Creighton Bluejay baseball uses student team to bring data insights into focus

A team of student data analysts is helping Creighton baseball gain the most out of new tech equipment.  An initiative out of Creighton University is assisting the Bluejay baseball team while also providing students with real-world sports analytics experience.  The blending of both fields creates a winning atmosphere for players and students alike, says Creighton…

Courtesy Creighton University Athletics
Courtesy Creighton University Athletics

A team of student data analysts is helping Creighton baseball gain the most out of new tech equipment. 

An initiative out of Creighton University is assisting the Bluejay baseball team while also providing students with real-world sports analytics experience. 

Eric Wordekemper

The blending of both fields creates a winning atmosphere for players and students alike, says Creighton pitching coach Eric Wordekemper

“Having the analytics team on board is another tool in our toolbelt that helps us progress in a developmental manner,” said Wordekemper, who was a Bluejay baseball player from 2003-2005 before being drafted by the New York Yankees. 

It’s also the culmination of interests for student Ryan Wolak, a senior studying business intelligence analytics and management at Creighton’s Heider College of Business. He helped kick off the Student Baseball Analytics Team

The South Elgin, Illinois, native says he first became interested in the math and statistics behind the sport because of his mother and their beloved Chicago Cubs. 

Ryan Wolak

“We began studying the Cubs farm system when Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball ops, and she got me hooked on Fangraphs to the point where I started pursuing research projects based on advanced metrics, and trying to create new statistics during my high school summers,” Wolak said. “I spent more time with my graphing calculator on some Saturday nights than I care to admit.”

The team began last academic year, a result of the natural synergies on a college campus. 

“I knew if we were going to get a Rapsodo (and other machines) in, we needed more help,” said Wordekemper. 

Having trained individuals run the advanced machines and software would allow Wordekemper to remain focused on player skill development, he said. So, after reaching out to business professors on campus, he connected with student Wolak and laid a foundation for the effort. 

The first season, around seven students were on the baseball analytics team. This year, they hope to add another seven or eight students.  

The analytics team works with Rapsodo machines, which use small radar cameras to measure speed, velocity, spin axis, and other, more advanced stats for both pitchers and hitters.

After recording the data, the team analyzes the results and creates a personalized report for each player. Sometimes they can gain insights and suggest to Wordekemper small tweaks that may improve performance, such as switching a grip to adjust spin rate. 

Wolak says some players are more interested in their reports than others. There’s no right or wrong way to receive the information, he said, especially since younger players are working on skill development, whereas older players may want to dig deeper into their advanced metrics. 

The 2019-2020 Creighton baseball analytics team.

The fledgling data team started to come together and really hammer out the data collection side of things at practice when the global coronavirus pandemic cut short the BIG EAST’s season — and college and professional competition on a nearly universal level. 

And while there is some uncertainty about the state of sports this year, both Wolak and Coach Wordekemper agree it’s all about focusing on what they can affect and continuing to work hard so they can support Bluejay student-athletes. 

Senior Wolak says his goal for the Student Baseball Analytics Team is to help coaches develop a strategy for using advanced devices like the Rapsodo, in addition to taking some of the load off of coaches. He also hopes it serves as a pipeline for Creighton students to find jobs in professional baseball franchises. Wolak says coach Wordekemper has been great at building a network for the analytics students, who have met with Creighton alumnus and Miami Marlins switch pitcher Pat Venditte and former Seattle Mariners pitching coach Paul Davis

Wordekemper hopes the program continues to flourish, and potentially one day turn into a course so the time and efforts students are putting in can count towards their undergraduate degree. But, he said, there’s more to it than looking at the numbers. 

“As much as they’re doing with the analytics and technical side of things, we really want to have them be leaders,” Wordekemper said. “It’s the same thing I do with my pitchers. As much as we do baseball, we’re mentoring them and teaching them life skills, like how to handle adversity, how to be leaders, and how to mentor others.”

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