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Chris Lewis: Wake Forest baseball’s best secret

Lewis led developments in pitching analytics that helped build the best rotation in the country

Lewis (middle) with athletic director John Currie, head coach Tom Walter and family
Wake Forest Baseball

Before any game this season, members of Wake Forest baseball have been loose, a type of confidence that comes with being one of the best teams in the country, and knowing it. They chat on the field, chant and toss around the football. One of the fixtures on the field during that time — a vital part of the pitching staff — is often dressed in a black team polo and pants, along with his trademark sunglasses.

And when the game is set to start, he doesn’t stride to the mound or take a place in the dugout — he climbs the steps to the press box. He is Chris Lewis, a graduate student and the Director of Analytics, Wake Forest’s best secret.

Lewis and his staff of analysts — 20 graduate students and undergrads — compile a litany of statistics and metrics used by the Demon Deacons on the field to improve their overall output. The group develops scouting reports on each opponent and dives into other projects or coding efforts for the program.

Lewis, while leading those endeavors, is also the point-person to deliver all that information to the coaching staff and the players themselves.

“If our guys have a question, we can get an answer,” Lewis said in an interview with Blogger So Dear.

And it’s worked. This season, Wake Forest’s team ERA is 2.82, nearly a point better than any team in the country. The team leads the nation in hits-per-nine, WHIP, strikeouts-per-nine, K/BB ratio and strikeouts. The Deacs also are tied for a best nine shutouts.

“We’ve got a great plan,” head coach Tom Walter said of the team’s pitching on ESPN’s NCAA selection show. “Our analytics team led by Chris Lewis…they put a lot of hard work into getting where we are.”

To collect and develop the data, Lewis and his team utilize numerous applications and state-of-the-art developments in statistical analysis. Trackman is the foremost of those used; Wake Forest has one installed on the field of David F. Couch Ballpark and another mobile unit in the pitching lab. Those, according to Lewis, are “priority number one.”

This year, Wake Forest has added Yakkertech, similar to Trackman, but with “nuanced differences.” And, in the pitching lab, the team also implements Kinetrax, a “markerless biomechanics software that tracks all different kinds of measurements about how the body moves, and the way in which the body goes through the delivery.”

Additionally, the analytics group still relies on several handheld tracking means. To Lewis, speed is paramount.

“We really value the pace at which we play,” he said. “We feel like if we win the time of possession game, if we’re on the field for less time than our opponents are, we have a good chance of winning.”

That factor has been a cog in the quick pitching routines of key arms like Seth Keener and Michael Massey, something that is evident when they hit the mound.

Wake Forest tracks time stamps (how much time there is in between pitches), time a batter spends at the plate (life times), how quickly a pitcher is getting the ball to the plate, hold times (which tells how easy or hard it is for a runner to steal), pick times, time running from home to first and more. Lewis also keeps track of the length of each inning.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But there’s more. Along with developing the in-game statistics, Lewis and pitching coach Corey Muscara have their own “scouting report process.” Using TruMedia, which “houses a bunch of data on every college baseball game that’s tracked,” Lewis and Muscara can find and utilize just about any piece of information that will give the team an edge.

“The whole scouting process starts with our team putting together reports from different types of TruMedia data,” Lewis said. “We’ll put a video on the projector screen and watch the hitters that we’re going to face, look at some of their tendencies to try to figure out a pitch plan. Then [we’ll] condense it down into what we’re actually going to do.”

With that research, Lewis and Muscara will develop sheets for the dugout that will dictate pitching strategies against each batter. They will also scheme an approach to which players the team will bring in from the bullpen.

To do all that, Lewis spends a lot of time in Wake Forest’s revolutionary pitching lab with coaches and players alike.

“I spend a lot of my time with Moose [Muscara] and the guys,” Lewis said. “The time that I’m not spending with them is the time that I’m coding on my own. I try to be around all the practices, even if I’m not necessarily doing anything, I like to be around the guys and talk to them about their data, talk to them about life. [I] learn from guys like Corey and [pitching lab coordinator] Mike [McFerran] because they’re so smart and they know so much. Those little droplets of knowledge I can pick out from them are just gonna be so huge for my career.”

So how did Lewis, a graduate student, get here — being a critical cog in the best pitching staff in the nation?

“I’m not really good at half-assing things,” Lewis said. “So if I get involved with something, I am going to do it to the fullest extent. There was [something] like a wall, and I kept hitting that wall. But, it wasn’t a solid wall, it was rubber. And I just kept pushing it forward. There were always more things to do, more things to learn and grow through. I just kept going forward and didn’t stop.”

And, for what it’s worth, Wake Forest baseball accepted Lewis. He wasn’t turned away.

“I just kept showing up,” he said. “No one told me to go away, so I kept being here. And it turned out pretty good.”

To think, Lewis almost didn’t even apply to Wake Forest.

“Wake Forest is actually one of the last schools that I applied to,” he said. “I thought I was going to play college baseball for a while. I wasn’t good enough to do that.”

Someone got him here, a fact he made sure would be included.

“My mom forced me to do the Wake Forest application,” Lewis admitted. “I didn’t want to do it because it was like eight-million questions. I didn’t want to do it, and my mom said, ‘No, you [have to] do this.’ So it’s really all her fault.”

“I came down here and it was 75 and sunny,” he continued. “And I [thought], ‘this place is awesome. I love this place.’ That was it. I just needed one weekend here to just feel it and I was like ‘this is the place.’”

Going from being a Wake Forest student to where he is now is a whole other step in the process. Originally, Lewis wanted to stay in baseball by playing on the club team. At a practice sophomore year, he met someone who was doing work with the varsity team. With the analysts short on numbers, he was invited to come to The Couch that very week.

“That was how it started,” Lewis said. “There were four of us at that point. I remember coming to bullpens, having the radar gun and charting pitches and velocities. The rest has taken a mind of its own.”

Still, it was a hobby. Lewis was an accounting major at Wake Forest, and is now studying the same topic in graduate school. That seemed like a solid path to a good job. His dream was to be a sports GM one day.

But, then something changed at a restaurant outside Camden Yards in Baltimore before the Deacs’ regional at the University of Maryland.

“Last summer, I really started to think about what I could do with myself and my career if I didn’t go into accounting,” Lewis said. “I started to realize I was good at this baseball stuff and I like doing it. I remember sitting with Mike McFerren talking about life and, for whatever reason, a switch just flipped. I have a passion here. I’m very lucky to have a dream I can actually pursue and make a career out of.”

“I owe it to myself to pursue this as much as I can,” he knew then. “If it doesn’t work, that’s fine. I can live with trying and not succeeding. I can’t live with not trying.”

For Lewis, there’s now just one stop left before he moves down to Florida to work with the Toronto Blue Jays in pitching development — Wake Forest and the end of its truly special season.

With a No. 1 overall seed, a regional coming to Winston-Salem and hopes of the Deacs going back to Omaha for the first time since 1955, the dream for glory is there for Lewis and Wake Forest.

“It would be awesome,” he said. “I would just be so happy for the guys that have been here putting so much time into this program. It’s the guys who do all the work. We prepare them as much as we can. But, ultimately, they’re the ones out there…put[ting] all their time, effort, blood, sweat and heart into this. I would be overjoyed for them. As long as we have fun along the way and keep being ourselves, I’ll feel completely fulfilled at the end of the day, regardless of what happens.”

How does one believe this course of events could be possible in such a short time? Two years ago, Wake Forest went 10-22 in the ACC. This year — 22-7.

“I would say I did [believe],” Lewis said. “I don’t know if you ever fully know what it’s gonna feel like to be in a situation like this. But I never try to put a limit on what we can do or what I can do. I go about my business and try to be positive and enjoy as much as possible. The more you do that, the more you get rewarded.”

And, rewarding it was.

“I tried to learn and grow as much as I could,” Lewis said. “I figured the rest would just take care of itself. And I’d say that it certainly has up to this point.”

Coverage of the Winston-Salem regional, and Wake Forest baseball, will continue throughout the NCAA Tournament. Stay tuned to Blogger So Dear for news, game stories and features.