Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Lacrosse secret weapon: math

Benjamin Brown ’13 walks onto the field with the lacross team.

Benjamin Brown ’13 walks onto the field with the lacross team.

Benjamin Brown ’13 puts analytics to work to help team

Benjamin Brown ’13 has a secret that very few people know. Although he never played the sport, his extracurricular project helped the men’s lacrosse team improve its game, ending the season with a 7–8 record against tougher opponents than they had contested in the past.

Ian Casey ’13 and Brown (on right).

Ian Casey ’13 and Brown (on right).

Brown, who double majored in economics and mathematics, created his own form of lacrosse analytics. His system focuses on the Lyons’ opposing players and teams, using video from the games and box scores to establish a rating system that complements the coaches’ scouting reports. The box scores provide in-game statistics of shots, shots on net goals, assists and saves, while the video displays certain patterns by the opposition that helped Brown with his analytic scouting reports.

“Ben worked extremely hard on this project,” said men’s lacrosse coach Jamie Lockard. “When he came into the office we spent 40 minutes talking about his reports on the various games, and we needed every single minute of our meetings.”

As a casual fan on the sidelines, Brown always pondered strategies for winning games. “Over the years, I went from being one of the kids yelling at the other teams to actually taking an interest in how the game worked and what could be figured out analytically,” he said.

He has always been interested in numbers and statistics, thanks to his father, a remedial math teacher who introduced him to a baseball probability game called Strat-O-Matic Baseball. The board game, which he still plays with his father, allows players to create lineups using cards of baseball legends with categories on the back that activate an offensive or defensive play with a roll of the dice.

The board game never inspired him to pursue a career in sports, but did keep him thinking about numbers and statistics beyond his studies. When he transferred to Wheaton in 2010 from Washington & Jefferson College, his advisor, Professor John Gildea, encouraged him to pursue opportunities to explore applications of his math interests outside the classroom.

“Professor Gildea had always told me, ‘If there’s something that you think is a great opportunity for you and you think you can somehow figure it out and not pull your hair out, you should go for it,’” said Brown. “Because of his advice I was less timid about trying things.”

Brown’s venture into lacrosse was initiated by a few late-night conversations with one of the team’s co-captains from this past season, Ian Casey ’13, whom Brown described as an “indispensable” collaborator. Both students roomed together and frequently talked about lacrosse and strategy. Their conversations expanded to include members of the team, who were all intrigued. They encouraged Brown to contact their coach and pitch his plan of creating a player and team rating system.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of different parts of the game that I didn’t really put a lot of value into,” said Lockard. “I thought it could only help the team.”

Noted Brown: “Coach Lockard’s ability to synthesize my results and pass them on to the team in a digestible language was beyond critical and really drove the value behind my work.”

As the season progressed, Brown’s reports improved and provided a valuable supplement to the coaches’ observations. A major reason was his ability to add what he saw during live action from his vantage point in the press box. He used his laptop and notepad to plot statistics that he considered important throughout the games, and shared the information with the coaches at halftime and after the game.

“Getting some additional information about where we’re giving up shots on the field was critical,” said Lockard.

The most rewarding game for Brown was when the Lyons defeated Eastern Connecticut State for the first time since 1996. The victory snapped the team’s four-game losing streak, and was a turning point in his analytic process.

“I believe this can help us win games when we get it right,” said Lockard. “It’s exciting because I think we’ve only scratched the surface.”

On June 3, Brown began working at the headquarters of Bloomberg L.P. in New York, where he interned last summer. He is an analyst in the management planning and analysis group that oversees the company’s financial products. He also plans to continue working with Lockard and the team.

Photos by Keith Nordstrom