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Understanding the role of analytics in modern baseball

As the Houston Astros complete another 100-win season, their GM explains how analytics is dramatically changing America’s pastime.
Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of tradition and one that is notoriously resistant to change. Yet in the past 15 years, advanced analytics have assumed a central role in every front office. As the Houston Astros complete another 100-win season, the team’s General Manager, Jeff Luhnow – a former McKinsey consultant and the man behind the 2017 World Series Champions – explains how analytics is dramatically changing America’s pastime.

Baseball, of course, is a business – and the business is to win. Applying advanced analytics is the latest, and perhaps most significant, step in pursuit of that goal. This is part two of our conversation with Jeff on advanced analytics’ growing role to help the Astros grasp the modern game.

Question: What was the state of play in 2003 when you entered baseball with respect to data analytics vs. traditional scouting?

Luhnow: Our sport has been the same, quite frankly, for a century. What’s really changed dramatically is information and how it is used to make decisions. Over time, teams like the Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals, and recently the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros recognized the value in information and have used it and analytics as one of their competitive weapons and have been successful.

Q: How would you contrast the information in 2003 with what’s available now?

Luhnow: Back then, it was looking at historical performance to predict future performance—very much like looking at the performance of stocks and the economy and trying to figure out what the future might look like. Baseball information was very rudimentary, like walks and singles and strikes and balls. But a lot of predictive value was inside, and you could build models to help predict what a certain player would do next year and the year after. Those projections became much more accurate, but they still have many other variables you can’t control for.

Today, we have so much technology and advanced sciences 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. It’s overwhelming.

Q: What other changes jump out at you over the past 10-15 years?

Luhnow: Today, every general manager has some background or interest in analytics, and in the front office, there are probably between 12 and 15 full-time people with advanced degrees, whether in computer science, physics, mathematics or some other discipline, along with data departments.

Q: Last year was pretty magical. Can you recall moments when you said, “Wow, analytics did that?”

Luhnow: So many elements of our strategy from 2011 to 2016 manifested themselves in 2017. We picked Carlos Correa first overall which surprised some folks. He ended up being Rookie of the Year and a big part of our championship season. I mandated that Dallas Keuchel make the team by 2014, and he ended up having a breakout year and winning the Cy Young award for being the best pitcher the year after.

In terms of our style of play, we continue to be the team that is most on the outer bounds of shifting. That, combined with the fact that we look for ground-ball pitchers, gave us extra runs saved that we hadn’t had in years before.

The best example of how we used analytics is the final play of the 2017 World Series. We’ve got a catcher who can turn a ball into a strike by how he presents the pitch to an umpire. We’ve got a pitcher we had used analytics to identify. We were in the shift with an infielder in right field. (Dodgers player Corey) Seager, the game’s last batter, hits the hard ground ball to Jose Altuve in right field who throws it to (third baseman) Yuli Gurriel, whom we found in our international scouting out of Cuba. There was a lot in that final play. That last play of the World Series, which led to our first championship ever, encapsulates all of that.

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