RealTime IT News

Baseball Gets a New Data Cleanup Hitter

In the high-stakes game of sport contracts, the Major League Baseball Players Association has added a new hitter to its lineup.

The MLBPA has adopted IBM's Cognos business intelligence (BI) software to analyze, compare and project player stats and chart individual players' progress over the course of the season, which starts this week.

What's an enterprise-grade BI tool doing in baseball?

No, it's not to help fans tweak their fantasy baseball teams. Instead, the Cognos Executive Viewer software is aimed at helping player agents get faster and deeper access to statistics and comparative analysis.

"Our analysis of player performance is as complex and dynamic as the work of high-powered business analysts in Fortune 500 companies, and we need to use the same robust, flexible interface to achieve reliable results," said Doyle Pryor, assistant general counsel of the MLBPA, in a statement.

Normally, MBLPA agents -- who represents 1,200 major-league players -- request reports or rely on the standard information sources collected by Major League Baseball.

Now, with the start of the new baseball season, agents will be able to use Executive Viewer to get a much more visual and up-to-date view of that information, using a secure login from any Web-enabled PC, Joseph Pusztai, IBM (NYSE: IBM) Cognos' director of product marketing, told InternetNews.com.

"Once the agents become comfortable with this, they'll be able to leverage the information for their clients in the best way," Pusztai said. "The ultimate goal is to come up with statistics that shows a player's success. For example, the common stats will show you home runs, but now they'll be able to see how many were hit in the late innings, when it tends to matter more."

Additionally, Pryor said agents would be able to perform "almost limitless 'what-if?' scenarios" for further analysis of the data.

Data explosion in baseball

Business intelligence software like Cognos has become a major focus for large enterprise software vendors like IBM, which tapped integrator Decision Systems for the MLBPA work. Big Blue paid $5 billion to snap up Cognos in January, as part of its information-on-demand strategy.

That strategy, along with today's announcement, coincides neatly with burgeoning interest in broadening the types of statistics gathered and analyzed in pro sports. That's especially true for baseball, which has always placed a premium on drawing conclusions from arcane player performance data -- a trend that continues to grow.

"There's been an explosion over the last ten years of people trying to find ways to measure what was previously thought unquantifiable," said Phil Taylor, senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

One example Taylor mentioned is fielding range -- how much of the infield a shortstop or second baseman can cover.

"The stats help both the players and owners make their case" during contract negotiations, he added. "If a player hits .285 for the year, but he can show that he hit .350 from the 7th inning on in tie games, that'll help his case."

Of course, the reverse is also true: Owners and general managers can point to stats like weak hitting in late innings to strengthen their own hand during salary negotiations.

While baseball has counted stats junkies among its fans perhaps since the first baseball card was issued, the value of such data is the subject of some debate.

"There's a battle of two cultures in baseball where some of the older scouts and GMs still believe there's no way better to judge talent than seeing a guy play," Taylor said. "The jury is still out, but the use of statistics is growing and there's no doubt more value is being put on data rather than old fashioned scouting methods."

Taylor said the trend really took off a few years ago after the publication of Moneyball, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis.

"That book really detailed how a lot of young guys with MBAs feel you can look at a player's stats and judge quality almost better than watching them play," Taylor said.