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CREATIVE THOUGHT AT WORK Baseball by the numbers

Elaine Allen ’70, a Babson College pro- fessor and statistician of business and en- trepreneurship, is also known as a guru of baseball stats. Why baseball? She answers, “I grew up in New York City, listening with my parents to all the games over the radio—the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees (although after George Steinbrenner bought the Yanks I could no longer root for them), and eventually the Mets.” Starting from that girlhood passion, Allen has made a name for herself in the game she always loved. As a statistician, she views baseball through a slightly dif- ferent lens, applying complex overlays of mathematical models, using multivariate and univariate analysis. Her number- crunching has yielded some interesting— and galvanizing—results.

For example, after the crushing loss for the Red Sox in the 2003 playoffs, Allen and two of her students created a model comparing performance stats of pitchers and batters, and came away with a semi- nal finding: if the Sox had used a fresh closing pitcher, they’d have had an 81 percent chance of winning that game. That finding didn’t go unnoticed by Boston’s management, who used Allen’s data in their official season postmortem. For two years she consulted with the

Toronto Blue Jays, creating a model that would inform management about when to bring minor league players up into the majors. But the old-boy network appar- ently wasn’t ready for the evidence and implications of Allen’s data analyses. “They didn’t listen to me,” she laughs, “and now their former manager J.P. Ric- ciardi is gone!” Others, however, do listen—notably “fantasy baseball” players. Allen has stud- ied and written extensively on fantasy baseball, a wildly popular competitive game based on the performance stats of real-life major lea- guers. Her study on how to build better fantasy baseball teams was a grand

slam that was covered by, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Among her findings in that and subsequent articles are that “managers” of fantasy teams need to look beyond just peak performance and consider these high proba- bilities:

• American League players perform better than National League players • Home-run hitters have the most impact on a team’s success

• Run scorers create the most successful and balanced team

• The early draft picks have the most effect on a team’s success

Still, for all the statistics, EDITOR’S NOTE

For more exemplars of creative thought at work, see

there’s always somebody throwing a curveball into the equation. “Take for instance Derek Jeter,” she says. “He certainly has never been the best shortstop; when you look at his numbers, he’s not that versatile at that position. But he tries harder than almost any other player on the field. He dives. He runs. He goes into the stands for balls.” Numbers aren’t everything, and “you’d love to have him on your team, because he’s such a gamer.” Allen wasn’t always known for her baseball analysis. “Other statisticians know me for my work with biotech com- panies,” she says. In 2004 she was named a fellow of the American Statistical Associ- ation, a rare honor. She also serves as re- search director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, director of the Babson Survey Research Group, and chief scientist and cofounder of Statistics and Information Technology Con- sulting at Pondview Associates in Dover, Mass.


Recently Allen has been on sabbatical, enjoying her season tickets at Fenway Park and working on a book about (what are the odds?) baseball. The book profiles the hidden changes in the game in the past 25 years. One of those is the popu- larity and marketing of fantasy teams—a huge moneymaker for ESPN, but perhaps more valuable as a means to keep fans engaged whether their team is winning or losing. One chapter is on baseball bats; she says, “It’s incredible how they’ve changed so dramatically over the years.” While she first thought she’d write about baseball statistics, she also wanted to score with a wider audience. “I’d really like to write a book that everyone will read,” she says. “It’ll have stats in it, but it’ll have stories too. As I tell my students, ‘If you can’t tell the story behind the stats, nobody will listen.’”

As to whether Allen dabbles in a fan- tasy team of her own, she replies, “Oh, no, I can’t play fantasy baseball—I’d get too serious about it!” —Jon Wurtmann ’78

28 SCOPE FALL 2010


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