Sitting Down with Freelance Statistician Adam Pena

Adam Pena is from Houston, Texas, and he is a statistician for CBS, Comcast, ESPN, Fox Sports & NBC Universal. He’s the guy that comes up with those crazy stat lines you see during games like, “This batter hasn’t swung and missed in his last 31 swings” or “Teams on 3rd & short in the rain have a higher conversion rate passing the ball than they do running the ball if they’re the away team and win the game 60% of the time.” Yeah, you can give credit to Adam for all of the cool and unique stats you hear during a game. His main job for a number of years was actually doing accounting work for oil and gas companies in Texas. He had always worked with numbers and loved sports, specifically baseball, so he contacted Rice University and asked for more information about being a Sports Information Director at the University in 1996. This lead to his very first game working in statistics which was Rice vs. New Mexico football that same year. That game was Rice’s first ever Western Athletic Conference game and New Mexico featured a prized true freshman prospect, Brian Urlacher. Pena never looked back after that game and has worked freelance statistics for 21 years.

One thing you might be asking yourself is, how cool would it be to work in a variety of different sports? Fortunately for us, Adam has had many different experiences while working in sport over the years. He’s worked in the NBA, MLB, NFL and NCAA doing stats for live broadcasts of games. “One of the things I want to dabble in is hockey,” Adam said. “It’d be nice to kind of get in to, to do a hockey a game. A colleague of mine and I the other day about what it would be like to work in Dallas as a stats person because there’s more opportunity there with it being a college area and having 4 professional teams. You could keep yourself busy the whole year with all that’s going on in the metroplex. You have TCU, SMU, Dallas Baptist and then the 4 pro teams. You could make a nice side career up there. It’s been a very rewarding side venture for me.” 

Is it difficult to anticipate what the play-by-play announcer wants as stats? Or is it more up to you as to what they put on the air?

Well, every play by play announcer and analyst do their research. And they have a very analytical background. They’ll dig deep based on the game in itself, football baseball basketball etc. They’ll do a football game one week and basketball game the next. Right now I’m working with Dave Ryan who is a Syracuse grad, and he’s a very well-rounded individual. He’ll do football and lacrosse and basketball and he’ll do his homework on every player. He’ll come up with different storylines to go with during the course of the game, what I do is find relevant information that correlate with that. It’s just a matter of getting creative and being well ahead of the curve. Building a rapport with your commentators and making sure you understand what they want to talk about. You have to also take into consideration their egos, but most of them are pretty cool. Establishing that rapport and knowing what they look for during a broadcast are very important.”

As most of us know, the baseball world heavily uses statistics and analytics to gain advantages over others wherever they can. So naturally, baseball is Adam’s personal favorite sport to keep stats of. Why is baseball your favorite sport to keep statistics on? “I just have had an appreciation for the game ever since I’ve been a kid. Once I got involved and did my very first game and started looking at the intricacies of it, it was at first a challenge. Baseball is such a numbers driven game. The first two games I did I was like ‘Wow, there’s a lot of things you have to look for’, you have to keep track of who’s in the bullpen, who’s on deck, defensive changes and things like that. But you learn everything from a data input standpoint, but now with baseball being so analytics driven, we try to find something that will make a player standout. You always take into consideration who’s watching the broadcast. I try to go into every broadcast with the intention of knowing that there is a scout out there that is evaluating a specific player that may want to sign him as a free agent next year. I go in with that particular mindset for each broadcast. I love baseball because there’s so many different angles to look at the game. Like as a fan you’ll just go to the game and have fun, but as a stats guy or someone who works in baseball there’s endless number of angles to look at the game with.” 

What kind of stats software do you use? Is it hard to learn how you keep stats?

“I actually don’t use a specific software, what I do is go to the website with the game tracker, whether it be a college’s website or the MLB or something like that. I really just go off what those things tell me and do things manually from there. If you think about it realistically, you know, basketball is a challenging thing to keep stats on manually because of pace of play. I’ve been doing it for so long, you know, for example you’re doing a Rockets game and Chris Paul is 1-10 shooting, he made his first attempt but missed his next 9, that’s something just random off the top like that that you’d work with your producers on for a graphic. The software stuff is dealt with by the associate producers. As a stats guy, I just keep track of stats using the game tracker.”

As a stats guy, what do you look for when evaluating young prospects?

I like looking at athleticism more than anything else. Typical things like arm strength, bat speed, and mechanics are important too. For pitchers, mainly pitch speed and command of their pitches. As a stats person it’s a habit to look at everything to try be as informative for both announcers as I possibly can.”

Many viewers in sport are not aware of what is happening behind the scenes during professional games, and Adam was gracious enough to allow me a sneak peek into what goes into a sports broadcast from a statisticians viewpoint. I would personally like to thank Adam for his time and the wonderful conversation we had. It definitely opened my eyes to a whole new field I have yet to consider in Sport Management. Below I have posted Adam’s LinkenIn page if anyone would want to learn a little more about Adam and his career and connect with him.
Adam Pena LinkedIn

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