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By the Numbers: Junior analyzes statistics to improve team

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10 Questions with Derek Gerberich. Written by Julia Kern, a college relations intern with Schreyer Honors College.
By the Numbers: Junior analyzes statistics to improve team

Derek Gerberich

Behind the success of every 6-foot-something player on the Penn State men's basketball team is the work of 5-foot-10 Schreyer Scholar Derek Gerberich.

As the team's information analyst, Derek runs a cutting-edge statistics system accounts for intangible indicators of players' contributions to the team.

"Statistics have always been around, but they haven't always explained the full picture or taken into account the things that you can't quantify," Derek says. "The goal of this new kind of statistics work is to pick up on the intangibles and explain things that basic statistical numbers can't."

If you think Derek's story sounds a little familiar, you're right. The 2011 movie "Moneyball" told how statistics shaped the beleaguered Oakland A's into a successful winning team. Even in politics, statistics are trending. Last month, number-crunching New York Times columnist Nate Silver hit the jackpot with his nearly flawless state-by-state presidential election predictions.

As a junior statistics major, Derek is a numbers guy -- but he's also a long-time sports fan, having played basketball since he was 4 years old and grown up with a father who was a high school basketball coach.

And when he's not running stats, Derek -- a communications minor -- is writing columns about the Dallas Cowboys for the popular sports blog Bleacher Report.

Here, we catch up with Derek about his involvement with the men's basketball team, work with statistics and post-graduation plans.

Which sports are utilizing this new kind of statistics analysis?

Baseball is the most common sport to do this kind of statistics work -- everybody does statistics for baseball now. This is part of a whole line of baseball stats called sabermetrics. But basketball is starting to following in baseball's footsteps -- in that way, where baseball was 10 years ago is where basketball is now. Soon the whole NBA will be doing it. But in terms of big industry, probably only 200 people in the world get to do it for basketball as their job.

I don't know other sports as well as baseball and basketball, but almost every sport you can think of is generally trending in the direction of where baseball is.

So what can these statistics actually help teams do? What is their benefit?

These are essentially stats that explain the stats. You can see if a guy batted a certain number because he's getting lucky or because he's actually doing well technically, and by doing so, expose inefficiencies in the market that you're playing in.

You're a statistics major and applied statistics master's candidate at Penn State, but you also make use of your skills outside the classroom with Penn State Athletics. What is your gig, and how did you get started with it?

I started out as a manager for the team with the former head coach, Ed DeChellis. When Coach Chambers came in as the new head coach, he was open to new ideas and figuring out what he could do to improve the team. I said, "Hey, I could do the numbers for you." Now, every day in practice I still do a lot of regular manager duties, but during the games I get to run a stat system for the team and take a look at those numbers in between games. I can't tell you the specific things I look at for the team, but I can say that NBA teams use stuff like what I'm looking at to evaluate its players.

Is that a lot of pressure, knowing that players' evaluations rest in part on the stat system you run?

I do feel somewhat responsible for the way the players are evaluated. Of course, I'm not the head coach, but I do play some sort of role, and there is some pressure associated with that. In the end, though, I just hope that the numbers that I run are revealing what happens on the court. I trust that our stat system gives the team the best possible chance to win.

From your perspective, how do you think the team is going to do this year?

The men's team will be exciting to watch this year -- I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. The addition of D.J. Newbill gives our team a new dimension. I think our fans are going to be very happy with the final product on the court this season. Penn State basketball will definitely be bringing excitement back to the BJC.

What kinds of other projects have you done involving sports teams and statistics?

Two summers ago, I had an internship with the Lancaster Barnstormers minor league baseball team. The team had really slow games -- slower than league average -- and my job was to use stats to figure out and prove what was causing their games to be so slow.

I found that the slowness of the games was actually due to the pitchers, who were working drastically slow on the mound, by looking at things like how many pitches they threw per minute. The team was worried and thought maybe the promotions in between innings were too long, causing the game to be so slow, but my research showed that the promotions weren't their problem. At the end, my report actually ended up in the hands of the team owner, and I think he was impressed with what I found.

As a baseball fan and someone who is familiar with game outcome predictions, what did you think of the outcome of this year's World Series?

I was pretty shocked by the fact that the Tigers were swept by the Giants. Kudos to the Giants for their second World Series in the last three years, but with the Tigers having the Cy Young and Triple Crown winner on the same team, I don't think anyone saw this coming.

I know you played sports when you were younger, but do you still find time to play here at Penn State?

I am competing member of the Penn State Club Cross Country team, and we get to travel around the eastern half of the country to compete against Division II and Division III schools as well as fellow club teams.

I am also the sports ministry elder for my campus church, the Alliance Christian Fellowship. Our church goal is to be able to use sports to connect with people and help them to hear the gospel of Christ. The theory is that it will be less intimidating if I ask someone to go meet up with me and some guys to play basketball, instead of asking them to go to church with me right away.

Do you think you'd like to pursue work with statistics after college? If so, would you like it to be in a sports context?

I would love to do what I'm doing now for the men's basketball team at the NBA level, but the stars would seriously have to align for that to happen. Those jobs are very competitive. Another cool job is to be one of the stat guys who works with the numbers that scroll at the bottom of the screen on ESPN, but that's a very competitive job, too.

Otherwise, almost all of the other jobs that I could see myself doing would be regular statistician jobs, working with the Census Bureau, CIA or agriculture companies.

How do statistics play a role in your day-to-day life?

I use statistics in everything. As a kid, I kept statistics of our family's mini golf games and tried to predict what the outcomes will be. Companies use statistics to make whatever they're doing more efficient, and I basically just do the same thing.

My dad is actually a statistics teacher in high school, and he and I are pretty decent at fantasy baseball, because we know how to predict what a player's going to do using statistics. We use a lot of numbers to destroy people in fantasy baseball.

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