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Booth students play moneyball

April 25, 2012

Booth team takes first place in Society for American Baseball Research case competition

The 2011 film Moneyball, which was based on the book by Michael Lewis, may have brokered a merger between economics and sports for a mass audience, but for Full-Time MBA Program students Jonathan Hay, A.J. Kennedy, Ryan Lamb, and Brad Rodriguez, analytics and baseball have long been dual passions..

Their shared interest in both subjects is what drove the success of their four-man team at the inaugural Analytics Conference case competition, which was sponsored by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Over a white-knuckle weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, they impressed a panel of judges with their plan to help the lackluster Washington Nationals compete in the postseason.

Hay, Kennedy, Lamb, and Rodriguez, who were originally thrown together by chance, will celebrate their home-run presentation with another lap around the bases in June when they present their plan at the SABR 42 annual convention.

It all began last fall, when Rodriguez organized a Booth-wide competition to determine who would represent the school at the conference. As the organizer, Rodriguez didn’t compete. Lamb and his team won, and Hay and Kennedy were on the team that took second place. But scheduling conflicts led to a necessary reorganization, and the four found themselves joining forces. Although they hadn’t started as a team, the experience of competing against each other meant that “We already had a pretty good idea of everyone’s skill sets and how we could approach the problem. We were able to effectively delegate,” said Hay.

The team’s collective passion for baseball helped them think beyond the numbers. To win the competition, the team took detailed information about the Nationals and made a hypothetical decision about their position by the 2012 All-Star break, when regular season takes a backseat to the contest between players representing the best of the American and National leagues.

Rodriguez says, “Our knowledge of the industry informed some of our recommendations outside of just what the numbers suggested. We didn't approach the case as just running the numbers in a vacuum.”

Lamb adds, “Our quantitative analysis was the most detailed and represented the greatest understanding of the risks involved,” but it also described “the non-quantitative factors… which showed a deep knowledge of baseball beyond just analytics.”

Of course, their strong analytics—for which Booth is so well-known—helped them sweep the 14-team competition. Classroom lessons served them well, too: Lamb and Rodriguez had both worked with Monte Carlo methods in a managerial decision modeling class. The methods, which rely on random sampling and are often used when computing an exact result with a deterministic algorithm is not possible, proved to be a valuable resource to the team.

When they presented to the judges, Lamb says, “We had lots of analysis to describe, so we just dove right into it.”

This impressed SABR vice president Vincent Gennaro, who said that the Booth team displayed “an outstanding use of risk analysis.” This data-driven approach helped them outclass cross-town rivals at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, as well as teams from Yale and the University of Florida Hough Graduate School of Business.

The competition provided an invaluable opportunity to “network with team executives and stand out in a competitive industry,” say Rodriguez and Lamb. Their only regret was that the competition did not exist when they were first-year students.

In addition to distinguishing themselves in their devotion to the competition, Hay admits that they spent “an inordinate amount of time mimicking various home run celebrations.” They all agreed that it was worth it, and the closest any of them would get to feel like they’ve hit a game-winning homer in the World Series.

Laura M. Browning