With Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin’s sudden slump, the future of a race for the Cy Young Award of the National League has become unclear. In the American League, however, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, 36 years old, has started to reinforce his chance to win the award. On Monday, the Astros pitcher allowed no hit and no run for the third time in his career. There have been only six pitchers who recorded three or more no-hit, no-run games in over 100 years of the Major League Baseball’s history.
There were some who speculated that Verlander has passed his prime, yet he is responding to the premature concern with outstanding performance after his move to the Astros in 2017. What has revived his performance is data science employed by the Astros. The team used high-speed cameras to analyze the 36-year-old pitcher’s sliders in detail to correct the axis of rotation. Changing the grip was key to reducing a ball’s speed but increasing its elevation difference. With this change, about half of Verlander’s strikeouts started to come from sliders and his performance has improved significantly, which led to the very first World Series championships trophy for the Astros.
It’s not just Verlander. Back in 2013, Astros righthander Collin McHugh hadn’t won any game and his ERA was over 10. However, the Astros scouted him after finding out that McHugh’s number of spins for curves was outstanding based on the team’s big data system analysis. The Astros instructed the new pitcher to focus on curves, rather than fastballs. The result was 11 wins in 2014 and 19 wins in 2015. It was the moment that once an ugly duckling became a swan.
Some say everyone does data analysis these days. However, adopting data analysis and generating performance using it are two separate matters. The Astros was one of the worst teams in the league in the early 2010s. However, the team found a breakthrough through data with Jeff Luhnow, a former consultant of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, joining the team in 2011.
It wasn’t easy at first. The existing members of the team were resistant to new changes. For example, pitchers were severely opposed to the strategy to adjust defense shifts based on data analysis. They emphasized on failed cases where ordinary infield grounders led to hits due to shifts. “With a growing opposition, at one point everything went back to how it was before,” said Astros General Manager Luhnow. Other sports teams, including football, basketball, and soccer, gave up on their data policies within two to three years for a similar reason.
Powerful data could bring no impact without a common understanding among team members. Luhnow came up with a conclusion that the benefits of data must be understood by players in order to change the players’ behavior. With increasingly more successful cases coming in, a few players in the team started to support a data analysis tool and others begun to follow suit accordingly. The baseball club hired coaches with programing skills, players started to think in data terms, and a culture of data was created. That’s how McHugh’s rise, Verlander’s revival, and the Astros’ championships win came about.
The Lotte Giants, whose performance of this season was far from outstanding, has kicked off its transformation to data-based operation. Businesses in various industries, ranging from manufacturing to service, as well as national governments with the vision for the fourth industrial revolution, are emphasizing the importance of data. Yet, some of us are still stuck in the perception that data is a type of technology, thinking that equipment and engineers are all that is needed. As seen in the case of the Astros, data isn’t a simple technology. It is a culture in which all members of an organization co-exist. Organizations must be reinvented as data-driven ones. Verlander’s better-than-ever performance and the Astros standing behind the pitcher’s revival are something for us to think about.