The Data Dilemma


It’s easier than every to measure anything we want, and it’s easier than ever to analyze that data, which means no field of human endeavor is safe from the effects of big data. -Derrick Harris, GigOM

If you’re like me you think this is absolutely the best time to be alive. Our current state of technological progress appears to be at an all time high. We’ve been able to create systems for measuring the radiation after a nuclear accident with open source personal Geiger counters. We’re also able to strap a simple set of sensors to a child’s head in order to better track and understand head injuries in contact sports. These examples 1 are just two of the many that show how data is being intertwined with how we live our lives. This is no more apparent than on the field of professional sports.

With big money at stake it’s no surprise that professional leagues and individual teams are fully embracing the big data craze. Anything and everything “for the win” has been true for centuries. Now, it’s come to include full-time statisticians, data analysts, and, in rare cases (for now), a supercomputer.

The opening quote atop this piece comes from a recent GigOM article based on on a piece published by the Economist 2 that describes a recent purchase of a Cray YarcData Urika Data Graph Appliance by an unnamed Major League Baseball team. From the product brief:

The Urika graph analytics appliance from YarcData is purpose-built to meet these challenging requirements, transforming massive amounts of seemingly unrelated data into relevant insights. […] Urika can discover hidden relationships and unknown patterns in Big Data, do it with an unmatched level of speed and simplicity, and facilitate the kinds of breakthroughs that can give your enterprise a measurable competitive advantage

Why would a baseball team want to have this machine somewhere in the recesses of their stadium? To do real-time in-game analysis of the players and the game. I have no doubt that the unnamed buyer is one of the three teams who have partnered with MLB Advanced Media to install a system of high speed cameras to track, “the speed and efficiency of fielders, based on highly accurate readings on hit balls—batted ball speed, launch angle, distance, hang time—and then how fast and how well the defenders react, capturing 30 frames per second on players and 2000 fps on the ball.” 3 Imagine if you will, a manager being able to interact with live information about the opposing hitter and his history with the current pitcher. What pitches does he typically hit? Miss? Where is he likely to hit a slider with one man on? How far should the left fielder shade towards center? Five feet? Six inches?

This is the near future of baseball, and more broadly all of professional sports. And to paraphrase Robert Frost, “that is making all the difference.” A difference that not everyone is comfortable with.

What was more difficult for me to grasp was the way that the business of entertainment had really shifted the game and the sport of football in the NFL. The culture of football now is very different from the one I grew up with. When I came up, teammates fought together for wins and got respect for the fight. The player who gave the ball to the referee after a touchdown was commended; the one who played through injury was tough; the role of the blocking tight end was acknowledged; running backs who picked up blitzing linebackers showed heart; and the story of the game was told through the tape, and not the stats alone. That was my model of football. -Rashard Mendehall, Huffington Post

I’ve seen Moneyball a few times and I’ve always enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a only movie based on true events and real people, but I think it’s a good example here for the dilemma that’s arose due to the creeping in of data in sports. There are a few pivotal scenes where Billy Beane, played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, is trying to make his case to scouts and the Atheltics’ manager. They were having none of it. In their minds, data couldn’t match their experience and intuition, their “gut.” These fictional conversations are still ongoing out in the world today.

Simply put, there is a perception that we’re losing the humanity by relinquishing control to the overlord of “big data.” Take Rashard Mendenhall who I quote above. He’s in the prime of his career at only 26 years old and playing for a good team. 4 On March 9, 2014 he announced his retirement by writing a long piece for the Huffington Post. again, I’m probably cherry picking here, but it’s hard to mistake his words as a representation of the general feeling among many athletes and their fans. To them, stats and data are not sports, they’re cold hard numbers. These types feel that a reliance on data takes away from the joy and the magic of the game. That is reduces spontaneity, and the beauty of the unknown.

I think they’re wrong.

This past weekend I was lucky to be a guest at a movie premiere. 5 The movie, Personal Gold, is a documentary about the 2012 women’s track cycling pursuit team that competed at the London Olympics. It was an incredible look at how hard four women pushed themselves to reach beyond their abilities and find that little bit more something, that extra effort, extra inch, that makes all the difference. However, the movie wasn’t your typical Olympic heartwarming tale. A thread that ran through the entire picture was the story of how personal data and intensive physiological tracking helped the riders overcome a limited training staff and budget. Data on their sleep, sunlight exposure, genetic makeup, and their cycling power output was tracked, analyzed, and then used to tweak and fine tune every aspect of their training leading up to the Olympic games. Of course you can look up the results to see what happened, or you can just believe me when I tell you that they pulled off something special.

Data played a major part in their story and how they were able to overcome major adversity. However, data didn’t get on the bike and pedal it at over 30MPH for 3 minutes and 17 seconds. It didn’t know, as Sara Hammer recalled during the Q&A after the screening, “[..] that I had more in me than I realized. That’s what being on a true team is like, having people like Dotsie who know you better than you know yourself.”

Humans are funny creatures. We have this massive amazing brain that can invent things like calculus and the Curiosity Rover. But for some reason we take our inventions, like numbers, and label them as inhuman. Cold. Mechanical. But they’re just a part of us as anything else we’ve birthed into existence with our minds.

Yes, data is coming into all aspects of sports. Soon we’ll be able to watch a football game and see live prediction calculations on who should win. We’ll read more articles that are more data visualization than play-by-play reporting. 6 ESPN has even invested in stats and analysis wundkind, Nate Silver. 7 And baseball will lead the way, as it always has, into a brave new world of analytics. Does this mean that we’ll enjoy it less? See fewer amazing feats of strength and skill? Will be cease to be witness to the beautiful and the inspiring from stadiums, fields, and arenas around the world? No. I think not.

In the end we’re still human. We’re prone to mistakes 8 and lapses in judgement. We’re not perfect machines no matter how many supercomputers we have hidden in our closets. No matter how many high speed cameras are watching a player there is always that chance that they might jump that extra inch a snag that would be home run that had a 100% chance of leaving the field. We haven’t yet lost our humanity, our ability to improvise and reach new unknowns, and do what sports does best, inspire awe.

That is, until the robots enter the draft.

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style, and Medium if you like that platform. Free free to connect with me on twitter or email.

  1. Cherry-picked, but hey it’s my article and I can do what I want.
  2. Welcome to blogging in 2014, but I guess in the end I’m no different.
  3. Even with all the negatives associated with Deadspin and the Gawker Empire I’m really enjoying their Regressing feature section.
  4. Full disclosure: I grew up in Arizona and consider myself a Cardinals fan. Regardless, they are a good team.
  5. I am so LA.
  6. The New York Times is already all over this.
  7. Five Thiry Eight launches March 17th. Can you tell I’m excited?
  8. And isn’t random error what makes statistics fun anyway?