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Review: Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball – Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak

big data baseballThis review first ran in the July 20th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak

By Travis Sawchik

Flatiron Books


The future belongs to math majors and computer geeks.

They’ll be the MVPs of our organizations, knowing how to sift through mountains of raw data to unearth that one insight that tilts the playing field in our favour.

Just how much data is out there in our big data world?

Take Major League Baseball as one example. Player-tracking technology holds the promise of generating 2.4 billion data points on every pitch, swing, hit, miss, catch, throw, run and out from all 2,430 games in a MLB season. A single game will yield terabytes worth of data. Analysts will mine that data for coaches and general managers looking for any edge to win it all.

Compare that to the early 1980s when MLB teams had access to just over 200,000 manually collected data points.

So what you can do with databases jammed with big data if you get the algorithms right?

In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates broke the longest losing streak in North American pro sports. It had been 20 years since the Pirates played a season where they won more games than they lost.

Fans weren’t flocking to the ballpark and both the coach and general manager were on the bubble.

The small market team couldn’t spend their way to a winning season. Forget upgrading the talent on the field. The Pirates had holes to plug in their starting line-up and just $15 million to shell out on free agents. The Pirates were left to rummage through the bargain bin for cast-offs and reclamation projects while big market teams dropped $20 million or more on a single player.

So the Pirates front office did a deep dive with big data and came up with a strategy to win more games by allowing fewer runs.

“The playing field had been financially tilted against small-market teams, such as the Priates for years,” says Travis Sawchik, author of Big Data Baseball and a sports reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “They couldn’t afford evaluation mistakes, and they couldn’t attract stars like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. Instead, the Pirates were literally going to attempt to shift the playing field in their favour.

“What (general manager Neal) Huntington’s data-crunching lieutenants were championing was perhaps the most aggressive, universal approach to defense in baseball history. This new strategy was on a completely different level from the Moneyball revolution led by the Oakland A’s a decade earlier.”

The data showed three things.

Batters hit more ground balls when pitchers threw two-seam sinking fastballs.  You can’t hit a ground ball out of the park.

More of those ground balls could be caught and turned into outs if infielders and outfielders shifted where they stood on the field.

And pitch framing was a catcher’s most valuable skill, turning balls into strikes.

“A batter and home-plate umpire each have less than half a second to identify a 90 mile per hour fastball as in or out of the strike zone,” says Sawchik. “How a catcher receives the ball is a visual trick, a sleight of hand skill that can influence umpires to call borderline pitchs as strikes.”

So the Pirates went out and signed free agent Russell Martin, one of the best pitch framing catchers in the game, and pitcher Francisco Liriano who was coming off a nightmare season with some of the ugliest stats in MLB.

“As with Martin, the (Liriano) signing drew criticism from fans and the Pittsburgh media as another bottom-of-the-barrel selection, another scratch-off lottery ticket.”

Yet both players would play key roles in leading the Pirates into the postseason with their first winning season in 20 years.

Big Data Baseball is instructive on two fronts. It makes a convincing case for why organizations need to staff up on data architects and analysts and make major investments in software.

The book also underscores the importance of culture change. Big data’s useless if you’re unwilling to act on what it tells you.

Like MLB teams, lots of organizations are bound by traditions and ruled more by gut instinct than data-driven decisions.

“Going against conventional thought requires courage and conviction because, when such an unorthodox attempt fails, public criticism is intense,” says Sawchik.

But when those unorthodox attempts succeed, the rewards are well worth the risks as long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirate fans will attest.

And if your kids want to make it to the big leagues, tell them to pay attention during math class

Review: Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons

best storyThis review was first published in the July 6 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact (2nd edition)

By Annette Simmons



I didn’t actually write the best speech I ever wrote.

I merely transcribed a conversation with an interim president who was in a reflective mood. He needed help in writing a convocation speech for 5,000 graduating students and their families.

The president could’ve played it safe with a disposable speech. He could’ve strung together some well-worn quotes (cue Margaret Mead and Dr. Suess). He could’ve served up the usual commandments for freshly minted grads (thou shalt work hard and go forth to change thy world). And he could’ve offered up reassurances that Baby Boomers will at some point retire and leave lots of jobs to be filled.

The president instead chose to be bold and make it personal. He wanted to talk about the morning he dropped out of high school and his dad gave him a week to get a job or get out of the house.  He talked about starting out in a mailroom and getting a little too comfortable in the job until a company executive challenged him to aim higher.

It was a personal story that made for a powerful speech delivered in under 10 minutes. In sharing his story, the president connected with his audience at an emotional level and won them over with his humility. Grads walked across the stage and thanked the president for his sharing his story.

All of us are hungry and hardwired for good stories. Our world really doesn’t need another PowerPoint presentation or a report stuffed with facts, stats and charts that most of us will never read.

“The science is in,” says Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins and president of a consulting firm that helps organizations tell stories. “The brain thinks in stories. Technology dumps so much information on us; we now need a conscious process to translate that information back into the human brain’s inborn format for understanding the world: into story.”

The best stories put emotional and personal connections front and centre, says Simmons. “Unless you bring a beating heart to your message, it is dead. But when you tell your own heartfelt stories about what is meaningful in your life and work, you get the hang of finding stories that frame life and work in emotionally meaningful ways for your audience.”

Simmons identifies six kinds of stories that can connect you with your audience and influence what they think and do:

  • Who I am stories that reveal who you are as a person. This is the most important story you’ll ever tell, says Simmons. “Your ability to influence people is directly related to what others know or believe about who you are.”
  • Why I am here stories that talk about your purpose beyond a paycheque. Your audience wants to know what’s in it for you ahead of what’s in it for them.  “Only a strong connection to your positive intent can keep suspicion from clouding your message or discrediting your data.”
  • Teaching stories, with lessons learned from personal experience. Talk about the times you shined and fell short. “You can tell someone to be patient, but it’s rarely helpful. It is better to tell a story that creates a shared experience of patience along with the rewards of patience. A three-minute story about patience may be short and punchy, but it will change behavior much better than advice.”
  • Vision stories that explain why the future will be worth the headaches and hassles we’re going through today. “A good vision story makes your promise for future payoffs tangible enough to feel realistic,” says Simmons. “Overwhelming obstacles shrink to bearable frustrations that are achievable and worth the effort.”
  • Value in action stories that illustrate what a value means behaviorally. You can tell staff that respect is a core value in your organization. Or you can tell stories about staff who treat others with respect. If it’s a real value and not just words on a poster, these stories will be easy to find.

Still not sold on sharing a personal story? Consider this. “Facts are no match for emotions,” says Simmons. “When you realize that experiences and emotions trump abstractions such as statistics and data, you realize that you are never not telling a story.”

Simmons shows how to tell better stories, whether you’re speaking to a graduating class, rolling out a new business model at work or preparing for a billion dollar investment in light rail transit.

“Stories are very powerful tools. When you activate new stories, you transport people to new points of view and change meaning and behavior, and in that way, you change the future.”