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Numbers crunch: Tufts course really packs 'em in

The Tufts University students handed in their essays on who should win the Cy Young awards as eagerly as infielders zipping the ball around the horn. They fixed their gaze on a projection screen filled with graphs and formulas like pitchers staring in for the sign. Hands shot up to field questions faster than a catcher springs from his crouch to throw out a base stealer.

Welcome to ''The Analysis of Baseball: Statistics and Sabermetrics," believed to be the nation's only college-level course on the mathematical analysis of the national pastime.

A dream come true for every grade schooler who wishes arithmetic could be taught through box scores, the course has brought the game of pine tar and cowhide to the ivory tower, classic barroom debates into the halls of academia.

Now in its third semester, the course has proven wildly popular on campus, with teachers forced to turn away many students. Like diehard Red Sox fans who can't quite believe they lived to see a World Series title, students still marvel at the thought of earning college credit for studying their favorite sport.

''Who doesn't want to talk baseball for three hours?" said Korin Hasegawa-John, a freshman. ''I still can't believe I get to take a class on this."

Taught by two academics and a technology specialist who play softball and argue baseball strategy together with equal vigor, the course takes students on a whirlwind tour from everyday baseball-card statistics to sophisticated, cutting-edge evaluations of player and team performance.

The class has excited baseball analysts, who view it as a potential tipping point for the increasingly influential field. Sabermetrics -- the name derives from the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR -- is derided in some circles as the presumptuous work of computer geeks who never played the game. But its tenets, embraced by successful teams such as the Oakland Athletics and Red Sox, is changing the way the game is watched and played.

''It's another sign of sabermetrics's growing acceptance," said Jay Jaffe, one of the contributing authors of ''Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning," and a guest lecturer at the Tufts class last spring. ''We're going to wind up with a generation of fans that isn't as beholden to the sacred cows as before."

To be sure, the Tufts course gleefully subverts traditional baseball wisdom.

In a recent lecture on defense, one slide reads, ''Everything you know is wrong," and students quickly take that motto to heart. Bunts are usually counterproductive, not savvy strategy, students are taught. Pitching wins and RBIs are vastly overrated as performance barometers. Good pitching doesn't beat good hitting any more than the reverse. Luck is a larger factor than people like to admit.

''You have to go in challenging every perception you have," said freshman Mike Pfitzer.

In the place of these hoary myths are radical concepts. One school of thought in the course suggests that pitchers -- good or bad -- have virtually no ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play. That theory is tough for many students to accept, but nothing's tougher to shake than the stubborn notion that certain hitters consistently come through in the clutch. It comes up nearly every class, teachers say.

''There's no demonstrable evidence someone can perform better in a pressure situation than he does any other time," Andy Andres, an assistant professor of natural sciences at Boston University, tells students who had presented Red Sox slugger David Ortiz as a counter example. Ortiz is always a great hitter, Andres replied, and he's no better when the game is on the line.

Andres, a former Tufts graduate student, along with David Tybor, a doctoral student at the Tufts School of Nutrition, and Morgan Melchiorre, an information systems specialist at Tufts, all met on the softball field. After the game, the three sabermetrics devotees would talk baseball over beers, and eventually an idea came to them.

''We know this stuff, why don't we try to teach it?" Tybor said.

They pitched the idea to officials at Tufts's Experimental College, which features topical and offbeat courses that don't overlap with traditional courses of study. Robyn Gittleman, who directs the Experimental College, said the region's passion for baseball and the course's grounding in formal statistics made it a natural.

''Baseball is so universal, particularly in New England, that it's fair game at the university level," she said.

Neal Traven, cochairman of SABR's statistical analysis committee, said the class is a welcome development for budding statisticians and a science that needs greater statistical precision.

''For baseball fans, statistics courses don't get at your gut like finding out it doesn't pay to bunt," said Traven, who learned about the course at a SABR convention in early August where two Tufts students presented research projects.

''This will make for more meaningful sabermetrics measures."

Indeed, students who enter the class hoping for breezy baseball talk soon find themselves in a thicket of regressions, variables, and algorithms. Students must back up arguments with statistical evidence, using complex evaluation measures rather than ''counting stats" like hits and RBIs.

Those in the sabermetric world insist their ideas eventually will win out.

''All truths go through three phases," said junior David Samet, paraphrasing the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. ''First they are laughed at. Then vehemently opposed. Then accepted as obvious."

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