How analytics helped this team out of a 20-year slump

Design Lead, Digital Marketing, IBM Analytics, IBM

I heard this attention-grabbing question on my car radio this morning: How did analytics play a role in turning the Pittsburgh Pirates around in 2013?

I grew up behind Three Rivers Stadium and remember hearing the cheers and watching the Zambelli fireworks from my porch when the Pirates won. But that was 20 years before the Pirates became the team with the most consecutive losing seasons in Major League Baseball history, from 1993–2012.

Then, in 2013, the Pirates surprised us all and made a pretty good postseason run through the playoffs. What made the difference? After all, no standout, rock-star player or high-profile new manager had suddenly emerged on the scene. And the team hadn’t made any newsworthy, significant financial investment to take credit for the change.

The answer was analytics. In his recent book, Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, Travis Sawchik explains how the Pirates collected millions of data points on every pitch and ball in play. The organization used analytics to uncover insights from all that data that were previously invisible to the organization. With these new discoveries, they adjusted their strategies and began exploiting areas of hidden value.

We often read here and at other sites about how analytics is transforming industries. And it’s true. But big data and analytics are doing so in a way that re-imagines, elevates and empowers existing resources—starting from scratch isn’t necessary.

There were plenty of people in my city who had given up on the Pirates because we believed nothing short of a radical overhaul of the organization would affect the outcome of the next season. What we didn’t see from the stands was that the team was already undergoing an analytics-driven change in direction based on the data it had been collecting.

I went to a Pirates game in the summer of 2013. Although it was very hot and I was very pregnant, we stayed among the sold-out crowd through the entire thrilling game. Last year, the Pirates had another winning season. The team’s turnaround over the last couple years shows that analytics isn’t just nice to have, it is quite literally a game changer.

In this case, big data and analytics are transforming a city’s baseball team and making thousands of fans happy while also helping boost the local economy. But how can analytics also make a positive impact outside of PNC Park, where the Pirates now play? Read 5 places in your city where analytics are making a difference to learn more.

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