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Hacking Baseball

Sport still boring but making money via analytics is cool

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Baseball is perhaps the most boring thing in the world to watch. The leisurely rate of play, the lack of constant action, and the pauses players take for impromptu meetings, spitting, and crotch-grabbing are torture for my ADD-riddled brain.

Reading about baseball is every bit as bad, and reading about baseball-stats geeks who painstakingly ‘score’ every move on the field makes me want to beat myself with a bat. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of money, and innovative ways to make more of it.

I found a very interesting article in my ever-growing pile of Businessweek magazines about how automation and deep analytics are playing an increasingly large role in the game.

The Baseball: Running the New Numbers story outlines, in highly readable form, how Major League Baseball, individual teams, and savvy techies are building out systems that log pretty much everything that happens on a baseball field.

Hacker baseball cap

I am a baseball hacker

The goal is to rate players on what they bring to the table. A guy who can move quickly in the right direction and make a difficult play is much more valuable than a slackjaw who happens to be standing in the right place at the right time. Traditional stats don’t pick up the difference between those guys, but the new systems will.

Firms and teams use humans to review each and every play and capture more of this differential data, but it’s much more subjective, and there are limits to how much detail they provide.

Feats of clay?

This is where new technology enters the picture. Get enough cameras looking at the field and you can log the speed and angle of every hit ball, and the position of the fielder in relation to it. That way you can judge whether a fielder is a gifted athlete or just lucky.

A typical game will generate around 2.5 million results or records, totaling 2TB – which seems a bit large until you factor in all the standing around, spitting, scratching, etc. The amount of data that teams will be interested in is probably closer to 750GB or so per game.

Businessweek also raises some interesting points about the use of this data. Right now, a lot of it is provided freely to teams and the general public. The league is mostly in favor of this, because it gets fans more involved with the sport.

But some teams aren’t so wild about this openness - they see this data as the raw material they use to build their competitive advantage. Still others figure that the data will get out there anyway, so why not make it available to all?

There are many more details that I’m glossing over – it’s baseball, for God’s sake, so I can’t be expected to pore over every word – so it’s definitely worth your time to read the article if you’re interested in how these systems work. ®

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