c-suite blog: What Baseball Has Taught Us About the Value of Data

If you were watching major league baseball in the summer of 2006 there is a chance you would have seen something that you had never seen before, the shortstop playing on the right side of the diamond, aligned somewhere between second and first base, in shallow right field. And even more confounding, the third baseman would be positioned where the shortstop usually is, leaving a HUGE gap down the third baseline. The configuration defied the normal defensive alignments that fans had grown up with. You know, the fairly evenly spaced infield and outfield, with players adjusted deep or shallow, right or left, depending on the hitter. But what was this?

By that time, analytics had gained a foothold in baseball. Enough data had been collected on virtually every occurrence in baseball, that anything you could think of could be analyzed from a statistical standpoint. In the case of the shift above, it was no doubt against a left-handed batter with a high-density spray pattern to the right side of the diamond and a tendency to hit ground balls. This particular shift situation has been documented to lower the batter's batting average by 46 points.

With so much data to analyze, it was really up to the teams to be creative in how they used data to gain advantages. Long recognized skills, like pitch framing, could now be quantified and actual games won and lost values could be placed against them. This catching skill could be valued using real numbers. Batters could now be valued with much more useful metrics like OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) versus the traditional and not so insightful batting average, home runs and RBI. Pitchers could be valued based on FIP (which isolates a pitcher's performance regardless of the defense behind him and how many runs his team scores) versus wins and losses. And all players could now be valued based on the all-encompassing WAR statistic.

Analytics has even changed how players are taught the skills of playing baseball. The tracking of launch angles has now produced a generation of players who purposely slightly upswing on pitches, which successfully translates to more extra-base hits and home runs. Pitchers work on increasing their spin rates, which increases the movement on their pitches (making them more difficult to hit).

Teams who recognized the value of being able to analyze data early on developed a clear advantage over teams that were slower to let go of traditional ways. Some, like the Boston Red Sox, and famously the Oakland A's, began to hire Ivy League grads with statistical backgrounds, but not necessarily baseball backgrounds. But now, after almost two decades of being in use, all major league teams have an analytics presence in their organizations and the competitive advantage of analytics has flattened out.

But what can we, as business leaders, learn from the example of baseball? The VALUE of data. If you have the right data and the right people to analyze it, there are countless benefits to be found. Your only real limitation is the amount of creativity you can apply in how you look at and analyze data. If you are doing it right, you won't only find competitive advantages in the market place, but also within your organization. For example, what data do you have on your value chain? Can you evaluate it in every way possible?

Another aspect to the value of data that a business leader will need to think about is its accessibility. Are you, your decision-makers and analysts able to look at whatever data you need, in whatever form you need? And, is there data you might need from sources outside of your company, to enhance your decision-making analysis? All things to consider as you begin to look at your data as the invaluable asset that it is.

I long felt the growth of analytics in baseball is one of the most relatable examples of the value of data and data analysis. I hope you enjoyed this inspiring example of the value of data. Please feel free to email me with questions or set up an introductory session, if you would like to discuss the value of data, in the context of your company.

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