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This October, the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals face off in the World Series. No matter who wins the Commissioner’s Trophy, an Arizona State University Department of Psychology alum is guaranteed a ring.
Ryan Ferguson, who graduated from ASU in 2014 with his doctorate in cognitive psychology, works as a senior data analyst for the Astros. He also helped the team win their first World Series in 2017.
“My job is to use data from players and games to win more baseball games,” Ferguson said. “I try to make pitches faster, make hitters better, and win World Series.”
Scott Van Lenten, who earned his master’s degree in developmental psychology from ASU, works as a baseball research and development analyst with the Nationals. At ASU, Ferguson studied memory and Van Lenten studied sleep and stress physiology among adolescents. Both research topics ended up being the perfect preparation for baseball success.
“The cognitive science program in the ASU Department of Psychology offers broad training in research methodology, computer programming, data science, and cognitive science that prepares our students for careers in academia and industry,” said Gene Brewer, associate professor of psychology.
"The developmental psychology program requires rigorous training in research and quantitative methods to be able to analyze behavior change over moments, days, years or even across generations, from parents to children. Van Lenten worked closely with our quantitative faculty, including Kevin Grimm, throughout his time at ASU to hone his skills in analyzing big data," added Leah Doane, associate professor of psychology.
Every pitch, swing or hit generates about 35,000 data points for baseball data analysts like Ferguson and Van Lenten. As part of their ASU psychology degrees, Ferguson and Van Lenten had to analyze large datasets. Their time at ASU means they know how to use measurements of pitch speed, how fast a ball spins as it travels to home plate, how fast the ball travels after a hit and even the biomechanics of a pitcher’s throw to improve how the team plays or identify the next breakout star before they sign a multimillion dollar contract. Baseball analysts try to maximize the potential of each player for all 162 regular season games and the postseason.
Astros third baseman Alex Bregman was quoted as saying that “no one cares about batting average in baseball anymore.” Baseball data analysts like Ferguson and Van Lenten develop and utilize statistical models to provide advanced insight into player evaluation that goes beyond simple metrics such as batting average. For example, one statistic that provides more information about a player’s talent is OPS, which is the combination of on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, is what wins more baseball games. Bregman’s batting average for the season was good, but his OPS was better. He was third overall in the league, and now the Astros are in the World Series.
Major League Baseball teams have invested heavily in people like Ferguson and Van Lenten. The Astros and Nationals both employ over 30 employees in analytic roles that include research and development and video and data analysis.
Ferguson has not always been a baseball fanatic. Before baseball, wanting to know how memory worked drove him to pursue his doctorate in cognitive psychology.
“I had no background in baseball, but I applied for the job anyway,” he said.
Ferguson recently came back to ASU to talk with psychology students about his journey from cognitive science research to using data in baseball and winning championships.
Prior to working for the Nationals, Van Lenten interned with the Baltimore Orioles in their Research and Development department.
To see how Ferguson found his path, and to hear his advice for students, check out his page.