By: Billy Beane
Baseball—my passion and profession for three decades—has been at the forefront of the analytics revolution sweeping through sports. And the game is just beginning.
The proverbial tip of the iceberg: Statcast, a 3-D tracking system that provides detailed metrics on the locations and movements of the ball, the players, and even the umpires. While the system is currently installed in only a handful of ballparks, Major League Baseball plans for all 30 stadiums to have it by 2015. Eventually, such systems will proliferate not just through the ranks of all professional sports but to youth sports, affecting everything from how games are taught to the statistical nomenclature of sport.
These technologies, combined with new media devices that will deliver that information, will give fans a new level of feedback about the action on the field and create unprecedented access to players and the game.
I also see change that goes far beyond the fan experience and new methods of performance analysis. Technology will transform the social fabric of sport.
Baseball, for instance, has always been a game of insiders, played by those who could hit, run, field and throw a certain way, and managed by those who played well enough to eventually earn the keys to the front office. The old ideas of who should play in the big leagues, and who should decide who should play, will be replaced with new ideas.
Leveling the FieldHaving advanced performance data at even the most junior levels will make it less likely that players get filtered out based on 60-yard-dash times or radar-gun readings, and more likely that they advance on the merits of practiced skills. The ability to "paint the corners" of the strike zone, to swing only at pitches within that zone, and to manage the subtle footwork required of a difficult fielding play is accessible to any player willing to commit to the "10,000 Hour Rule" (the average amount of practice Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers," says is needed to excel in selected fields). A whole new class of players whose skill sets previously were not fully appreciated will be able to reach the highest levels thanks to a more nuanced understanding of their abilities.
The current modus operandi of building rosters to maximize the sum of individual talent also will be challenged; data compiled using new technologies will enable management to assemble players in new ways, emphasizing their ability to complement one another. Whereas current metrics describe players' performance in isolation, front offices will increasingly rely on statistics that measure a player's value in the context of the rest of the team, picking up externalities such as how a player's defensive abilities may compensate for the deficiencies of those playing around him.
In a new twist to the "old school vs. new school" debate in sports, technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making thus will be the strongest propagators of the traditional virtues of teamwork and chemistry. (I should note here that these opinions are my own—and not those of my club, the Oakland Athletics, or Major League Baseball.)
Technology will create an equally drastic shift in front offices. Aspirants to the front office already are just one click away from decision makers, thanks to social media. It is not uncommon for a blogger's analysis post to show up in a general manager's Twitter feed—a level of proximity and access unheard of a decade ago. Many sports franchises are already hiring analysts based on their work in the public sphere; as social media become more targeted and efficient, the line between the "outsiders" and "insiders" will narrow.