,” she said. “Then [Coach Helm] started focusing [on kills] a lot and told the team that kills is where it’s at, and from there our kill percentage went way up. It was kind of a psychological thing.”

For Whitman coaches, bringing numbers into a liberal arts locker room full of dedicated students is a no-brainer. Head Women’s Basketball Coach Michelle Ferenz notes the value of communicating with her team in terms of statistics.

“Numbers are just another way to talk to people about what improvements need to be made, and they’re very cut-and-dry. It also helps us analyze what we can do better every day,” said Ferenz.

Both the men and women’s basketball programs use a rating scale to assess their players’ strengths and specific contributions to the team. Senior Clay Callahan, a point guard on the men’s basketball team, described the matrix of statistics that decide who starts and gets playing time during games.

“The metric [that the men’s team] has for the first half of the year is activeness points, winner’s point, player rankings and carryover from last week,” he said. “Basically it’s a weighted contribution to the stats sheet, how well you do in competitions in practice, where your teammates rank you and how you did last week.”

However, no matter how complex the rating scale may be, sports are still united by many uncharted intangibles. Ferenz commented on the limitations that all programs, not just Division III teams, face when trying to find meaning in numbers.

“The things that are hard [to categorize] are things like hustle plays and defensive intensity, because every player’s role is a little different,” she said. “Some people’s roles are a lot harder to quantify. Sometimes it’s looking at matchups and trying to put a number or a value to it, in terms of her contributions to the team.”

Additionally, when programs are relatively small, like those at Whitman, the resources to conduct deeper statistical analyses are difficult to come by.

“[Our rating scale] is not perfect,” said Ferenz. “If we had someone to chart things like deflections we could probably get a more realistic number, but we just don’t have that staff here, whereas larger colleges and Division Ones have grad assistants that can really break it down.”

Despite the want and willingness of the Whitman Athletics Department to incorporate numbers into their game strategies, they are limited by small staff and sample sizes. On the other end of the spectrum, some larger Division I schools can afford to implement video-tracking software that translates the motions of the ball and the players into millions of data points ripe for statistical analysis.

Even without the extra hands or technology, Whitman is still seeking to use analytics in order to establish itself as a major force in the Northwest Conference. They are especially open-minded because such changes have resulted in success at a larger scale. This season, Head Men’s Baseball Coach Sean Kinney is testing a system piloted by a Pac-12 powerhouse.

“One thing that UCLA does is called the 90-foot battles,” he said. “They tally up [things like stolen bases, walks and giving up an out], and their goal is to get to 10 because they did the math and when they get to 10, they win something like 95 percent of their games. We’ve really started charting our 90 feet and it’s amazing to see the results so far.”

While Coach Kinney is aware that baseball, more than any other sport, lends itself to statistical analysis, he still tries to find the balance between numbers and other components of the game that other Whitman programs seek.

“I don’t want all our guys to be so result-oriented, but [statistics such as quality at-bats] gives them a look of effective things that are going to help us win a baseball game, and if we put enough of these together, then we are going to be in pretty good shape,” he said.

While the Whitman Athletics Department may not have access to the same resources as larger schools, their hybrid student-athletes and forward-thinking coaches are more than capable of using numbers to help win games.+