This year, the WVU baseball team celebrated a standout season and hosted its first NCAA regional since 1955. The team’s secret weapon may have been someone you wouldn’t see on the field or even in the dugout.
Joseph Cuomo spent the last two seasons using his twin passions of baseball and math to help Mountaineer coaches improve their understanding of the strike zone.
Using the TrackMan radar system, which runs on a large radar panel installed behind home plate in Monongalia County Ballpark, Cuomo and the baseball staff collect data about pitches. The information ranges from pitchers’ extensions and release locations, to pitch velocity and spin rate, to the speed and location of where pitches cross home plate.
Cuomo used the system’s raw data to analyze the statistics and prepare reports for WVU’s coaching staff.
“We do a lot day-to-day to track our players. We’re using this data to understand our players and help them develop and improve,” Cuomo said. “You can use the data to make small adjustments. You win games based on small adjustments. Those adjustments can make the difference in a pitch being left up and getting hit for a home run or a pitch being down in the zone for a strikeout. That’s the type of impact I like to see.”
Throughout the spring 2019 semester, Cuomo used his senior capstone to study the accuracy of umpires’ called strikes and balls. Collecting data from more than 4,200 pitches dating back to the fall 2017 WVU baseball season, he found that the strike zone is more consistent than assumed. Using a predictive model, he learned that strikes are more likely to be called when pitches are outside the strike zone, away from the hitter, rather than inside, closer to the hitter.
“As a student manager, I have had this great experience and made connections with coaches who may ultimately help me get a job. I’ve also had a great professor in Professor Ryan. He’s been fantastic in helping me use the software resources at WVU, such as JMP and Project R, to help me learn and prepare to do this at the next level.”
“There are a lot of complaints about umpires in the college game. To be honest, sometimes they make really bad calls,” Cuomo said. “What’s great about this study is that we have the data that shows exactly what gets called and whether the calls are accurate.”
This approach has the potential to inform the future of professional baseball. The independent Atlantic League is using the TrackMan system to call balls and strikes instead of umpires as a pilot program for Major League Baseball.
“Joseph worked hard in his statistics courses, and he was able to leverage that foundational knowledge into a deep understanding of how to analyze complex TrackMan baseball data,” said Ken Ryan, professor of statistics and Cuomo’s adviser. “As part of this capstone work, we spent several months reading the seminal works in baseball data science, and a true understanding was possible because of a combination of Joseph's applied and theoretical coursework in statistics.”
As a student manager, Cuomo strives to do anything he can to help the Mountaineers win. This can range from setting up the field for practice to throwing batting practice before every game and meeting players late at night for extra practices. During games, he runs the cameras mounted around the stadium and tags the film for post-game analysis.
“Joey is a great kid who has committed countless hours to our baseball program. His dedication, energy and positive attitude are integral part of our student staff, and he is always working to help our team continue to get better,” said WVU baseball coach Randy Mazey. “Joey has a great baseball mind, and we are proud of all that he’s accomplished here at WVU.”
Since graduating, Cuomo landed a job with the WVU baseball team leading summer camps for youth players. He plans to enroll in a graduate organizational leadership program to take the next step toward becoming a baseball coach.
“Math and statistics have prepared me on one front, but what I need now as a future coach is to develop my leadership and organizational skills — the soft skills,” Cuomo said. “As far as the hard skills, like analytics and data analysis, I had a great experience at WVU. Continuing on in a graduate program, I want to focus on what I need now. What I want to do is coach players and use data to help them improve.”
Cuomo believes his WVU education coupled with his experience as a student manager will set him apart in the cutthroat competition for coaching jobs.
“Coming to WVU, it was one of the few universities that offered a statistics program and an opportunity to get involved with a Division I, Power Five baseball program,” Cuomo said. “As a student manager, I have had this great experience and made connections with coaches who may ultimately help me get a job. I’ve also had a great professor in Professor Ryan. He’s been fantastic in helping me use the software resources at WVU, such as JMP and Project R, to help me learn and prepare to do this at the next level.”