Big data and baseball efficiency: the traveling salesman had nothing on a baseball scout

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

The MLB draft is coming up and with any luck I’ll get this posted by Thursday and take advantage of web traffic. I can hope! Anyway, Tuesday in Fangraphs I read a fascinating portrayal of the draft process, laying out the nuts and bolts of how organizations scout for the draft. The piece, written by Tony Blengino (whose essays are rapidly becoming one of my favorite parts of this overall terrific baseball site), describes all the behind the scenes work that happens to prepare a major league organization for the Rule 4 draft. Blengino described the dedication scouts show in following up on all kinds of prospects at the college and high school levels, what they do, how much they need to travel, and especially how much ground they often need to cover to try and lay eyes on every kid in their area.

One neat insight for me was Blengino’s one-word description of most scouts as entrepreneurs. You could think of them almost as founders of a startup, with the kids they scout as the product the scouts are trying to sell to upper layers of management in the organization. As such, everything they can do to get a better handle on a kid’s potential can feed into the pitch to the scouting director.

I respect and envy scouts’ drive to keep looking for the next big thing, the next Jason Heyward or Mike Trout. As Blengino puts it, scouts play “one of the most vital, underrated, and underpaid roles in the game.” While one might make the argument that in MLB, unlike the NFL or NBA, draft picks typically are years away from making a contribution and therefore how important can draft picks be?, numerous studies have shown that the draft presents an incredible opportunity for teams in building and sustaining success. In fact, given that so much of an organization’s success hinges on figuring out which raw kids will be able to translate tools and potential into talent, one could (and others have)  made the argument that scouting is a huge potential market inefficiency for teams to exploit. Although I’ll have a caveat later. But in any case, for a minor league system every team wants to optimize their incoming quality because, like we say in genomic data analysis, “garbage in, garbage out.”

As I was reading this piece, I started thinking about ways to try and create more efficiencies. And I started thinking about Big Data.  Continue reading

Drug development and the NFL draft

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The NFL draft is happening as I am writing this post. And of the many draft-related pieces I’ve read in the past few days, one from Vox.com particularly stood out. The article, by Joseph Stromberg, describes research by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler (here and here) about the skewed and irrational choices often made by teams during trades of draft picks. In essence, teams are likely to pursue a strategy in trading up that suggests they believe they have a much greater ability to forecast the future performance of a given player than is actually the case. Put another way, rather than following a strategy of diversified risk, teams commit to a specific player that they feel they need to get, rather than simply seeing who’s available when they are scheduled to pick and choosing the best player on their draft board.

Historical analysis shows that the difference between various players drafted at the same position is often negligible; on top of that teams who aggressively trade down and gather more picks in the lower rounds generally do better in terms of the value they receive for the money they spend in salaries. One might argue this is an artifact in part of the NFL Rookie salary structure, but even without that, players taken in later rounds will always command smaller salaries. Getting similar value for less money is generally a good thing.

If you’ve read posts from this blog before you know where I’m going. Drafting NFL rookies sounds a lot like developing drugs. Continue reading

Can studies of bosses help us figure out how good sports managers are?

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The world would be a simpler place, although maybe a much more boring and predictable one, if every aspect of performance could be measured directly. My completely unoriginal thought here is that one of the reasons sports appeal to so many people is because they provide clarity. In a confusing, complex world where the NSA is sucking up our information like a Dyson vacuum sucks feathers in a henhouse, and we’re told this is for our own good, clarity can be refreshing.

The simple view of an athlete’s performance is that all the accolades (or jeers), all the milestones (or flops), all the accumulated statistical totals (or lack thereof) are because of that athlete’s ability: his or her drive, passion, training, and natural ability. And that performance is measured via the statistics each sport collects and chooses to honor and promote. Performance is right there, what more do you need? What more could you want? Continue reading

The Aussie pipeline to the slopes of British Columbia

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

So this past Christmas, I decided to go downhill skiing.  I’ve gotten away from the sport for a few years, and felt it was time for a reintroduction. The slopes are full of older skiers, so I know skiing is something I should be able to keep doing for a good while longer, as long as I don’t get too rusty. Also as long as my knees hold out. And to get back into it I figured a trip to Silver Star in British Columbia would be ideal. I last visited this ski area over ten years ago, but remembered being very impressed by the slopes, the snow, the people and the facilities.

I booked a trip and that was my first hint of an Aussie connection.  Everyone I spoke to on the phone had that distinctive twang that’s mangled in so many Outback Steakhouse commercials.  When I arrived on the 21st of December, almost every Silver Star employee I met had come from Down Under. Continue reading

What do labrador retrievers and NFL wide receivers have in common?

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

A.  They’re both being studied via mobile tech to create their ethograms.

What’s an ethogram?  I had no idea until I saw this PLOSone paper on using inertial sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure the movements and behaviors of dogs, so as to create an ethogram, or collection of behaviors and actions, characteristic of labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinois.  For scientists studying the behavior and action patterns of different species, building an ethogram is essential to studies of animal behavior.  Without a standardized, objective catalog of behaviors, it can be easy for the perspectives of the observer to get in the way.  And it can make comparisons of data among different researchers (or coaches, as we’ll discuss in a bit) difficult.

And just as I was mulling over how that study shows the power of technology for behavioral research, the latest issue of Sports Illustrated came in the mail and I read a short, fascinating article by Tim Newcomb about how eight NFL teams have signed up with the company Catapult to integrate small GPS sensors into practice and game uniforms. This data allows a more accurate, granular and comprehensive view of how different receivers, for example, play the game.  Basically, building the receiver ethogram (using the term rather loosely). Sadly, this article is currently only in the print issue and not online that I can find.  But it’s at newsstands now.  You can go pick one up.  I’ll wait.

So let me delve into each of these articles a little more.

Continue reading