CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — World-renowned baseball physicist Alan Nathan and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student Charlie Young team up to explore the evolving world of baseball physics and analytics in a new 30-minute documentary airing this month on the Big Ten Network. “Runs and Data: The Science of Illinois Baseball” premieres May 4 at 12 p.m. CST/1 p.m. EST as part of BTN’s “Illinois Day” lineup.
Following a public talk in 1997 on the physics of baseball, Illinois physics professor Nathan was surprised at the response from the local media and many baseball fans wanting to learn more. “I sort of thought, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun. Maybe I should pursue this a little bit more seriously,’” Nathan said. “And that’s how it began.”
After years of studying topics such as the ball-bat collision and the performance of baseball bats, he eventually partnered with Major League Baseball, including chairing a 2019 committee exploring the puzzling increase of home runs in the past 10 years.
Now a professor emeritus, Nathan focuses on interpreting the analytical data collected from new ball-tracking technologies that monitor every MLB player from pitching to batting. These groundbreaking resources track exit velocities, spin rates, launch angles and much more.
Then an Illinois freshman double-majoring in Computer Science + Astronomy and Statistics, Young in 2017 reached out to Nathan to discuss baseball analytics. Over time, Nathan became Young’s mentor. “One of the biggest things I’m learning from him outside of baseball specifics is how to be a scientist,” Young said. “I think my skills in coding and statistical programming languages can help him to put his ideas into a graph to visualize it. So, I think we’re both benefiting from our relationship.”
At Nathan’s suggestion, Young became the student manager of analytics with the Fighting Illini baseball team. Having just purchased its own tracking system, the Illinois coaching staff was eager to gain more data to help the players succeed at the highest level.
“It’s the wave of the future,” Illinois head baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. “The number tells them that if they do certain things we’re trying to teach, they can be better players.” The team finished the 2019 season with its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015.
“Runs and Data: The Science of Illinois Baseball” was produced by Kaitlin Southworth, Tim Hartin and Alison Davis Wood for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Office of Public Affairs and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.