In Sports, Big Data Is A Big Pain

14 March 2018 | Keep­ing Up with the Trends

Base­ball fans around the world will soon be watch­ing and lis­ten­ing for the first crack­ing sound of a bat try­ing to inter­cept a base­ball hurled at speeds exceed­ing 100 miles per hour [link]. The US base­ball sea­son begins anew on 29 March 2018 [link].

I’ve loved base­ball all my life and not just as a spec­ta­tor. I played the game every chance I could. It’s a com­pelling sport. I am thrilled to see the sport grown beyond the bor­ders of the US. Cuba, Dom­i­can Repub­lic, Puer­to Rico, Japan, and Venezuela — all have a keen inter­est in the sport [link]. [See also this relat­ed link.]

Yet, base­ball (like all major sports) is chang­ing, and I’m not sure for the bet­ter. Last August, IBM pub­lished a report that explained the increas­ing role of data analy­sis in the play­ing of the game. As Paul Bard explains very well via “In base­ball and in busi­ness, smart CFOs stay ahead with ana­lyt­ics” [link]:

Even the most casu­al fan is aware of the impor­tance of ana­lyt­ics in base­ball. Michael Lewis’s book Mon­ey­ball [link] and the Brad Pitt movie of the same name [link] dra­ma­tized the val­ue of in-depth analy­sis in putting a win­ning team on the field. But ana­lyt­ics also has an impor­tant role in the busi­ness side of major league sports — includ­ing in the offices of the teams’ CFOs.

Bard cites arti­cles from oth­er pub­li­ca­tions that talk about how big data can help a base­ball team in its finan­cial mat­ters (natch!), but data can also help a team (say some) achieve its strate­gic vision.

To get an even stronger feel on how big data can affect the actu­al play­ing of base­ball, take a look at David Waldstein’s recent New York Times arti­cle, “The Ana­lyt­ics Guy Failed to Com­pute One Thing: How to Be Accept­ed in Mex­i­co” [link]. Wald­stein does a ter­rif­ic job of show­ing how base­ball can be played either by the gut, from long expe­ri­ence, or by the num­bers, from data trends accu­mu­lat­ed over many months. The arti­cle reveals that base­ball play­ing deci­sions in the US today are more dri­ven by data than they are in Mex­i­co. Yet the tug of war sure­ly exists every­where (and I’m bet­ting in every major sport) as “sim­ple” deci­sions about what pitch­er would be best to con­front which bat­ter are now ana­lyzed using data, then decid­ed upon.

As some­one who was raised to appre­ci­ate the psy­chol­o­gy of the game of base­ball, any automa­tion of the game hurts. To my mind, big data and ana­lyt­ics mat­ter, yet often a base­ball player’s per­for­mance is affect­ed more by human inputs such as emo­tion. Noth­ing can boost a hitter’s bat­ting aver­age than a home cooked meal or a vis­it from fam­i­ly or friends. Check out the emo­tion­al dra­ma cap­tured by Clint East­wood and team in the 2012 movie, Trou­ble With The Curve [link]. [See also this relat­ed link.]

I report this to you to show that every­one — includ­ing this deeply com­mit­ted nextsen­sor — is affect­ed by the tech­nol­o­gy trends and trau­ma that are insin­u­at­ing them­selves into just about every aspect of our lives. Tech­nol­o­gy is destroy­ing some jobs and cre­at­ing oth­ers, and base­ball purists like me seem to instinc­tive­ly fight the onslaught of big data and its impact on the game.

The mes­sage, how­ev­er, is clear. We will all need to accom­mo­date tech­nol­o­gy going for­ward, or many of us will be left behind.

Joseph PistruiJoseph Pistrui (@nextsensing) is Pro­fes­sor of Entre­pre­neur­ial Man­age­ment at IE Busi­ness School in Madrid. He also leads the glob­al Nextsens­ing Project, which he found­ed in 2012.

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