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Numbers Can Tell Stories, Baseball Writer Explains

Feb. 11, 2021 — Students in two NMH math classes recently got a lesson in storytelling — and baseball. Sarah Langs, a reporter and researcher for MLB.com, Major League Baseball’s official website, told about 18 students that many of the pieces she writes start with a number or a statistic. She said, “Numbers help me tell stories.”

Langs visited two statistics classes that combined for the day, just a few days after joining the annual NMH Dick Peller Hot Stove Night panel with ESPN’s Buster Olney ’82 and other baseball insiders. This is her fourth year visiting NMH for the Hot Stove event. Prior to MLB.com, Langs was a senior researcher for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.”

Among the many anecdotes she shared with the statistics students, Langs described one that helped her turn an observation about Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes into a story. “I noticed he was really good at hitting the ball really hard, and that he wasn’t striking out a lot,” which is uncommon, she said. “Usually, if you swing really hard and hit really far, you’re also going to strike out a lot because you’re going to ‘whiff’ — or miss — a lot.” She had a hunch that Hayes’ performance, especially as a new player, was unique. After pulling data on all 2020 season players, she created a spreadsheet with the statistics she wanted to analyze, and then put the numbers into a scatterplot — “hard hit rate” on the y axis and “whiff rate” on the x axis — to see if there was a correlation. 

“There was no player who had a hard hit rate as high as his and a whiff rate as low as his — the two players who were closest were MVP candidates,” she said. “I took this graph to my editor and said, ‘There’s a story here. This is how we can show what makes Ke’Bryan Hayes unique, what makes him really good, and what we should be watching for him to do in the future. He still has to prove himself, but he’s the next star at third base.’”

Langs emphasized that she’s not a mathematician by training. “I always knew that I wanted to be a sports writer,” she said. She studied psychology in college, which tapped into her passion for research. “When I learned that you could research sports, this job was a natural fit for me.” Her work relies on math she learned in high school and college, she added. “I write about numbers for Major League Baseball every day, and there are so many things that I do mathematically — when I look into stats or calculate numbers or draw comparisons — that I learned in classes just like this.”

NMH student Madeleine ’21, who wants to be a surgeon, called Langs “a researcher without a lab coat.” She added, “It was fascinating for me to hear how people are incorporating subjects we don’t think we’ll ever use again in their jobs every day.”

Langs’s lifelong passion for baseball whose family spent a lot of time watching games together, also played a big role in her career choice. “A really fun thing about my job is how in the moment it is.” she said. “When you’re watching a game you literally don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Reflecting on her visit after class, she added, “I hope the students take away how important passion can be for your work, and how many vast possibilities there are down the line.”