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Digital Transformation

The Houston Astros and Winning Through Advanced Analytics

How can using analytics can make a difference? Baseball has winners and losers.  Teams do not get to share a title or a win.  If they are tied at the end of the 9th inning, the teams are forced into extra innings until one of the teams score.  In a way, that’s more brutal than our business ventures; because when we provide more value we have multiple winners; both us and the client.

McKinsey Quarterly has recently published a great article on the Houston Astros win in the last world series, and how advanced analytics helped propel the team from many horrendous losses to the baseball champions.  It will remind you of Michael Lewis’ best selling book “Moneyball“, as both the book and the article are made for the statistics minded and those who love a good story. However, the article focuses less on the technology itself but more on how to make it successful. This same idea can be implemented into many various industries today as well.

 Not the “Big Dog” in Your Industry? Here’s Why You Should Pay Attention –

…the Astros didn’t simply spend their way to victory. Their Opening Day payroll ranked 18th of 30 major-league teams—and almost 50 percent (approximately $118 million) less than the World Series runner-up, and highest-spending team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As a pure technologist, I would have a lot of interest in what data the Astros have, how they arrive at insights, if they are using AI and other cutting edge tools, and many other questions.  In an interview with Jeff Luhnow in the article, they focus on more than just these few questions. Overall, it makes it clear that the Astros can’t win on pure data – just like your company can’t win just by hiring a data scientist and buying new and advanced software. These quotes below overall summarize this conclusion:

There are hundreds of people that work in a baseball organization, including coaches, scouts, and hundreds of players that are signed at any one point in time. They did not accept it right away. For certain elements of the analytics, we had to wait and be patient. Because if you can’t get the coaches and the players to buy into it, it’s not going to happen.

People always remember the negatives. It’s harder for a pitcher to remember the ball that got hit up the middle that, in years past, would’ve been a single, but this year, it just so happened the second baseman was right there, stepped on the base, and got a double play. We get a little less credit for those, though, than we get dinged on the negative ones.

There was an incredible moment where one of our younger pitchers who really wasn’t quite getting it kept complaining, “Well, what about this? What about that?” One of the veteran pitchers who had come around turned to the younger pitcher and said, “Look, this is going to help you have a better ERA [earned run average]1and have a better chance to have a better career, so you should really take this seriously.” Once you start getting players to advocate for the use of these tools, it changes the whole equation.

We had people at each level who were in uniform, who the players began to trust, who could sit with them at the computer after the game or before the game and show them the break charts of their pitches or their swing mechanics and really explain to them in a lot more detail why we’re asking you to raise your hand before you start swinging or why we’re asking you to change your position on the rubber or how you deliver the ball. Once we got someone in uniform to be part of the team, ride the buses with them, eat the meals with them, and stay in the motels they have in Single A, it began to build trust.

It’s speed and speed of evaluation and implementation. Those are the key success factors for us. We talk internally about being on the “bleeding edge.” We know we’re going to have some cuts, some nicks, some bruises—because if we’re not, it’s similar to base running. If you have a player on first, and he never gets thrown out at third on a single to right field, he’s not being aggressive enough. If you don’t ever get thrown out at third, you’re leaving runs on the table.

The right answer is to continue to measure the things that really matter. What are the drivers of success for you in the future, and are those things tracking the way they should be, and is there a way to accelerate those? If you’re going to make fast decisions, you need to make sure you understand what the roadblocks are going to be, what the obstacles are going to be, how you’re going to overcome them. It’s about having the right people and making sure that you have all the dissenting points of view presented together in order to make a decision.

Takeaways from the Astros-Analytics Adventure

From this interview, it is clear a distinct transformation occurred in the Astros and a General Manager, who implemented both technical and cultural change. Below you can find what I believe to be the best practices as you transform, and as data becomes a key part of your decision making processes.

  1. You have to get the tools and foundation in place.  In some ways, this is the easy “technical” stuff but having a solid foundation for your data analytics is essential.
  2. You have to have buy in at all levels of the organization,  and has to extend beyond an initial try.
  3. Set expectations that analytics is a journey and not a single project.
  4. Share or over-share what’s happening and why you are doing it.  People don’t change unless they understand why it will help.
  5. Figure out your two key areas:
    1. How to get the insight from your data using a variety of analytics tools
    2. What you will do with the insight (the actions)

As you can see, technology is only a portion of analytics. While it’s an important portion, unless you set up your organization to accept analytics and your initial stumbling blocks with it you will never make it to the championship.

For further information and to read more about the Astros remarkable comeback through the help of analytics, read McKinsey Quarterly’s article here.

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Michael Porter

Mike Porter leads the Strategic Advisors team for Perficient. He has more than 21 years of experience helping organizations with technology and digital transformation, specifically around solving business problems related to CRM and data.

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