Boston Red Sox: Heavy-Hitting SoftwareBy Mel Duvall | Posted 2004-05-14 Email Print
Keeping track of stats in the numbers-obsessed world of baseball is nothing new. But Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein has amassed a collection of personnel data utilizing the right blend of enterprise software and business intelligence applications other teams and corporate business managers can only dream about. This is the story of how success is created by blending intelligent analytical technology against employee performance management.
Boston Red Sox: Heavy-Hitting Software
It takes some serious number crunching for the Sox and other teams to decide which players to sign and how much to pay them.
To find new talent, for example, the teams have to sift through the stats on thousands of players in high schools and colleges and the hundreds of thousands of at-bats and pitches thrown in any given season. In the old days it was all done on paper: Scouts would send in reports from games in the field by mail or fax, and the reports would be filed into thick binders. When it came time to find a top-ranked left-handed pitcher, general managers would thumb through the binders and ask the scouts for their top choices.
One of the first moves Epstein made when he joined the Sox was to bring in a software package called ScoutAdvisor from E Solutions, a little-known Tampa, Fla., company. Epstein had used the software, which keeps track of player talent from the minors to the pros, while with the San Diego Padres, where he was director of player development. E Solutions now counts nine Major League Baseball teams on its client list. IBM has a similar package called PROS, in use by a similar number of teams. Both are based on the Lotus Domino platform (see Dossier, page 46).
Michael Morizio, co-owner of E Solutions, says the software was originally developed five years ago as a custom project for the New York Yankees. The team had begun building its own software to store and analyze scouting reports, but the project bogged down. It was simply too much of an undertaking for the team's small technology staff.
Through Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's Tampa contacts (his primary residence is in the area), E Solutions was called in to finish the job. After completing the software, the company saw the potential to build and expand the offering. Rather than just focus on scouting, Morizio saw the potential to build a complete player management system that could track player development as well as provide a team's front office with a window into the rest of the league.
E Solutions has since gone full circle with the Yankees, announcing plans in March to replace the team's custom system with ScoutAdvisor. The software is licensed for about $50,000 to $75,000 per year depending on the options.
The heart of the system is housed in a 15,000-square-foot data center in downtown Tampa. There, computers store raw data on baseball players, such as high school and college records, family backgrounds, psychological profiles and medical histories, culled from a wide range of sources.
E Solutions pulls in the feeds daily from a range of data sources, including the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, SportsTicker Enterprises and STATS Inc. The Major League Scouting Bureau has administered an Athletic Success Profile test to prospects every year since 1974, asking 110 questions designed to uncover their psychological profile. The questions measure 11 attributes including drive, endurance, leadership, self-confidence, emotional control, mental toughness, coachability and trust.
SportsTicker, on the other hand, has been serving up game reports since 1909, while STATS employs a small army of "reporters" at games to gather a wealth of statistics such as the pitch count at the end of an at-bat, types of pitches and where balls land in the field after being hit.
All of these statistics can be accessed and analyzed through ScoutAdvisor. The software can quickly retrieve, for example, the fact that Curt Schilling is one of only eight major league baseball players born in Alaska.
The ScoutAdvisor software package also is designed to help teams gather original data on players. ScoutAdvisor features a variety of modules tailored for amateur scouting, pro scouting, international scouting, medical injury tracking and major league player transaction reporting, among others.
The amateur scouting module allows scouts to file such stats as hitting power or fielding ability and commentary such as "exhibits a lot of hustle," from the field using laptops or personal digital assistants and an Internet connection.
The software features standard evaluation forms, which may be customized by a team. "We're able to add evaluation lines like, 'How high can the player jump?' without any difficulty," says Sox assistant scouting director Amiel Sawdaye.
In their standard format, the forms are used to collect an exhaustive amount of data on a prospect, from his physical description (height, weight, build, etc.) to evaluations that explore each of a position player's five main tools: running, fielding, throwing, hitting and hitting with power. Attributes that can be rated include hitting ability, plate discipline, power frequency, raw power, arm strength, arm accuracy, fielding ability, running speed and potential. For pitchers, the reports can record everything from fastball movement to ratings for curveballs, sliders, changeups, control, radar-gun readings (pitch speed), makeup (poise, habits, hustle, self-confidence, desire) and an opinion on potential.
The pro scouting module is similar to the amateur module, except it goes even deeper. For example, additional categories for pitchers include attributes such as arm angle, arm action, deception and release times. A look at the raw pitching statistics for Chad Bradford of the Oakland A's would quickly lead most scouts to the conclusion that he isn't fit for the majors. His mid-80s mph fastball is minor league material. However, scouts looking at arm angle will discover Bradford uses a "submarine" style of delivery with his knuckles sometimes scraping the mound. Hitters have more trouble with his deceptive form than they do facing a 95 mph fastball.
Another popular feature is the player development module, which allows managers to track a player's progress based on pre-set criteria. A manager can use the software, for example, to look for declining fastball velocity, in the case of a pitcher, or a tendency to swing at first pitches, in the case of a hitter.
The big advantage of ScoutAdvisor, says Josh Byrnes, the 32-year-old Haverford graduate Epstein hired to crunch numbers, is that it can slice and dice player data any way you ask. You can run a query report, for example, to find a catcher with a hitting ability greater than 60 (on a scale from 0 to 100), with an arm strength greater than 50, a speed rating from home to first base greater than 70, instincts greater than 60, and similar ratings for on-base percentage, aggressiveness, mental toughness and signability. Scouts generally rank players within a range of 20 to 80, with the assumption that no one worth rating is lower than a 20 and no one is better than an 80. Teams with a need for a multifaceted all-star—and money to spend—can search for players with 80s across the board. But teams on a budget need to trade off a high score in certain areas to find a lower-salaried player.
There are 32 pre-set fields that can be queried, and teams can add more of their own choosing. The software will then go through the universe of known players and pull up the top prospects according to the criteria. It's light-years away from the way teams used to drill through stacks of binders, says Byrnes.
To illustrate his point, Byrnes calls up the player data on J.J. Davis, a big, power-hitting right fielder trying to crack the Pittsburgh Pirates' starting lineup. On this day the Red Sox were getting a first-hand look at Davis during a spring training contest against the Pirates. Byrnes' laptop tapped into a server back at Fenway Park and began flowing in page after page of data on Davis (6-foot-5, 250 pounds, number-one draft pick in 1997). The information included his minor league history (hit 26 home runs at Class AAA Nashville), to his psychological profile (has had a discipline problem, quitting Venezuela winter team after 15 games), through to his known injuries (recurring hamstring problem) and personal background (single, turned down baseball, basketball and football scholarships to sign with the Pirates).
Software companies are now looking to develop statistical analysis packages to evaluate corporate personnel. Vendors such as Unicru of Beaverton, Ore., are coming out with sophisticated software offerings that can develop profiles of potential employees using questionnaires and analysis of previous work experience. It's the business equivalent of a scouting report.