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.