Major League Scholar
Crunching numbers at Fenway Park, teaching sabermetrics, and coaching kids—and that’s when this CGS prof is off duty.
Swinging a bat at the air, the tall, broad-shouldered instructor punctures some conventional wisdom. “Have you ever had a coach tell you, ‘Grip the bat tight’?” he asks the diverse group of 13- and 14-year-old boys, all 15 of whom leap to answer. They know this advice is wrong. “Why is it wrong to have a tight grip on the bat?” he continues.
“Your muscles are tense,” comes the reply.
“Which muscles are tense?”
“And when do those muscles matter?”
“At the point of contact!”
We’re in a Cambridge classroom, overlooking a sunny campus green. It’s summertime, when many professors take a much-deserved break to travel, write, and catch up on reading for the fall. Some also teach a summer course or two.
But only one professor spends the season working for Major League Baseball as a datacaster at Fenway Park, analyzing statistics for Baseball HQ, and coaching city kids in the mechanics (and physics and mathematics and physiology) of baseball—all while playing a little softball on the side, racking up points in fantasy ball, and raising three children who can hit bombs over the heads of outfielders.
He is Leonard “Andy” Andres, a senior lecturer of natural science at CGS who is an expert in exercise physiology, nutritional biochemistry—and our national pastime. In addition to the work listed above, Andres writes, lectures, and speaks to the media about the effects of steroids on baseball players, and he teaches a course at Tufts University in sabermetrics, the data-driven analysis of baseball performance. These pursuits allow the lifelong Red Sox fan and athlete to synthesize his twin loves: baseball and scientific inquiry.
An eye on achievement
“How about this one? ‘Extend your arms when you swing.’ This is wrong with a capital WRONG,” Andres tells the adolescents in his Science of Baseball class on this warm July morning.
“I know why, Coach,” one kid volunteers. “Because when you swing inwards, you generate more power than when you swing outwards.”
“That’s right, moment of inertia,” Andres says, explaining a physics principle. “You want to keep things close. It’s like punching a punching bag. Do you want to punch the bag like this?” He demonstrates an ineffective, round-house swing. “No, you want to keep your hands close. Because what are you trying to maximize?”
“Power,” students answer.
“And what’s power?”
“Velocity times force!”
Andres is the head coach and lead instructor for the MIT Science of Baseball Program, a free, monthlong course for boys going into eighth and ninth grade in Boston and Cambridge public schools. Students attend class every morning at MIT, then hit the field in the afternoon to apply their lessons.
“The mission is to re-energize their interest in math and science using baseball,” Andres explains. “Our archetypal student is somebody who loves baseball and is losing a little interest in school. Research shows that as a group, boys this age, especially in the cities, start losing interest in math and science.”
With assistant coaching from undergrads (who also serve as mentors to many of the kids during the academic year), Andres guides his charges in scientifically examining every aspect of baseball. The kids are hoping to get an edge on the competition by learning more about the game, breaking it down into its component skills so they can become better players. But they’re also being exposed to math and science, and they’re immersed in an environment that encourages achievement on and off the field.
“One of the cool things we did was a projectile motion lab in a big courtyard, where we were all throwing balls as hard as we could,” Andres recalls. “We could have spent two weeks teaching projectile motion in class. Instead, we finessed it, made it a fun event, and showed that initial velocity is crucial to how far a baseball is thrown or hit, and we can estimate initial velocity just by measuring a distance and how long the ball was in the air.
“So that’s the idea: Expose them to how science works. . . . We’re not here to hammer into them Newton’s laws. But they hear the terms and they start paying attention” because the principles are being applied to a sport, something the boys are already interested in.
It also helps them to hear the success stories of the undergrad assistant coaches, their elders by only a few years. “They gain respect from these boys because they’re so good at baseball. That’s their passion. But they got into a good college because they wouldn’t give up on their long-term goals.”
Expert by accident
“I’ve always been a huge baseball fan,” Andres says, “but I had never really considered baseball as an academic pursuit” until about a decade ago when the physiologist started getting calls asking him to explain steroids. “I’ve got to give credit to Peter Busher, the natural science division chairman at CGS,” says Andres. Busher encouraged him to write articles and give presentations on the topic. “Peter respects the notion of academic freedom for faculty. I’ve always felt support on that front.”
Then in 2003, the book Moneyball broadened awareness of sabermetrics, the gimlet-eyed study and development of baseball statistics. Andres and friends from his doctoral days at Tufts proposed a course in sabermetrics to their alma mater. “I’ve been teaching that course ever since, on and off.”
When word of the class spread, Andres was asked to write a weekly column for Baseball HQ, a website that applies heavy-duty statistical analysis to the winning of fantasy baseball leagues, in which your fortunes as a team “owner” rise and fall with the real-life statistics of the MLB players you’ve assembled via mock drafts and trades. Enough fantasy fanatics are willing to pay Baseball HQ’s subscription fees that “it’s actually a very profitable website,” says Andres, who is now the site’s playing-time analyst for the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Last year, Andres began work as MLB’s datacaster at Fenway Park. “I sit at a computer and record the outcome of every pitch. It’s a ball or a ball in the dirt, or a strike, a called strike, a swinging strike, a foul ball, a foul tip, a bunt foul. . . . Then the play happens! Wild pitch, caught stealing, grounder to second base—whatever the play is,” Andres feeds every detail to MLB headquarters. From there it’s expressed in real-time game simulations on websites such as MLB.com’s Gameday. In many ways, Andres has to pay closer attention to the game than the umpires do.
In his CGS classes, Andres generally tries to avoid baseball talk, but it can be tough, he says with a laugh. “They all want to hear about my job at Fenway Park.”
With so much on his plate, how well can Andres be doing in his fantasy league? “This year, bad,” he admits. “But I’ve still won more championships than any other team in the league.”