Published on May 23, 2024 by Kevin Scarbinsky  
Virtual Reality App Baseball

Like many of his colleagues at Samford University, Matt Mazzei wears a number of different hats. He's an associate professor of strategic management in Brock School of Business, the Brock Family chair in Entrepreneurship, the interim chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship, Management and Marketing and a fellow of the Center for Sports Analytics.

Mazzei describes himself in less formal terms as "a baseball nerd." He credits good coaching during his high school playing days and continues his love for the game. He has found a variety of ways to combine his passion and profession to provide real-world experience for Samford students and actionable, data-driven support for Samford Athletics.

His past projects involving baseball have included scheduling analysis, lineup optimization, technology validation and scouting report efficacy. His latest effort over the last academic year: a virtual reality pitching app.

Samford's Joe Lee Griffin Field already is equipped with a TrackMan system, the industry standard in recording every pitch in practices and games. Every Major League team and more than 170 college baseball programs employ a similar system to assist in player development and scouting reports.

Mazzei, who has worked with students on projects to benefit Samford baseball since 2018, said TrackMan provides dozens of different data points for each pitch, such as release point and RPMs. “We wanted to build off this tremendous resource and start identifying new ways to use it for training and research initiatives,” he said.

The project, which would require the talent and effort of students beyond Brock School of Business, began to take shape last summer. Gregory Kawell, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science in Howard College of Arts and Sciences, sent out his annual inquiry across campus in search of projects for the students in his upcoming software engineering class.

Mazzei responded with his virtual reality pitching app project, and a collaboration was born.

"I divide the class into teams and try to recreate as close to a real software engineering experience as possible," Kawell said. "At the beginning of the semester, I tell each team, 'Here's your customer.' Matt (Mazzei) was their customer."

The students each brought unique skill sets to the team. Kyle Galloway and Chris Berggren focused on user interface and the design of the virtual environment, John Paul Garcia on the physics calculations of pitch trajectories and Jonah Rinehart on the creation of a functional database to access the information. At the end of the fall semester, with the project not fully complete, all four asked to continue their work into the spring semester as their senior project.

Galloway said the team wanted to stay together for “a multitude of reasons.”

“To start we had a diverse range of knowledge within our core group that covered essential skills for problem solving,” he said. “We had a team with knowledge in physics, backend and data, virtual reality and full stack development. While we each had our own weaknesses, the chemistry of the team allowed us to fill the gaps of one another to work towards progress.”

Kawell said the team “really bonded," and they're not done yet. While all four of the students have graduated and are headed into the working world with tech companies, Kawell shared that they plan "to stay in touch and continue to work on the project.”

The app allows a pitcher, hitter, coach or analyst to watch a pitch from different viewpoints such as the pitcher's mound, the catcher's and home-plate umpire's positions and both batter's boxes.

"The vision is to tap into the database," Mazzei said, "look up a particular pitcher or pitch type and call up a string of pitches for comparison. We can virtually represent any pitch thrown on our mound at the Griff and are even working on technology to ‘develop’ new pitches inside this app."

Mazzei said the project is not complete in terms of software development "like a product ready to go to market," but he will begin to use the app as a teaching tool for his students in the fall, which was his primary goal from the outset.

If the user interface and integration with the full TrackMan dataset can be configured, Mazzei said he will introduce the app to the Samford baseball coaching staff in the hope they find it helpful in maximizing their players' development. That introduction will have to wait because the current season is heading into the home stretch with the Bulldogs in fight for first place in the Southern Conference and in a position to earn their fourth NCAA Tournament bid since 2018.

"The coaching staff has been so great to us," Mazzei said. "We're appreciative and thankful for the access Coach David and his assistants provide us. We want to continue giving back and help the program in any way we can."

Kawell, who just finished his 26th year at Samford, said he appreciates the university's "culture of working across disciplines" to provide opportunities for its students. While this is the first project in which his students have collaborated with the Center for Sports Analytics, he said he has been "so excited" to see the center's development under executive director Darin White.

Kawell, who was White's faculty mentor when White arrived on campus, said both are driven to recreate real-world projects that prepare their students for the professional world. One example: A previous independent study project in which Mazzei partnered with Mathew Bennett, a 2019 Brock School of Business graduate and former Samford baseball player.

That project, a validation study of the pitchLogic baseball technology, got the attention of industry leader Driveline Baseball, helping create an opportunity for Bennett to work with Vanderbilt University's championship baseball program as a graduate assistant. That experience led Bennett - "a brilliant student," Mazzei said - to an internship and then a full-time position with Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays, widely recognized as having one of the top sports’ analytics staffs.

"That's my passion," Kawell said. "I want our students to get out there. Darin has got that same passion for his students."

"We like to break down silos around here," White said. "That's a big issue on a lot of college campuses."

The virtual pitching app collaboration between Mazzei, Kawell, Brock School of Business, the Center for Sports Analytics and the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science in Howard College of Arts and Sciences is just the latest example. While Mazzei, the project's "client," may have described himself in casual terms as "a baseball nerd," White framed his colleague's role in a more formal way: "He's our sabermetrics baseball guru."

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.