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Charlie Young of the Illini baseball program

A Few Minutes With Charlie Young

At the Sapora Symposium, University of Illinois physics student and soon-to-be Houston Astros employee Charlie Young speaks with College of Applied Health Sciences media relations specialist Vince Lara about building an analytics program for the Illini baseball team and working in baseball.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with Charlie Young, an Illinois physics student who created the Illini baseball analytics system and will start working for the Astros upon graduation.

All right, so I'm talking with Charlie Young who is going to be joining the Astros upon graduation. Now Charlie built essentially the analytics program for the Illini baseball team. And Charlie let me just ask you, how'd you get into baseball?

CHARLIE YOUNG: Yeah, so I mean, I played tee ball all the way through a few years of high school. And after I stopped playing, I got relegated to being just a fan like everyone else. But once the Cubs, my former favorite team, won the World Series I knew their front office was very analytics dependent with Theo (Esptein) what they were doing. So I bought a few books. I wanted to see if my love of math and computer science could intersect with baseball in any way just to pick up a cool new hobby.

And I was reading a few books and Professor Emeritus Alan Nathan popped up in one of the books. So I knew he already taught Illinois, so I figured I reached out to him. And he was very happy to talk to me. I wanted to just ask him so many questions about analytics, about physics. And actually the same week the Illinois baseball team asked Allen if he knew a student would be willing to help them set up their new FlightScope machine they just buy it. So if you're not familiar with FlightScope, it's similar to TrackMan where someone sets it up and records pitch type, that kind of thing.

So it all worked out. In the span of a couple of weeks, I went from talking to Allen, having a hobby, to working with the team because I told Allen I was 100% committed, and I really wanted to help the team win. And I never would've thought it would come to having a team of five analysts, working as much as I can on the team, having multiple internships and a job. It really took off pretty quick.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I was gonna ask, you didn't you didn't think this would build a career for you?

CHARLIE YOUNG: No, I just wanted it to be just a hobby I could do on the side of my astrophysics research. I was thinking about going to grad school or something, so yeah. It just exploded really quickly.

VINCE LARA: That's neat. I'm wondering, what was Illinois looking to do when they were asking for somebody to build an analytics program. Were they-- I mean, how much did they know about what they were looking for when they came to you?

CHARLIE YOUNG: So as far as I know, they were looking for someone to operate the FlightScope, calibrate it, set it up, record. I don't know-- I wasn't, obviously, when they decided to buy FlightScope or anything. So I can't I couldn't tell you that. But when I told them I set up my first-- I actually came into the first meeting-- I scraped some box score stats off the internet, and said, hey I think this lineup would work really well against this team. And they had no idea I was going to even do that. So I think I kind of put it on myself to really start the program. And once I started giving them reports, they liked it a lot, and just wanted more and more.

VINCE LARA: Had you known about a TrackMan and these other kind of tracking programs that baseball teams used?

CHARLIE YOUNG: Not really. I was only familiar with Statcast just watching games. They'd say the exit velocity, launch angle. But yeah, no, ' I didn't know anything about the industry of tracking it all.

VINCE LARA: So were you a baseball fan first or did you have your physics stuff in mind before? What came first, the chicken or the egg?

CHARLIE YOUNG: Yeah, I mean like I said, I wanted to go to grad school, and maybe teach, go to get a postdoc. My dream was to work at Nasa to be an astrophysicist of some sort. But I think when I started working for the team, and it was for those first couple of months when I was talking to Allen, he recommended I go to Saber Analytics, which was a conference in Phoenix. I went there and I met a bunch of front office analysts, and I think that was the point where I actually realized that this could be a viable career. Because it was just a hobby until I started working for the team, and it really just took off after that.

VINCE LARA: What differences did you notice with the Illini baseball team after you took over? Were their tangible things that happened from your programs?

CHARLIE YOUNG: Yeah, so something outside of FlightScope, we generate pretty serious scouting reports based on NCAA play-by-play. So like how traditional like MLB teams would shift all around, we started doing that more and more. And it was just awesome to see when we shifted our in-field and the ball as hit up the middle and we got it out. I mean, that was one of the greatest, I would say, the happiest I've ever been on a baseball field seeing that happen.

But yeah, when I'm recording FlightScope, some of the players are behind me. They talk to me, ask questions. Some of them ask me personally hey, can you send me this. So the players see me buying in a lot, and, obviously, the coaching staff is too because they were the ones bought this in the first place. They've been wanting more and more, they keep asking me for reports, which I'm always happy to give. And it's been a good collaboration between me trying to flex my analytics muscles and trying to make the best support that I can, but also to help the team win. It's just been a really good mesh.

VINCE LARA: I was good ask you what the buy-in was for players, but it sounds like it was pretty good from the very beginning do you think?

CHARLIE YOUNG: So I mean, I went in as a freshman. So I was kind of shy anyway. And I still was under the impression that oh, these are D1 college sports guys. They want nothing to do with me. But once I started working more with the team, and I started talking a little bit, I started to get more and more buy-in from guys. They'd start saying hi and things like that. But then it transformed into now I know most of the players, if not all. Some text me, have my phone number. They text me for reports. And it's really been awesome. They jokingly, Michael Massey, started calling me the analytics. Ryan Heff along with that. And I guess that might still stick for the returning guys, but yeah it's been pretty awesome working with the players.

VINCE LARA: Did you notice that other Big 10 coaches-- did anyone ever reach out to you from another program within the Big 10 to say, hey, how did you do this? How did you build this program? What can I do to build something similar?

CHARLIE YOUNG: Not really in the Big 10. I've talked to the Iowa student managers a few times. They have a good team over there. But when I went to Saber Seminar in Boston, which is a separate conference co-run by Allen, I gave a talk titled, How To Start A D1 Baseball Analytics Program. So I got a bunch of people emailing me, DMing on Twitter about, hey, how do I get started with this? So I've been responding to everyone telling them my game plan, and it's hopefully I mean creates more programs.

So in the end, I think anyone who wants to go into the industry, this is a great way to get involved goals, build some projects, for yourself, for interviews, but also help a team win because I think every college team can really benefit by having technology like this.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Charlie Young. This has been A Few Minutes With.

 

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