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Data Takes a Front Row Seat for the World Series

Chad Cosper, VP, Corporate Development at Amplifi

Tonight, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers will take the field under the lights of Fenway Park for Game One of the 114th edition of Major League Baseball’s World Series. And, along with the many fans, food and beer vendors, players and coaches who will crowd into that historic stadium will be one integral addition to the modern game that no player or fan involved in the only other meeting between these two teams (1916) could have foreseen: data.

Ever since the 2003 publication of Michael Lewis’s now-classic Moneyball, in which he describes how a little known general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beene, was quietly using data to transform the game, the collection and use of data, both Big and Small, has grown as quickly as it has in just about every industry. And, the digital transformation that has taken place in the sport both mirrors and can offer a lesson for enterprises in every industry that are undertaking efforts to harness the power of their data, as we like to say at Amplifi.

Many fans, and, indeed front offices, players and coaches, saw the data revolution that Beene began to be little more than a curiosity and interesting side story.  After all, Beene’s use of, mostly historical data, to predict future results never culminated in a World Series title for the team, even though they were able to transform from a perennial underdog to playoff contender. It wasn’t until much more recently that data has come to be recognized as the powerful weapon that it has become for teams like 2016’s Champion Chicago Cubs and 2017’s Champion Houston Astros.

In a recent 2-part interview with McKinsey & Company, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow shared his thoughts about the part data analytics played in his team’s championship season. He talked about the increasing use of data since 2003 and summed up today’s game even vs 2003 by saying ” We now have so much technology around the ballpark and information about the trajectory of the ball, the physics of the bat swing, the physics and the biomechanics of the pitcher’s delivery—so many components now that advanced sciences have worked into our game. It’s, quite frankly, overwhelming in terms of the amount of information that we have access to and intimidating to figure out how to analyze all that information, work through it, and come up with the takeaways that will allow you to continue to do what we tried to do back in 2003, which is to make better predictions about what players are going to do in the future on the field.”

Luhnow discussed the fact that it is is still a human game, just as B2B and B2C commerce still comes down to human interactions, but acknowledged the fact that the data he had at his fingertips during the Astros’ Championship run helped him make decisions at a moment’s notice that influenced outcomes.

One thing that is not really discussed is how accurate the data is.  Maybe the Toronto Blue Jays, who I am not picking on (in fact, I am a big fan…through my extended Canadian family) also started a data analytics program but it didn’t turn out as well as the Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Cubs (my team. Have been to Opening Day at Wrigley 18 times and seen maybe a hundred games at Wrigley in addition).  Why not? The questions are these:

  • Were they collecting the right data to make actionable decisions?
  • Is that data accurate and is it being used by all decision makers?
  • Is the data needed to make those decisions complete and accessible by all decision makers?

My experience with data management professionals in charge of digital transformation at some of the biggest brands in the world tells me that these questions aren’t specific to baseball.

So, enjoy the World Series.  It should prove to be a great encounter.  But remember that every decision they make is similar to every decision you make when you decide to go with a new supplier or offer a new product.  You are relying on data, just like they are.  And, may the best data win.