Kyle Calzia
Kyle Calzia

After the popularity of the book-turned-film “Moneyball,” the term “sabermetrics” became a household name for anyone involved with baseball. Fans, journalists and people who work in athletics have turned to the world of statistics for interesting and meaningful insights into the sports they love so much.

Advanced metrics aren’t just for baseball clubs anymore. From Amazon Web Services partnering with NASCAR and the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) to IBM’s Watson technology helping guide fantasy football team owners, numbers in a spreadsheet have a huge impact on how fans interact with sports and how the sports are played themselves.

Mustang News, with the assistance of baseball analyst Andrew Harlow,  examined the sabermetrics of Cal Poly Baseball — comparing data on more than 3,500 of Mustang pitches to the team’s Big West Conference rivals over the last three seasons. 

The data reveals two key things to the future success of baseball under head coach Larry Lee: better training for batters’ launch angle is pivotal in crafting strong offensive performances and when the bats are cold, the team needs a pitching core that is capable of putting up similar numbers to schools like UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine to rack up wins in the Big West conference. 

Launch Angle

In baseball, the launch angle of a hit is the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player’s bat after being hit, or essentially the trajectory of the ball after the batter makes contact. 

According to our analysis, the best angle to hit the ball is between 10 and 25 degrees. That trajectory angle is the most likely to produce a line drive.

For context, experts believe the ideal launch angle for a home run, which at Cal Poly’s Baggett Stadium would require a ball to travel at least 335 feet, is a hit that comes off the bat at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees. 

Our data shows that if a Mustang can hit a ball between 10 and 25 degrees, they are nearly 50% more likely to get on base safely than any other hit off the bat. 

Launch Angle and On-base Percentage:

A batter’s average launch angle can be an indicator for other measures of their offensive success, like on-base percentage. On-base percentage (OBP) is the measure of how often a batter is able to make it safely on base as a result of their at-bat, regardless of how they got to base. 

We found that out of Cal Poly’s hitters, the batter with the most line drives (the most hits in the “ideal” launch angle range of 10-30 degrees) is also the batter with the highest OBP for the 2020-21 season. 

In fact, of Cal Poly’s players with the highest OBP, three are also in the top five in their ability to consistently produce an ideal launch angle. 

Ben Mangelsdorf, a member of Cal Poly’s baseball analytics team, spoke to how the Mustang’s use this data to improve their playing.

“Launch angle is a very useful metric. It can be used by teams to evaluate the tendencies of both their hitters and pitchers which can help coaches identify areas in which their players can improve,” Mangelsdorf said. 

Seen in this chart, the gray box represents every hit by a Mustang in our ideal 10-30 degree launch angle range. 

Of those hits, every triple and home run hit by a Mustang, as well as 55 percent of the team’s doubles and 38 percent of their singles, are within this trajectory range.

Statistics in context: A Look at the Big West Conference

While launch angle provided interesting insight into a good hit, what really wins games in the Big West?

We found the biggest predictors of a team’s record in the Big West Conference were their overall team slugging percentage (SLG), overall earned run average (ERA) and team stolen base attempts. Slugging percentage was the largest indicator of winning. 

SLG is the measure of the total bases a batter or team has collected from their at bats compared to their total number of at bats. For example, if you got a single and a strikeout in two at bats, your slugging ratio would be one base: two at-bats, which is .500.

In our analysis, teams’ overall slugging percentage proved to be the only measure that could predict both the conference win percentage and overall win percentage of the teams in the Big West Conference. So, the teams that can achieve large amounts of multi-base hits just so happen to be the teams that win more. 

Next, in the Big West, a team’s ERA correlates very strongly to how often they will win. This is shown by the graph below.

ERA is the measure of how many “earned” runs a team gives up, on average, in nine innings of play. An “earned” run is one that a team recorded from their offensive efforts, like hitting a single to bring home a runner from third. A run that was scored by an error by the defense, such as an overthrown ball, is not considered an earned run. 

The lower your team’s ERA, the less your opponent is scoring and, for the most part in the Big West Conference, the more you’re going to win. 

Over the last three years, UC Santa Barabara and UC Irvine have had the conference’s best measures of earned run average. By having a consistently strong pitching rotation, both schools have capitalized on their defense and, in turn, have the highest winning percentages in the conference since the 2018-2019 season. 

Cal Poly falls in the middle of the pack with both their average ERA and winning percentage. This is reflective of their status in the Big West, as they have finished second, third and fourth in the seasons we studied in our analysis. Simply, if their pitching is average, they’re likely to finish fairly average in the conference standings. 

The connection between ERA and overall winning percentage is the strongest correlation we found. The calculated correlation of .75 means as a team’s ERA decreases, the team’s winning percentage increases.

The correlation between winning percentage and earned run average is so strong, it outweighs any correlation based on batting, as seen with the graph below:

Here, we compared the team’s win percentages with their on-base percentage and weighted-on-base percentage. The weighted-on-base percentage is a measure that modifies the traditional on-base percentage to consider multi-base hits and all other outcomes of an at-bat besides simply getting on base.

Every team had similar measures. There was no team really getting on base more than any other, so the correlation between getting on base and winning games in the Big West isn’t as high as the correlation based on how many runs a pitcher gives up. 

Stealing Bases: Thievery is Bad in the Big West

Stealing, the risky endeavor of a baserunner trying to move to the next base before a batter puts a ball in play, proves to have a negative impact on the teams that attempt to steal the most.

Since 2018, with every stolen base attempted, a team’s overall winning percentage would drop .4 percent , and the number of outs from trying to steal was the second-highest indicator of a team’s overall winning record. The more a team got caught stealing, the more likely they were to have a worse record. 

Being thrown out while stealing is disastrous for your attempts to post a winning record, but what impact is there simply by trying to steal? 

Very little, in consideration of the overall conference.

UC Santa Barbara, with the highest winning percentage over the last three seasons, has almost as many stolen base attempts as UC Davis, the second-worst team in the conference. There is no rhyme or reason in this graph, it doesn’t matter how often you steal, it only matters if you get caught. 

So what about when you don’t get caught?

It’s not very useful to help you win either. 

All the teams in the Big West Conference have similar rates of successfully stealing bases, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between successfully stealing a base and increasing your team’s ability to win.

Essentially, attempting to steal won’t hurt you, successfully stealing a base won’t help you, and the only thing that will make you lose is if you get thrown out while trying to do it. 

What Cal Poly Baseball Needs to Succeed:

For the Big West Conference, we found that pitching is essential to staying competitive and winning the conference. All of Cal Poly’s rivals seem to be hitting just as well as the green and gold. Stealing doesn’t seem to affect anyone really, especially Cal Poly, who has posted a very average steal success rate as the university with the lowest amount of steal attempts in the conference. 

So, for Cal Poly to make some noise in the conference moving forward, they need to keep their bats hot by maintaining their training for better launch angles and on-base opportunities. They also need to develop a pitching staff and defensive core that will keep teams’ scoring low.

Essentially, to win in the Big West, the team will need a golden combination of slugging and a low earned run average that can hopefully produce more successful seasons for the Mustangs moving forward. 

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