Sport Analytics: Who is Really All-In?

Baseball Cray Blog

Who is the ‘Mystery’ MLB Team that has a Cray Supercomputer?

It is a great story, but after two decades in the U.S. Special Operations Command and another 10 years building and operating capabilities for the government as a defense contractor, I fully understand the power of a secret. My colleague, Nick Davis, recently expressed his frustrations at not being able to tell the world more about our involvement in Major League Baseball (MLB). I could not agree more, because working with our mystery team, bringing the advanced analytics capabilities of our Urika-GD™ graph discovery appliance to baseball, has been one of my most prized experiences.

And now to have the writers at ESPN The Magazine mistakenly associate us with the Houston Astros — the top-ranked analytics MLB team in the article and No. 2 out of 122 professional sports teams — was a great honor. The Houston Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and the analytics team led by Sig Mejdal have taken Sabermetrics to the extreme. They are a disruptive force in professional sports, and we at Cray love it!

In the “The Great Analytics Rankings,” the writers at ESPN The Magazine classified 122 professional sports teams as either all-in, believers, one-foot-in, skeptics or nonbelievers. What else was in the article? Lots of interesting tidbits for not only baseball fans, but for fans of the NFL, NHL and NBA as well; it’s content that will serve readers well in weekend rhetorical battles as to how decisions could be made, why the hometown team is losing (or maybe winning) and what is the missing piece for that championship.

Many of the measures that sports analytics track are based on a team’s philosophy around what it takes to build a winning — maybe even a championship — team, and the balance of risk and resources. In the context of baseball, there is a wide range of factors that can have an impact on a franchise’s success — both on the field and off. What about the “cost” of a win?, the “cost” of injuries, and the impact on current and future performance? What about the longevity of a player balanced against productivity in terms of market draw as well as on- field performance? What about those transcendent personas who become league assets as much as an asset to their franchise? What makes this situation better?

The MLB season alone encompasses 2,430 games. With each team receiving a new seven terabyte Statcast data feed per game, in addition to all the other data they receive such as SportVision’s Pitch, Hit and Field/FX, the need for high performance computing is clear. Teams don’t have the luxury of taking months to ingest, compute and analyze this data feed. They need results daily.

If the goal of a franchise is success — both on the field and off — does it really make a difference to be all-in versus being a nonbeliever when it comes to analytics? I think it does.

Clearly the Astros are beyond “all-in” and maybe in a new category of “true believers.” The overall top 10 was heavy with MLB teams, then the NBA, and then the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL. Who is really a believer? For me an ‟organization” — any organization — believes when its decisions reflect divergence from the mainstream; when those decisions carry an associated higher level of risk and a higher level of potential success. The ‟all-in” team is one that wants to win today and is constantly looking for an advantage. And there are likely more than just 122 organizations in the world looking at analytics. Once you consider the global reach of basketball, professional soccer, auto racing, professional golf, cricket, rugby and others sports, the application of advanced analytics is, pardon the pun, game changing.

A large part of my job at Cray is to find organizations that are all-in or want to be all-in and are not sure where to start. Our team brings an analytics capability that lets an organization start from anywhere. The terms “search,” “explore,” “hypothesize” and “discover” are associated with data solutions — rightly so. But even more important, we help pro and collegiate teams find the very hard questions — the big questions — that no one has asked yet. For organizations that are or want to be all-in, Cray has a unique position: We build supercomputers to handle the world’s toughest problems.

Last week at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, I had the privilege of serving as a judge for the Diamond Dollars Case Competition run by Vince Gennaro, president of SABR and the director of the Master of Science in Sports Management program at Columbia University. The competition was between groups of graduate and undergraduate students from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Most of the competing students were using this event as an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities with the hopes of obtaining a position in MLB. Of course, compared with what they may earn in a more traditional business, the pay will be less, the hours longer and the organization may or may not be ‟believers.” In spite of this, these students were definitely all-in.

We at Cray are privileged to be part of solving the world’s most difficult problems in areas like weather, medicine, energy, security and now sports. We have learned a great deal from our sports analytics projects, and are eager to share our knowledge.

Cray is all-in. Are you?

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