When you watch sports like baseball or basketball, you focus on the athletes, the score, the big plays. But for the sports analysts behind the scenes — and those who rely on them — the game is much bigger.
In recent years, teams and leagues’ ability to gather data has exploded. Wearable technology, like the tiny sensors embedded in NFL players’ shoulder pads, has made it possible to gather statistics on players’ speed, health and accuracy in real time. And teams are hiring all sorts of data experts who break down the numbers in new ways long after the game is over.
This explosion in sports data analysis is changing the way teams evaluate players and run their businesses. Teams looking to make more money and get a competitive advantage (that is, all of them) rely on data analysts to develop strategies on everything from what type of offense to run to which players to draft.
NC State students have been standing out in this hot field, thanks in part to valuable research opportunities, coursework and mentoring by faculty. The sports analytics market is expected to reach almost $4 billion by 2022, part of a rise in overall demand for statisticians and mathematicians. Graduates of our highly ranked statistics and mathematics programs are right in the thick of the action.
Meet a few of our students and alums whose talents with data have carried them all the way to the big leagues.
Statistics, Ph.D. candidate
The Jobs: Senior Quantitative Analyst, Los Angeles Dodgers; Quantitative Analysis Intern, New York Yankees (2018); Student Statistician, Wolfpack Baseball
The Work: With the Yankees, I built statistical models for player and strategy evaluation. Several other students and I also work with the Wolfpack baseball team as basically a miniature version of a research and development or baseball operations department. We evaluate players and strategies, send advanced scouting reports on opponents, develop web apps and provide recommendations. Really, we do anything we can to help the team win games.
When I am able to work directly with a team and get a sense of what they care about and how to communicate with them, that is another level of experience.
How He Got There: I’ve loved sports my entire life. It wasn’t until I was in the statistics major at NC State that I realized I could more seriously apply statistics to a lot of sports problems. The faculty in my program have encouraged my interests and sent me to several sports analytics conferences to present my work. At one of them, I met a member of the Dodgers staff who reached out to talk about potential opportunities. I’ve started my work with the team, and I plan to complete my Ph.D. in 2020.
The Coolest Part: Being able to work with various NC State athletic teams has been really beneficial. It is great to do projects on my own, but when I am able to work directly with a team and get a sense of what they care about and how to communicate with them, that is another level of experience.
Statistics, B.S. (2018)
The Job: Basketball Analytics Quality Assurance Assistant, San Antonio Spurs
The Work: Our mission is to help the coaching staff and front office make more informed decisions based on the expansive amount of data provided by the NBA. This includes everything from looking at college players through an analytical lens for the draft process to looking at upcoming opponents and their tendencies to better gauge how we might attack them.
How He Got There: I grew up playing sports and was a varsity athlete in high school in both baseball and basketball. However, I learned pretty quickly that my athletic talent wouldn’t carry me to a pro career and figured it was time to shift focus as early as possible. I was an early member of the Sports Analytics Club, through which I got more experience with sports data. As a student I was able to intern with the local NHL franchise, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, where I learned that basketball was my passion. After graduation, I landed my current position with the Spurs.
The Coolest Part: The coolest experience of this whole journey is really who you find yourself sitting next to on any given day. I’ve found myself becoming more familiar with coaches and front-office staff that I never thought I’d have the chance to meet. I’ve been lucky enough to now be able to present some of my ideas to people who have appeared on ESPN and others I’ve grown up admiring and actually have my work taken into consideration for some of the larger decisions teams have to make.
The coolest experience of this whole journey is really who you find yourself sitting next to on any given day.
In the Clubhouse
Many NC State statisticians working in the big leagues found fuel for their interests in the Sports Analytics Club.
Jason Thompson and Graham Pash, the club’s president and vice president, have seen a huge spike in interest in the club in the last four years. When they joined as freshmen, they were part of a core group of around 10 students. Since then, the club has grown to around 40 people who consistently participate. Two statistics faculty, Jason Osborne and Justin Post, advise the group.
“We’ve been doing a better job of marketing ourselves as a club, but sports analytics is also coming more to the forefront among sports audiences,” Thompson said.
The club has become a home for both casual watchers and number crunchers. “We try to make it a melting pot for those who have an interest in math and statistics, in sports, or in both,” Pash said.
Club members have the chance to hear from speakers about work they’ve done in sports analytics. Members also work with teams on campus to help them better use their data, attend sporting events as a group and play together on intramural teams.
They also have opportunities to network through travel to national conferences like the NBA Hackathon in New York City. And they work on models and predictions — sometimes just for fun and other times to enter in local or national competitions.
These include the American Statistical Association’s Statsketball contest, in which Pash and Thompson won top honors this year in the “Pick ‘Em”: Upset Challenge and honorable mention in the “Build Your Own Bracket”: Draft Challenge, both for the women’s tournament. This was their second year entering the contest and also their second victory — their 2017 win earned them a mention in The Wall Street Journal.
The two were also part of the winning team in the NBA Analytics Case Competition at the 2019 SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit. The teams of students were charged with analyzing which styles of offense in college teams best prepare players for NBA success. They presented their findings and strategy proposal to a group of expert judges.
Experiences like this are preparing them for their dream careers in a field with growing potential.
“We’ve learned a lot from the process of these competitions — how to take data, approach a problem, put it into action with programming, and present it,” Thompson said.
“Teams are waking up to the power of analytics and how it gives them an edge,” Pash said. “I think there will only be more opportunities in the future.”
Applied Math, M.S. (2011) and Ph.D. (2013)
The Job: Director, Baseball Research and Development, Tampa Bay Rays
The Work: I help the team find ways to use the data available to help us win baseball games. This can take a lot of specific forms, from in-game strategy to helping our team select which players to acquire to finding ways to use data to help our players perform optimally.
How He Got There: Baseball has seen an explosion in the amount of data available in the past decade. Observing all of this information as an outsider excited me about the possibility of applying machine learning tools to baseball. My coursework at NC State gave me a great foundation in mathematics, and though my Ph.D. research had nothing to do with baseball, it spurred my interest in using mathematical modeling to solve real-world problems. After finishing a postdoc at MIT, I decided to leave my academic research career and reached out to a variety of Major League Baseball teams. The Rays replied to my letter, which eventually led to a full-time position.
The Coolest Part: During spring training 2018, I had the opportunity to spend a few games in uniform. This was a great experience that allowed me to get closer to the action and gain a perspective that I wouldn’t have been able to get from sitting in the office in front of a computer.
Statistics, B.S. (2020)
The Jobs: Major League Baseball (MLB) Prospect Development Pipeline Data and Analytics Intern, USA Baseball; Data Quality Intern, MLB Advanced Media
The Work: Last summer, I worked with Statcast data at MLB Advanced Media, Major League Baseball’s internet and interactive branch. Part of my job was to look for and weed out bad data that could taint the analysis pool, and I also helped test the analysis process for a new home-run tracking technology for the league. This summer, I’ll be interning with USA Baseball, compiling data for reports on players in their prospect development pipeline. The reports will help both the MLB and the players themselves evaluate their abilities.
I definitely feel that NC State has given me what I need to get started on my career path.
The Coolest Part: Learning new insights into the strategy behind baseball has really helped me understand it more and also made me appreciate how much work goes into every game!
Statistics, M.S. (2019)
The Job: Advanced Analytics Consultant, Wolfpack Men’s Basketball
The Work: I work with the team on several different aspects. I report advanced analytics regarding player development, team improvement, game analysis, scouting opponents and anything else that would be relevant. I report to the coaching staff verbally, by written report or by creating interactive applications. I also analyze any data a staff member wants more information on. I got involved with the team by just having a lot of proven experience and reaching out.
The Coolest Part: The best experience I have had with the team was the Clemson game this year when Braxton Beverly hit the three-pointer at the end of the game to give the Wolfpack the win. The atmosphere was electric, and it was a great team win.
The Future: I am currently in the distance education statistics master’s program and also teach at Millbrook High School in Raleigh. I will graduate in July and will be searching for a full-time job in basketball analytics.