University offers 'Science of Baseball' class

The math and science of baseball can help improve your game.

Do you think that the only math involved in baseball is counting one, two, three strikes, and you're out? Don't tell that to a group of 24 Boston-area middle school boys enrolled in the "Science of Baseball" summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Their detailed homework problems – including equations and sketches of baseball field dimensions – suggest that math and science play quite a prominent role in America's favorite pastime.

The program devotes morning hours to math and science instruction and reserves the afternoon for on-the-field fun. Teachers double as coaches and encourage campers to sharpen their academic skills with methods beyond the usual chalkboard equations.

A typical morning's work may include calculating a player's batting average and using the ball's speed and angle to determine the trajectory of the ball.

"I've been so impressed with their willingness to challenge different topics," says program coordinator and former catcher for the Harvard University baseball team, Jason Larocque. "This is more than baseball skills. You show them how it relates [to math and science], and you hook them."

But coaches admit it's not that difficult to hook Boston students on anything baseball-related. Many campers don Boston Red Sox caps or T-shirts and talk about their favorite players. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is a popular player among the middle-schoolers, and Mr. Larocque himself is a former Red Sox bullpen catcher.

All students receive "playbooks" that detail class lessons and expectations. But it's not just a book of equations and physics problems. It includes the history of baseball, as well as inspirational passages from Jackie Robinson – the first African-American to play in the modern major leagues – that speak of the sport's relevance to American culture.

To get kids in the spirit of things, baseball signals are used in class: A closed fist, which usually signals zero outs, prompts students to listen. Two fingers raised, or the two-out signal, indicates voices should be lowered to "dugout voices."

The lesson finalizing end-of-camp presentations finds one group of students examining the science behind Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka's famed "gyroball" pitch. Coach Matt Borushko's group prepares a poster about the math behind base stealing. It shows that a simple equation can predict whether a catcher will be able to "throw out" a potential base stealer.

Coach Borushko encourages his group to focus on drawing diagrams and writing the equations, but some end-of-camp excitement is distracting the boys. After he mentions that their on-the-field baseball time may be shortened if they don't finish the problems, markers scribble feverishly.

"It's very easy to keep them focused on the field," Coach Borushko says. "The key to [keeping them focused in class] is to demonstrate the relevance."

One way to clearly show the relevance is by actually bringing a baseball into the classroom.

Peter Haubrich, who's 13, says he learned about circumference by cutting open a baseball and unraveling the insides. The circumference always has to be between 9 and 9.25 inches, he says.

Brendan Gomez, also 13, says he was very excited about the MIT program because it combines sports knowledge with skills that can help him in school. Brendan says that most of the problems have been pretty easy for him, except for a project designed to teach geometry skills. "Making scales [for field dimensions] was the hardest," he says. "It's all about proportions, but you have to draw really straight lines."

Brendan thinks that if he played organized baseball, he would like to be a third baseman because of the continual action. "A lot of balls get hit over there," he says. "If they're going for a triple play, you can get them out."

Andrés Espinal, another 13-year-old, has been playing baseball for eight years but never considered the science behind the sport until attending MIT's program.

"The hardest thing to remember is the equations," Andrés says. "Math is my favorite subject, and I thought this science would help me with my career goal to be a mechanical engineer."

But the program isn't all work and no play. Andrés brags about his no-hitter pitching performance during one inning in the previous day's game.

His stellar outing helped his team, the American League, defeat the National Leaguers for the MIT World Series title, a five-game series for bragging rights.

In the all-star game on this final day of camp, however, Andrés's team hasn't done as well. A teammate keeps statistics, and the American Leaguers often check with him to view runs batted in, errors, and strikes. A month ago, these numbers may not have meant much. Now the boys understand the statistics and see how the numbers show where their game needs to improve.

A rallying cry spreads through the dugout. Time to get those bats cracking!

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