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Winning at baseball with math and statistics

Baseball is full of catch phrases and obscure acronyms: trade value, ceiling, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, RBI, OPS+, wOBA and so on.  They all have to do with statistics and probability at least partly or entirely, and mathematics senior Morgan Pearson is completely at home with the industry jargon.

Oregon State University’s baseball team is in the middle of a fantastic season winning all regional playoff games during the first week of June against Northwestern State and Louisiana State University (LSU) to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals and make its second consecutive appearance in the College World Series June 16 -27 in Omaha, Nebraska this year.

To prepare the team for victory, it may be all about the math. Pearson, who is an assistant to the legendary OSU baseball head coach Pat Casey, studied more than a dozen films of games played by Northwestern State and LSU. He shared data about their tendencies and statistics with Casey to make game-time decisions about who to play and how to play certain games against particular opponents.

Pearson, who has played baseball since he was five years old, has spent the last four years at Oregon State moving seamlessly between the worlds of mathematics, statistics and baseball.

He has successfully combined his passion for baseball and numbers to excel in his role as assistant to Casey, where among other weighty responsibilities he has been charged with tracking and compiling all baseball analytics including advanced scouting reports, player development and recruiting assistance. Pearson supervises and leads a group of 12 student managers who assist him on administrative tasks.

Despite all his hard work to graduate on time, Pearson won’t be joining the throngs of other graduates for commencement on June 16. That is the day he will travel with the OSU baseball team for the College World Series in Omaha to compete for the 2018 national baseball championship.

“We are the number three team in the country taking part in a national championship. Any advantage we can get is really important, said Pearson. “I need to do my best job in analyzing our opponents and inform Pat what we need to be careful about as we go into a game, what the players in the rival team like to do and how they might try to beat us. That is my role. It is a lot of fun.”

Morgan Pearson with OSU baseball coach Pat Casey

Pearson’s statistical insights and diligent work have proven invaluable. His statistical data and analysis led to game-time decisions that contributed to an NCAA record for the highest winning percentage in a season and a record two 23-game winning streak for the team. Responsible for preparing OSU’s team with analytics, scouting reports and game videos, Pearson’s labor paid off handsomely. Last season, he watched the team chalk up triple victories as Pac-12, Regional and Super Regional champions and come in third place in the nation at the College World Series.

It is all about the numbers—a journey from academics to internships

Ever since he arrived at Oregon State in 2014, Pearson has been laser focused on a single objective:  Getting the best possible academic preparation to secure a foothold in the profession of baseball analytics. He has done whatever it takes to reach his goal—working 40-60 hours every week with the OSU baseball program, managing all the baseball analytics and administrative details, travelling to dozens of games throughout the spring season, and at the same time staying on top of his mathematics coursework, even getting involved in mathematical and biostatistics research. Not to mention the fact that Pearson is graduating on time. His accomplishments are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

“It has been very challenging, especially with a demanding and rigorous major like mathematics, but I have stayed dedicated and determined, taking three to four math classes a term to graduate on time. I have had to sacrifice a lot of my social life just to get everything done,” said Pearson, who enjoys a 53 percent tuition scholarship at OSU.

Pearson was a junior catcher in Central Catholic and Lake Oswego High School’s baseball teams in the Portland area and nearly made it  as a walk-on for the OSU baseball team but the spot closed up. Coach Casey gave him a position in baseball operations and Pearson stayed on. Initially enrolled as a business major, Pearson quickly realized he would require a more systematic and thorough training in mathematics and statistics to reach his career goals. He switched to mathematics with a minor and option in statistics, which is only offered to math majors.

“When my playing career ended I wanted to stay in the game as long as I could. I knew for me to stay in baseball the best way would be the front office route—the analytics, the numbers, the roster decisions. So, I knew I had to have a really strong degree in math and statistics to stand out because the baseball industry is very competitive.”

Pearson has spent a vast amount of time studying the careers of professional baseball managers to decide which major would suit him best. He noted that the majority of them had degrees in statistics, mathematics and economics. His ultimate goal is to run a professional Major League Baseball team and become the youngest general manager in baseball history. Currently only 22, Pearson certainly has a head start in major league baseball.

“I wanted to take my degree very seriously and get as much mathematics and statistics as possible. While the baseball industry is based on statistics, the coursework in mathematics has taught me meticulous attention to detail that is very valuable. Advanced classes in discrete mathematics and advanced calculus pushed my intellectual ability to a higher level,” said Pearson.

This summer Pearson will start his career as an International Assistant for the Texas Rangers in Arlington where his primary responsibilities will be international scouting and assisting upper management with projects related to statistics and baseball analytics. While hundreds of amateur baseball analysts might harbor dreams of working at major baseball leagues, Pearson has actually managed to accomplish just that with careful planning, determination and hard work.

Pearson was offered the job after an interview process that lasted four months. He notched up other impressive job offers. The legendary New York Yankees too offered a job. But Pearson, who loves interacting with people, found the latter position to be too heavily focused on analytics. He opted for the Texas Rangers because it combined player development with analytics, giving him opportunities to travel, interact with and scout players. As part of his job, he will travel to Puerto Rico, Japan and the Dominican Republic to identify the best talent to bring to Texas.

The Texas Rangers have a multi hundred-million dollar income, and heavy responsibility rests on the team of analysts who utilize statistics to tell the difference between players in order to recruit the best. “We are going to use statistics to find value. You could look at a player and not see his hidden value without the use of statistics,” said Pearson.

Pearson amassed plenty of on-the-job training in the statistical science of baseball as an undergraduate. At the age of 21, he became the youngest intern to be hired by a major baseball team when he he spent the summer of 2017 working with the Texas Rangers as an analytics assistant with their analytics team.

At home with the Texas Rangers.

He joined the team mid-season after classes ended to work on special assignments and projects that ranged from optimizing the team’s injury prevention and recovery program to building algorithms for players at the trade deadline and statistical analysis using R and Matlab software.

His biggest project was a Trackman—a 3D Doppler radar system that has applications in player evaluation and development—data manipulation of unseen traits in MLB bullpens. Pearson also assisted on a project that helped the team decide which players would be traded in exchange for all-star pitcher Yu Darvish.

“My statistics classes on methods of data analysis really prepared me for my job. If I didn’t have the experience with statistics, I would not have been able to do the projects the Rangers assigned to me. My classes in statistics and mathematics taught me to deliver what the Rangers needed,” said Pearson, who used his knowledge of single, multiple and logistic regression to evaluate and spot the differences among the players.

In the summer of 2016, Pearson worked as a coordinator with the Minor League Spokane Indians, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers in Washington state, where his hard work and abilities were noticed and earned him the internship with the Texas Rangers. Pearson has acquired broad experience and exposure to the professional and statistical side of baseball analytics in some of the nation’s top-ranking teams.

In Spokane, Pearson was responsible for all video and statistical operations for the team, employing statistical software to chart games, generate spreadsheets and reports on players and assist the coaching staff with strategy/gameplay decisions using analytics.

In summer 2015, Pearson worked for the Minor League Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. He was in charge of operating their Pitch F/x software (Pitch tracking recognition) for their games.

In addition, Pearson volunteered as an associate scout for the Boston Red Sox travelling all over the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Montana, to write reports on the statistical and physical abilities of high school and college players and “project future value in professional baseball.”

As a Texas Rangers intern, Pearson did plenty of roster and player combinations to derive the value of a player’s worth in offensive positions. His favorite player statistics is wRC+, the latest buzzword in baseball statistics. It stands for weighted runs created plus, an esoteric but practical formula that dissects a player’s overall offense, while adjusting for the effects of the parks and league he plays in.

Pearson traces his strength with baseball analytics to his classes on data analysis, mathematical statistics, stochastic modeling and probability. Some of his favorite statistics and math classes at OSU have been with mathematics professors Mina Ossiander and Robert Burton and associate professor of statistics Sarah Emerson.

Working with Burton, an emeritus professor of mathematics, Pearson conducted research on applications of Pascal’s Triangle, game theory and Markov Process Chain. He has also worked on a research project with Emerson that explored new approaches to modeling multivariate and bivariate responses in specific applications of biostatistics.

“It has been truly a joy to apply my education in mathematics and statistics to my passion of baseball.”

Pearson’s homerun success in charting a career path in his beloved sport may inspire other students of math and statistics. It certainly reinforces the vast opportunities and potential in those fields.

“What students often miss is with mathematics you can do a lot of different things. They need to see that with math you can go to almost any field. That is what’s exciting about mathematics,” said Pearson.

 

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