Monday, November 28, 2016

Big Data in Baseball

The Chicago Cubs won the 2016 MLB World Series and had the best team ERA average during the regular season. A portion of their pitching success can be attributed to the Cubs’ unparalleled use of big data analysis. The Cubs work with a motion capture technology company called KinaTrax to help them analyze numerous pitchers’ movements and angles throughout the process of every pitch. 
Big data has slowly been making its way into the sports world for a while, and for a sport regarded by some as stuck in the past, baseball has been among the quickest to embrace it. This was portrayed most famously in the 2011 film “Moneyball”, which followed the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane as he formed a team with decisions made largely on the basis of data analysis. Beane and Oakland were extremely successful in the regular season following this method, but the knock on them was that the lack of big-money players did them in in the postseason.
There are many differences and similarities between the 2016 Cubs and the 2002 Athletics. First of all, the Cubs did not need to play “Moneyball”.  Their team salary was a middle of the road $116,654,522, the 14th highest mark in the league, compared to Beane’s Athletics, who had the league’s lowest total salary in 2002. Beane was forced into efficiency, while the Cubs chose it. The Cubs’ money combined with their attention to data analytics is what made them more successful than the A’s in both the regular season and postseason.
Another difference between the two teams could be found in the types of data they were looking at. Much of what the A’s were looking for were predictive statistics. What the Cubs are doing, however, is looking at specific moments in a pitcher’s delivery in order to predict how effective, efficient, durable, etc. a pitcher can be throughout an inning, game, season and career. This attention to detail allows the organization to understand what allows a player to put up good numbers in the relevant statistics the 2002 Athletics examined. Those Athletics were simply capturing the numbers, while the modern day Cubs are analyzing pictures and videos to understand the story behind these numbers.

The 2002 Athletics started a big data movement throughout baseball, and no team has adopted the notion more heavily than these Cubs. It is no wonder they were the best team in baseball in 2016. Big data for the win.



  1. Another sport that uses a similar technology is American Football. The NFL uses a variety of technology to help improve their players but one I will focus on is called the “High and Tight”. The High and Tight is a motion-activated football that will vibrate when a player is mishandling the ball. This technology is especially useful for wide-receivers and running-backs to help protect against fumbles. When holding a football you are supposed to push it against the center of your chest with your forearm. When the ball is in an inopportune position the High and Tight will vibrate to let the player know they need to adjust their handle. These technologies are important for players to improve but there is so much more to recruiting and team chemistry. Sports are just as mental as they are athletics and stats and I think by solely using data analysis, a team leaves themselves vulnerable.

    Data has played an important role in sports and Sabremetrics has been widely adopted since the success of the athletics in 2002. I think the technology is not the end all be all of baseball recruiting though. Although they will be able to find players with the skills they are searching for, there are many intangibles that cannot be assessed with data. In game 7 of the world series the Cubs blew the lead late in the Game and the Cleveland Indians had all the momentum. During a short break due to rain the Cubs gathered up in the clubhouse and Jason Heyward gave a speech that got his team mentally back in it and helped them close it out and win. In 2004 Kevin Millar, the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox came up with the term “Cowboy Up” and it stuck. The team and the fans rallied around this and helped push the Red Sox to their first win in 86 years. Data and Sabremetrics may help a team improve its processes but intangibles can often be the push that gets a team from good to the best.

  2. I am not a big sports fan, but I can appreciate how big data can be used in sports to better a team and analyze the players. The fact that the Chicago Cubs use big data and had the best team ERA during the regular season is a nod to the fact that big data does actually work to measure and predict which pitcher will have the best outcome. Also, I believe that baseball is the sport that could benefit the most from big data analytics due to its statistic driven nature. Baseball deals with a lot of averages and statistics, so big data can help the coaches and players develop the player’s game and improve their statistics as well as deciding which players are the best to put on the field. Overall, the benefits are worth the time spent gathering and analyzing the data and so I do not see why other teams have not also adapted this method to their teams. These days, it does not seem to be enough to just have “great” players. Coaches need to be able to better their players, track their progress, as well as determine which players’ statistics have earned them the right to play.
    Ryan also makes an excellent comparison to the Chicago Cubs by mentioning the movie Moneyball as another example of a team that used big data and had great success. I have seen Moneyball and found the concept interesting especially because it was based off of a true story of how the A’s had to get creative and use a different method then any other team, largely due to their lack of team funds, to recruit players and how it paid off for them. They turned their weakness into a strength and if it had not been for their lack of funds, they would never have tried this data based method. This method is what made them successful in the regular season, defying the odds against them. Even though the Cubs did not have to integrate big data into their decisions or training, they did and it paid off for them considering they won the World Series. They were able to take it one step further than the Oakland A’s and therefore had better success. There is no surprise that a team that used big data was the team that won the World Series.

  3. Great article Ryan! Data analytics has definitely been of incredible value to the sports entertainment industry and sports in general. I really enjoyed the "Moneyball" example as it certainly applies to the creative ways to analyze data. The MLB, NBA, and NFL can use this data to most accurately evaluate their players as well as potential players. Furthermore, after they can use this data to aid them in trades, pick-ups, and drafts they can use it to spot out players strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing a players weakness can allow teams to most efficiently and accurately fix it. The range of possibility that data analytics has to offer is incredible it can help a pitcher/quarterback/point guard alter their form and thought process, it can allow a running back/wide receiver to alter their routes as efficiently as possible, ect.
    Another thought is that potential players or college students looking to get recruited could use this to their advantage when it come to seeking out their strengths and weaknesses. Having this information can aid athletes in their training process as well as the most efficient path to reaching a goal. It can help aid athletes in a similar way to fitbit bands that inform you on calories burned and steps taking. This data analytics can take it beyond that allowing athletes to digitally record their speed, vertical jump height, heart-rate, oxygen levels, hydration, ect. There are endless possibilities with data analytics where it allows people to record activity and make more accurate and efficient decisions based upon that information.

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  4. Last month when the World Series was on, there was a lot of speculation on whether the Chicago Cubs would finally be able to break the so called “curse” and finally win the World Series after 108 years. Surprisingly, the Cubs were able to win the World Series this year, and author Mark Burns attributed that win to big data analytics. I found Ryan’s article about how big data affects sports and baseball in particular. I would never expect big data to be present in sports, but as we have learned throughout the semester we have seen that big data is everywhere. The article, Chicago Cubs Leverage Big Data, Motion Capture Technology In 2016 Run, talks about how the Cubs have been leveraging the power of data analytics and new technology to ensure a World Series win.
    It was interesting to read that the Cubs used a program called KinaTrax which captures the motion of each player and helped the team discover innovative ways to change their usual pitches. The program works very closely with IT departments to ensure that the data is being processed and interpreted correctly, and then passes on this information to the team. The article states that the primary uses for KinaTrax in baseball are evaluating the mechanics over time, the performance enhancement and injury prevention component. This helps prevent injury and collects many data sets that are unprecedented.
    Although, I have heard of sports teams using technology to improve their game, I have never heard of technology that improves a players performance using data. I think it definitely makes sense that teams like the Cubs are using data to prevent players from making mistakes and prevent injuries. Historically it makes sense that players will perform similar to how they have performed in the past; using data analytics will definitely help eliminate these mistakes. I did not know that big data has been present in the sports world for a while already, however, Ryan pointed out that this was portrayed in the movie MoneyBall a few years ago. I definitely think that if teams continue to use data analytics in the future eventually even sports will becoming something that it controlled by technology rather than just human talent.


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