I’ve literally been waiting my whole life for today, a day in which the Chicago Cubs start their reign as World Series Champs. It took 108 years for the Cubs to win their 3rd World Series. Just to advance past the National League Championship Series took 71 years, as the Cubs hadn’t made it this far since 1945.
When I was a kid in Cicero, Illinois, a little suburb most would say should make me a White Sox fan, I instead was a Cubs fan. I’m not sure exactly why, but it probably was because my older brothers were Cubs fans.
Neighboring kids became fair weather fans. If the Cubs were hot one year – OK, lukewarm – they’d be the favorite. If the White Sox had a better season, the Southside team got the nod. Most of them might even change teams during the season. None of us used analytics to process the data, but they were letting statistics shape their decisions, following the trends.
But my brothers and I never wavered. Through winning seasons –too many with more than 100 losses – we cheered for the Cubs.
I’m sure you’ll find it odd that despite being a lifelong fan, I’ve never seen the Cubs play at Wrigley. I’ve seen them at Turner Field in Atlanta and Coors Field in Denver, but never at home. Sure, we moved away when I was a little kid – but they’ve had flights to and from Chicago my whole life.
But that hasn’t made me less of a fan. I’ve stuck with the Cubs through losing seasons, a Cubs fan interfering with a sure out in a playoff game and the inevitable collapse of the team after every All Star Game break. The “Miracle Mets” won it all when I was very young, but they were helped by the Cubs. Chicago had been in first place for 155 games, only to lose 17 games in September that year, putting them 8 games behind the surging New York Mets.
Last year I got excited when the Cubs made into the playoffs after winning 97 games. Just a few years before, in 2012, they had only managed 61 wins. But this year, they won 103 games and were heavy favorites to win it all.
It’s difficult to understand being a Cubs fan, unless you were a Boston Red Sox fan prior to 2004. They had a short 86-year World Series drought. But even the Red Sox had been in the Series four times between 1918 and 2004.
That’s a lot of numbers. Baseball fans always have been some of the most dedicated statisticians anywhere. They’ll tell you how a pitcher does after an extra day’s rest. They know which batter has the best hitting percentage against a specific opposing pitcher, and what type of pitch is his favorite. A source of amusement for fans, these statistics now play a huge part in the game. Even real-time analytics factor into how the game is played.
Did you see those color-coded cards Cubs Manager Joe Maddon kept reviewing? Or how about the flip cards Cubs catcher David Ross checked before calling the signals for each pitch? The team developed those cheat sheets using analytics. The analytics staff works with the coaches to analyze each and every play, breaking down every nuance. You can bet that each team knew how successful a specific batter has been against their pitchers. This becomes refined down to exact situations. What pitch does Corey Kluber most often throw after a swinging strike by Dexter Fowler? Maddon and his coaches knew, and would send in signals to Fowler based on those tendencies – and on the real time situation.
Our Izenda Embedded BI and Analytics Scholarship winner Logan Bement worked for a minor league team this summer helping to provide just this kind of information to his team. The data gets updated in real time, and quick analysis allows these data experts to advise the coaches how to shift the infield and outfield for the batter coming to the plate.
“Much of my work this summer involved compiling real time data on metrics like spin rate, exit velocity, launch angle, and more to feed to the front office for advanced analysis, all coming from one of the organization’s minor league affiliates,” Logan said. “This data that was barely being collected on major league players ten years ago, much less single-A minor leaguers, is now a staple in every organization and teams are using it to learn more than was once imaginable. Teams are always in search of new data and opportunities to exploit weaknesses or promote strengths. As in business, professional baseball is a eat-or-be-eaten environment and exploring every opportunity for long-term success is vital.”
Logan also shared with us his thoughts and impressions on the game and analytics: The biggest takeaway the fans might have from this historic postseason, aside from the Cubs breaking their “curse”, is the way bullpens were used throughout October and November. We saw it with the Dodgers and Cubs bringing in Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, respectively, in the 7th and 8th innings, and of course, the Indians using Andrew Miller in just about every situation they could.
The reasoning behind this is something any good sabermetrician will tell you, but the casual fan is just picking up on. The idea is simple: use your best pitchers in the most important, closest situations, regardless of the inning. This insight comes from analyzing tons of data, to show that games are much more often won and lost in innings that aren’t the 9th, so why wait until then to bring in your top arms? Waiting for a save opportunity to use a closer is exactly how the Orioles were eliminated this year, and you could tell the rest of the playoffs managers weren’t going to go out like that. Teams are sifting through immense amount of data to find and quantify the most important moments in games, and then align their bullpen usage to match their best pitchers with the highest leverage situations.
Ten years ago, no MLB manager would have dared to bring their closer into a 2-1 game in the 7th inning, and many still won’t. However, as teams build their analytics department and leverage the vast data available to them, don’t expect to see this trend disappear any time soon.
“It’s so much harder to get a competitive advantage just using basic data analytics,” said Cubs President Theo Epstein back in May 2016 in an interview posted on the Citadel blog. He told Citadel’s chief legal officer, Adam Cooper, in a speaker series that the Cubs have to drive R&D to be more innovative than the other MLB teams.
“Beyond just using data analytics, teams are constantly looking into new areas to find a competitive edge,” Logan explained. “As essentially all teams participate in analytics, front offices must identify and exploit new inefficiencies to get to the top. Areas such as improved medical recording and tracking, mental skills, and enhanced athletic training are emerging arenas in which teams can compete. The Dodgers created a speed camp in order to identify and train potential elite pinch runners. The Red Sox utilize sports psychologists to unlock players’ hidden potential. Many teams have revamped their hitting and pitching philosophies based on player biomechanical data from data sources like Trackman, Blast, MOTUS and more. All of these advances are guided by teams’ desire to get better info, learn to use it better, and ultimately, be better using data and advanced analytics.”
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