Data Analysis in America’s Favorite Pastime


If you’ve seen Back to the Future you know that after 107 years without a world series win, the Cubs are going to pull it off in 2015. (Never mind that the Marlins and the Cubs are both in the National League and therefore can’t play each other. Real Cubs fans must check out Just One Bad Century by Chicago radio guy and multimedia author Rick Kaempfer.)

Nevertheless – the Cubs are now among the top 7 teams with a chance to win according to one Vegas odds maker. I personally know very little about Vegas odds. My grandma taught me betting was a sin.

When I was a kid I loved little league. With my dad as coach and my brother and best friends on the team we ended our last season undefeated. But an intense case of myopia and a Jr. High coach who played for University of Hawaii put that dream to an end when he smoked every pitch right by me in tryouts.

While in college I got a chance to tag along on my friends coat tails as he did a statistical analysis of the best cities (most profitable for establishing a new franchise) in an MLB expansion. I entered the stats into a 1986 Zenith PC and he produced an analysis that got him a special award in Honors Economics at Northwestern University – his work, not mine.

Although I’m a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, I vividly remember the success of the Oakland Athletics in winning three consecutive World Series from 1972-1974. Skip forward to 1991 when after 3 successive World Series appearances, management at the Athletics decided to slash payroll.  That’s when Sandy Alderson and Billie Beane began to use sabermetrics to build and manage their team – despite being hamstrung by a tight budget.

Many of you have probably seen the movie Money Ball about how the Athletics used data analysis to achieve success with limited financial resources.

As a data geek and a baseball fan I really enjoyed it. As an aside: I chuckled when I found this KPI amongst the sabermetrics statistics:

Team NERD (a measure of “watchability”):

AGEz x 2 + BATz + HR/FBz + (SBAz + SBRz + XBTz) x .33 + BLz + UZRz + PAYz + LUCK

There are lots of companies out there who run their businesses (with tight budgets) – maybe with decent financial reporting – but otherwise in operations, customer service, etc. on tribal knowledge and gut feel – to their peril. Smart business owners know that having a firm handle on all the metrics affecting their business will lead to peak performance.

A quote from Billie Beane:

It’s all about evaluating skills and putting a price on them. Thirty years ago, stockbrokers used to buy stock strictly by feel. Let’s put it this way: Anyone in the game with a 401(k) has a choice. They can choose a fund manager who manages their retirement by gut instinct, or one who chooses by research and analysis. I know which way I’d choose.”

UPDATE: At the same time this post was published NPR was running an interview on how the Sonoma Stompers are doing with their sabermetrics  program.   Nice to be in good company! Take a listen…

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