Professor Andy Andres remembers the first year that he and his colleagues, David Tybor and Morgan Melchiorre, taught the Sabermetrics 101 course at Tufts University. One of the more memorable lectures came on October 18, 2004, which was a pretty memorable night in New England. Though Game 5 of the American League Championship Series had started around 5 pm, Sabermetrics 101 — which met in the evenings — was still in session. At least for a time.
“We felt like we had to get through the lecture,” Andres recalls. “So Tybor and I, he’s got the radio, and every half inning we’d write the line score [on the blackboard].” But then in the eighth inning, David Ortiz belted a homer into the Monster seats. Andres and Tybor consulted, but determined that since Melchiorre had been lecturing about Derek Jeter’s defense at the time that they should let him preach, hoping the good karma would continue to rub off on the team. But they weren’t the only ones who had learned of Ortiz’s feats. “One of the girls in the back of the room, went ‘Wahooooooo, Ortiz just hit a home run!” Class dismissed. “We immediately shut it down, and switched to FOX,” Andres says.
A decade later, he is still at it. Tybor and Melchiorre taught the course with him for three years, but it has been Andres’ show ever since. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the genesis of the course was Moneyball. The trio had pursued their PhDs together at Tufts, and wound up all playing softball together, and after the book’s release they were sufficiently lathered up to make teaching about the game a reality.
The class had humble beginnings, but even the first wave of students found success infiltrating major league front offices. The course began as a lecture, but given the small size of the class — 20 students max, and the max was always reached — it morphed into more of a discussion/research seminar, and Andres would do his best to shepherd along the students projects. Now, Andres will have to step away from that level of personal involvement with his students, as the first iteration of this new class — which begins next week — will have a much different feel.
The class, now migrated from Tufts to Boston University and billed as SABR101x, has been transformed from small lecture/seminar, into what’s known as a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, for short. It evokes essentially the opposite notion of a small lecture hall, and the phrase that many in education use to describe it is learning at scale. Andres’ class will certainly qualify, as at last count they had already surpassed 11,500 registrations.
There are a few companies who specialize in MOOCS. Boston University’s offerings will be run on in partnership with EdX — which is a non-profit open-source platform that is governed by Harvard and MIT. BU, through their Digital Learning Initiative, is one of the first contributors to EdX, and the SABR101x class is the first of four initial classes that BU will offer through the EdX platform. That’s a whole bunch of firsts, but everyone is walking in with their eyes open. Romy Ruukel, the Associate Director of BU’s Digital Learning Initiative, bills these first four classes as “an experiment.” While the school undoubtedly wants to reach a global audience and seeing how instructive both teaching and learning at scale can be, there is another aim as well. “The main impact that they seem to have on campuses is that they reinvigorate conversations about teaching and learning on primarily-research campuses,” Ruukel says. Everyone involved seems very interested to see where that conversation leads.
It will begin with a history and definition of sabermetrics, going all the way back to Henry Chadwick. The class will be released in modules, one per week, and each week there are several videos that have been shot and will be given to students all at once. In addition, there will be discussion forums, and the hope is that those more advanced in sabermetrics and analysis will sign up for the course in order to participate in the discussion forums and help guide those who are less experienced. The course, however, was designed to be helpful no matter the expertise one already brings to the table, and releasing the content — which also includes videos shot at the SABR conference in Phoenix this spring with people like Dave Cameron and Jonah Keri — simultaneously will give users the opportunity to either take everything in, or simply pick and choose the areas that will be new for them. Consider it the educational version of binge watching. Here’s a screen shot from the lesson on Chadwick that Andres was kind enough to share with FanGraphs:
If you click to embiggen, you’ll notice that down the right-hand column is a transcript of what is being said on the video, which frees the user from having to take notes, which comes in extremely handy.
The history of sabermetrics is one of the four tracks designed for the course, with the others being current sabermetrics, statistics and data science. The last part is what is really going to set the class apart. Andres — with help from a team that initially included Gabe Gralla, a mathemitician and programmer who recently graduated from Cornell University, as well as more familiar names Dan Brooks of Brooks Baseball and Ben Baumer of New York Mets and Smith College fame — developed an incredibly handy tool that has been dubbed the SQL Sandbox. It is a specialized tool that will allow students to learn how to develop their own queries without having to download programs like SQL and R onto computers that they may not have administrative control over. Instead, the SQL Sandbox will run right in the EdX platform, and in each module students will learn how to manipulate their own queries (which users will be able to download in .CSV format should they desire). Andres was also kind enough to share a clip of a nested select query with FanGraphs that is part of the first module:
While the course will frame the data science around baseball, it’s really applicable to any field. Programs like SQL and R open up worlds of analysis that before took hundreds of man hours to accomplish, if they could be accomplished at all. That is also sort of the case with sabermetrics in general. When Andres first started teaching the course, his students were really fresh. “When we got to Win Probability Added, they were like, “What is that, it’s so crazzzzzzy!,” Andres fondly remembers. We’ve come a long way since, but there are still plenty of people who want to learn about a better way to think about the game of baseball, and this course should provide them that opportunity free of charge.
Full disclosure: I am not only a Boston University alumni, but I also assisted Professor Andres in the initial planning stages of the SABR101x course.