Revenge of the Nerds! Analytics Has Changed Baseball More than Any Other Sport

We're down to four teams. On the surface, they're as different as chalk and cheese.

Two are baseball royalty, among the most successful franchises of all time: the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Together, they've appeared in 59 World Series. The other two are up-and-comers, teams that between them have a grand total of two World Series appearances (both were by the Houston Astros). The Washington Nationals, who hold a two-game lead in their series with the Cardinals, have never made the World Series at all.

World Series 2019 Baseball Houston Astros
George Springer #4 of the Houston Astros reacts after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning in game two of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park on October 13, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Tim Warner/Getty

And yet all four have something in common: their investments in analytics. Indeed, (25.) The Nationals replaced their manager two years ago because then-manager Dusty Baker refused to embrace analytics. And you could call it an analytics war: The Cardinals sued the Astros (and won $2 million) when a former employer hacked into the email of Cardinals analytics guru Sig Mejdal.

Analytics has transformed major sports. Basketball has become a positionless swarm where players take shots based on probabilities. Football is less about talent, game planning and motivation than it is about optimization algorithms that stockpile the maximum amount of talent for the short term within given payroll constraints (e.g., rookie quarterback contracts). But no game has been transformed as much as baseball.

Baseball has always lent itself to analysis because, unlike basketball, football and hockey, baseball is a series of discrete interactions. Pitcher-batter. Batter-fielder. Fielder-fielder. Unlike basketball or football, where everyone is moving at once and a player can contribute by "intangibles" (e.g., a pick that frees another player for a shot), in baseball there are no intangibles. It is a series of tangibles. And with modern technology, each of those tangibles lends itself to excruciating analysis.

Branch Rickey, the relentless innovator who signed Jackie Robinson, was arguably the man who invented baseball analytics when he began tracking every at-bat for his hitters. It's said that when a right-handed hitter started hitting more frequently to the right side after years of hitting to the left side, Rickey deduced that meant his bats were slowing down and traded him.

Today's analytics bear about as much resemblance to Rickey's crude graphs as a nuclear weapon does to David's slingshot. Scouting analysts use ultra-slow-motion video to break down every swing or pitch in a prospect's career. They model expected effectiveness, given the dimensions of the parks he plays in and the teams he plays against. They create complex game plans for managers, incorporating probabilities and advanced statistics. They even use video analysis to analyze how much each pitch breaks and in what direction. If it sounds like rocket science, that's because it is—Houston hired its top analyst from NASA.

Each dugout is armed with detailed analysis of how each player on a team performs against each player on the other team, which has led to mind-boggling defensive shifts (e.g., putting all the defensive players on one side of the field) and ever-increasing specialization. Once there were pitchers. Now there are starters, middle relievers, setup men and closers.

What once was checkers is now chess. In a recent Giants-Rockies games, managers used 25 different pitchers.

What this means is that in 2019's World Series there will be two sets of heroes: those enormously talented, muscular young athletes on the field and, somewhere in an anonymous conference room in the bowels a nearby office building, a team of what wrestler "Classy" Freddie Blassie once called "pencil neck geeks." They won't get the big contracts or the rings, but they'll be just as important to winning or losing. (Indeed, Sports Illustrated put the Astros on its cover in 2014 when they had the worst record in baseball and predicted they would win the World Series. Which they did, not because of their players but because of their analytics department.)

In a way, this year's World Series is more like a televised video game tournament than Babe Ruth's game. Think of the players on the field as the flesh-and-blood avatars of those nerds back in the Yankee Stadium basement. Welcome to World Series 2019.