Softball Captain Wenzel Takes New Look at Baseball History

Thursday, May 15, 2014 - page 2

Erica Wenzel rewrote Muhlenberg softball history, breaking the school record for career runs scored. And her recent research suggests an alternate way to write Major League Baseball history.

Erica Wenzel
Wenzel (left) and Stryker (right) with friend (not a Muhlenberg student) at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
With research partner Abigail Stryker, a former thrower on the Mule track and field team, Wenzel spent the semester conducting research on who the greatest postseason home run hitter is in baseball history.

The record book says Manny Ramirez, with 29. But Ramirez played in the League Division Series, the League Championship Series and the World Series. Players whose careers ended before 1969 only had the opportunity to hit home runs in the World Series, and from 1969 to 1993, there was no LDS.

What if all players had gotten the chance to play in three postseason series every year? Would Ramirez still be on top of the list? That was the answer Wenzel and Stryker sought to answer in the research project, which served as their Culminating Undergraduate Experience (C.U.E.).

The duo, who are both double majors in mathematics and environmental science, stumbled upon the project in a roundabout way. For the C.U.E. in math, seniors can either do a unit of research or two units of classes. Stryker was in the provost’s office discussing a conflict between a required environmental science class and one of the math classes when the provost, Dr. Michael Huber, overheard the conversation.

Huber, a mathematics professor who has co-authored three books on sabermetrics and developed statistics to model rare baseball events, suggested the research project, and the rest is history – baseball history.

Wenzel and Stryker employed the Monte Carlo method, which, according to Wikipedia, is a computational algorithm that relies on repeated random sampling to obtain numerical results. The duo wrote coding for their simulation and fed data found on into an online program called R.

The methodology was a change of pace for Wenzel from her previous research projects.

“It is different from scientific research,” she said. “You’re not doing experiments and collecting data all the time. We had all the data we wanted.”

postseason baseball home runs To get the highest degree of confidence in the results, they ran 5,000 trials of three different simulations. The first was with the numbers (home-run rates, postseason at-bats) as they existed to verify the accuracy of their coding. The second gave all hitters three rounds of playoffs (LDS, LCS and World Series) for every year in which they played in the postseason. The third incorporated team postseason winning percentages to account for the high probability that some teams that played before the expanded playoffs would have been eliminated before they made it to the World Series.

The new postseason home run king? Babe Ruth, with 42. He hit 15, which ranks 10th on the all-time postseason list, while playing only in the World Series.

“Dr. Huber said that if Babe Ruth wasn’t No. 1, we probably did something wrong,” joked Wenzel.

Erica Wenzel
A three-year All-Centennial Conference selection at second base and a two-year captain, Wenzel finished her career with a .305 batting average, a school-record 126 runs scored and three home runs (none in the postseason).
In mid-April, Wenzel and Stryker presented their research at the Carolina Sports Analytics Meeting at Furman University, a prestigious event whose keynote presenters included Peter Keating of ESPN and Jason Rosenfeld, the director of basketball analytics for the Charlotte Bobcats.

“It was neat because you could tell there were baseball fans there who were excited to hear about it,” said Wenzel, who missed the softball team’s doubleheader at Susquehanna in order to present at the conference. “Sometimes when you have a scientific presentation, not everybody understands it. I don’t think anyone was surprised [at the final result], but they may not have considered it before.”

For someone like Wenzel who grew up as a Yankees fan, it had to be gratifying to see Bronx Bombers take up eight of the top 10 spots in the new postseason rankings and knock nemesis Ramirez off the top of the list.

As for doing the research, that was just Erica being Erica.

The research project was the fifth for Wenzel during her time at Muhlenberg. Previous ones with titles like “Freshwater Pond Isopods: Inducible Defenses,” “Evaluating cercarial shedding in determining larval trematode infections in Littoraria irrorata” and “The role of Kenya Wildlife Services in resolving land-use conflicts in the Amboseli ecosystem, Kenya” may not spark the same level of popular interest as her most recent endeavor – although, as Wenzel noted in her softball senior profile, she can now identify goat, sheep, baboon, elephant, dik dik, cow and giraffe fecal matter.

No computer simulation is needed to conclude that Wenzel, who will teach high-school math in Newark, N.J., as part of the Teach for America program next year, made the most of her college experience. In addition to playing softball for four years and volleyball for two, she studied abroad in Kenya and Tanzania, attended conferences in South Carolina, Nebraska and Pennsylvania and served as a conservation education intern at the Lehigh Valley Zoo, among many other activities.

“Looking back as a freshman, I never expected all of that,” said Wenzel, who made the Dean’s List every semester and will graduate magna cum laude with honors in mathematics on Sunday. “I’m very grateful for everything I’ve been able to do and all the relationships I’ve formed, even with the faculty and people outside of sports. I’m very happy I came to Muhlenberg!”