SOUTH BEND – The pattern has become remarkably predictable after Notre Dame baseball games this spring.
No sooner does 22-year-old bullpen catcher Luke Vandertie change out of his gear than his phone starts buzzing with messages from needy Fighting Irish players looking for their postgame fix.
“They text me, ‘Hey, Luke, is it ready yet? Is it ready yet?’“ Vandertie says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Yep, got it for you. Anything you want.'"
Thirty minutes or so after the last out, the do-it-all senior from Solana Beach, Calif., begins shipping large data files from his laptop into the waiting smartphones of ninth-year coach Mik Aoki and his sabermetrically-savvy roster. Such is life for the young architect of one of college baseball’s fastest-rising analytics departments.
Vandertie, who will graduate Sunday with a double major in business analytics and applied math and statistics, carries the official title of head of analytics and FlightScope analyst for Aoki’s program.
Heading into next week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Durham, N.C., Notre Dame is a longshot to earn just its second NCAA tournament bid since 2006. Yet the youthful Irish have posted a league-best 4.22 ERA against ACC opponents, an achievement that owes plenty to the pitching staff’s increased understanding of, and reliance on, modern analytics.
After sticking a toe in the water in the spring of 2018, when only a few rival programs willingly shared the data, Notre Dame went all-in on baseball analytics last fall. Vandertie and fellow senior Jordan Lazowski spent roughly 15 to 20 extra hours per week building out the infrastructure, pulling together reams of data from such high-end systems as TrackMan, Rapsodo and Edgertronic and converting it to something usable for those on the field.
They also worked with the Mendoza School of Business and associate professor Scott Nestler’s Sports Analytics Club to find, train and mentor another 30 students doubling as data analysts for the baseball program. Before joining the Notre Dame faculty in 2015, Nestler spent 25 years in the U.S. Army, including stints at the Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Of those volunteers, Vandertie says, a dozen or so have gone above and beyond in the search of statistical truths. It helps that data sharing within the ACC has improved markedly this season.
Most conference ballparks now have TrackMan, a 3D Doppler radar system that measures the location, trajectory and spin rate of all pitched and hit baseballs.
“Our pitchers love it,” Aoki says of the high-speed Edgertronic video cameras. “On the pitching side of things, I’d say we’re a little bit ahead of the hitting side in terms of our ability to give the kids that (information). In just a little more than a year’s time, I think it has advanced at an unbelievable level.”
Junior right-hander Cameron Junker has emerged as Notre Dame’s staff leader with a 3.22 ERA and .226 batting average allowed as the Friday night starter. That represents dramatic improvement over the 8.74 ERA and .290 batting average he allowed as a sophomore.
His secret? Using the high spin rate on his four-seam fastball to work up in the strike zone, inducing far more swings and misses and weak popups this year.
That adjustment came after a January presentation from Vandertie and Lazowski to the entire pitching staff about how best to use spin rate and spin axis to expand or narrow one’s pitch repertoire and preferred modes of attack.
Where too much overlap was found in a pitcher’s slider-curve combo, for instance, the recommendation was made to choose one and spend extra time developing the stronger offering.
“I think that’s something that’s really come to fruition,” Vandertie says. “Guys have a better understanding of what their pitches do and can be more intentional about, ‘How do I practice? How do I use it properly?’“
Among the position players, sophomore slugger Niko Kavadas has more than doubled his team-leading home run total from his freshman output and tacked 66 points onto his slugging percentage. For Kavadas, his gains aren’t so much about an altered launch angle as using the data to reduce his chase rate outside the strike zone.
“We plot every pitch in the strike zone: ‘These are the pitches you’re swinging at vs. these are the pitches you’re getting and not swinging at,’“ Vandertie says. “Niko is the biggest user of the numbers among our hitters. He’s digesting the information and understanding what he’s doing and then turning it around and improving for the next day.”
Aoki readily admits he has leaned on his analytics group for lineup construction at times this season, but his in-game strategy hasn’t changed all that much. For a power-challenged club that still must rely on small ball more than modern analytics would suggest, the Irish have managed to hang around break-even in the unforgiving ACC for most of the year.
While the baseball analytics programs at North Carolina and Wake Forest have received far more national attention, it hasn’t taken Notre Dame long to close the gap in that burgeoning area.
Of the 299 Division I programs, Aoki estimates his ranks in the top 5% nationally in usage and implementation.
“We still have a way to go,” Aoki says. “There’s a lot of rabbit holes you can find your way down in this whole thing, but I feel like we’re at a really, really good place. We can give our kids a lot of actionable information.”
To accelerate the process, Notre Dame has welcomed the input of several current major league employees. Neil Weiss, chief information officer of the Cleveland Indians; and former Notre Dame pitcher Will Hudgins, now director of baseball systems for the Milwaukee Brewers; have provided valuable insight and troubleshooting.
In addition, Daniel Mack, assistant general manager for research and development with the Kansas City Royals, spent a couple days at his alma mater last October. Mack addressed Nestler’s Sports Analytics Club, which assists half a dozen varsity sports, and then hunkered down the next day in the baseball office to help Notre Dame’s operation overcome some early hurdles.
“(Mack) reviewed everything we’d done,” Vandertie says. “He had a lot of great critiques and suggestions. He really liked what we were doing. That was a big starting point. It’s been cool to get positive reviews from people that obviously have a very good idea of what they’re doing.”
Hudgins already works closely with a pair of Notre Dame products in Brewers manager Craig Counsell and bench coach Pat Murphy, who coached the Irish from 1988-94. Hudgins has exchanged text messages with Aoki this year just to make sure things are running smoothly on the analytics side.
“Coach Aoki drives a lot of this,” Vandertie says. “He asks for everything to be number driven. He said, ‘We’re doing away with the (traditional) scouting report; we’re using TrackMan.’ We use analytics a lot.”
Asked where Notre Dame’s baseball analytics might rank on a 1-10 scale, Vandertie doesn’t hold back.
“If you put the Houston Astros as a 10, we’re maybe an eight,” he says. “If the MLB average is a 10, we’re probably around a nine, nine and a half. In talking with multiple people in MLB, we have as much technology as many MLB teams. We can provide a lot of different looks and use a quantitative approach to measure everything, which not a lot of teams can.”
At this point you’re probably wondering which major league analytics department won the battle for Vandertie’s post-graduation services. The answer: None of them.
After interning with PricewaterhouseCoopers last summer, he was hired as an associate technology consultant in the data and analytics department. He will report for work in the San Jose office in October, but first he will enjoy a summer filled with Padres games at Petco Park and trips to Europe and Costa Rica.
“Luke is going to go make a boatload of money before he starts messing around with this (baseball) stuff,” Aoki says with a laugh.
Lazowski, meanwhile, will soon start a full-time job as an analyst with AArete, a healthcare consulting company in Chicago. An internship opened that door as well.
“We’ve both been lined up for some time,” Vandertie says.
A rising junior named Kenta Sachen is set to take over the Notre Dame baseball analytics department, and Vandertie and Lazowski made sure to train their most dedicated underclassmen to keep things moving forward.
A couple of those young volunteers will focus mostly on the pitching side, while another will seek to bring batting analytics in line with the mound numbers by using such technologies as Blast Motion and K-Vest.
“That core group is going to take it and really be able to grow it next year,” Vandertie says.
Maintaining a daily on-field presence, as Vandertie has through his bullpen catcher role, is essential to keeping the information flowing. He credits bullpen conversations with leading to deeper dives into the data as the Irish seek to remain one step ahead of the competition.
It shouldn’t be long before Aoki’s baseball program becomes a prominent pipeline for analytics departments throughout Major League Baseball. That’s been an underlying goal throughout the start-up process.
“That’s part of bringing in these representatives from MLB teams,” Vandertie says. “We say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing. Here are our kids that are doing it.’ It’s really exciting for me to look at all these kids and say: ‘This is available to you if you want it. We’ve set it up, and now it’s there for you guys to capitalize on.’ “