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Tim Green

Big Data Hits the Big Leagues

by Tim Green | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

June 18, 2015 | No Comments »

Astros-Logo_FlickrCC_MandoGomez_1100pxBig Data is big. Companies from IBM to Cisco Systems, and from SAP to our own Dun & Bradstreet are spending millions of dollars to develop ways to collect and analyze data.

Big Data is big in the big leagues too. A recent hacking incident involving the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros highlights just how big data analytics has become in baseball.

The FBI and the US Department of Justice are investigating whether the Cardinals hacked into the Astros database, which has been called the most comprehensive collection of performance data and other information about players from high school prospects to established all-stars.

Authorities have uncovered an electronic trail from St. Louis through an area of the Internet used by people trying to keep their identity private to the Astros computer system. Internal Astros documents had been posted anonymously last year and led to the current investigation.

What’s the big deal about baseball statistics? Just as companies sift through data to find patterns about customer sentiment, sales, and worker productivity, baseball teams do the same thing.

With their analysis of data, Astros team leaders can view graphic representations such as heat maps of where balls land, where in the strike zone batters are more likely to hit or miss a pitch, and where most effectively to positions players in the field.

Putting technology to work for them is paying off for the Astros. The Astros lead the American League West Division this season with a 39-28 record after losing more than 100 games (in a 162-game season) in four of the past five years.

The Astros have taken the data analytics approach to a more sophisticated level than most other teams. The team’s use of analytics was called “Extreme Moneyball” in an article in BloombergBusiness. That’s in reference to the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” by Michael Lewis, which detailed how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, used statistical analysis to build a pennant-winning team.

The architect of the Astros’ approach has been Jeff Luhnow, the general manager, who had used much the same approach when he was in player-personnel roles with the Cardinals. Luhnow had set up a database in St. Louis called Redbird. The database he developed in Houston is called Ground Control.

The Astros employ a technology team to analyze and present the data. They use Microsoft SQL Server database software and off-the-shelf presentation software running on Hewlett-Packard DL380 servers, according to an article in BizTech.

The team even uses the analytics approach to bring more people to the ballpark. By evaluating a stream of information, the team found that casual fans were not aware of postgame fireworks on Friday nights. The team adjusted its promotions to reach those fans, and attendance improved, according to BizTech.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have turned to data analytics on the business side more than the baseball side of their business, according to BizTech. The team has increased ticket sales through analysis of its different categories of customers. The Cleveland Indians also have employed analytics to better understand its fans and what they want at the ballpark.

If they aren’t already, sales and marketing teams from companies that develop data analytics software and hardware should be going out to the old ballgame. Along with peanuts and Cracker Jacks, they might come back with a big contract.

Tim Green has covered business, technology and science at newspapers and in higher education. At Hoover’s he covers computers and telecommunications.

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Photo by Flickr user Mando Gomez, used under a Creative Commons license.

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