Monday, November 2, 2009

Technology in Sports

Yesterday as I often do on a Sunday morning that I am not playing golf I watched the last Formula 1 race of the season from Abu Dhabi. The race had many exciting portions and a great finish for an F1 race, but what really impresses me with F1 and Baseball for that matter is their use of technology to gain a competitive edge.

In the F1 world the prime motivation is to improve speed and grip, those two factors allow a car to go quickly while allowing the driver to keep the car on the course. In F1, you look at the car and know that these cars have gone through extensive design and testing and every component that is exposed to the air is tested for its wind dynamics and overall effect on the car. This is done right down to the mirrors that jut from every car. The science of airflow is critical to success. Every team in F1 today looks at information that is captured during the running of the cars in practice and in the race and based on the information teams make adjustments. This is light years ahead of the information that the likes of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart or Stirling Moss had available to them. Back then it was all based on feel and driver knowledge to optimize the car, but now people like Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso spend almost as much time behind a computer screen as they do behind the windscreen. Auto racing and sports have entered the new era where information collected and reported on is king.

Baseball which is one sport that has always embraced information has recently made leaps in the pervasive use of technology. For years MLB has been collecting and as Bill James, the legendary baseball data guru, said “Our ability to generate statistics has gotten way ahead of our ability to make any sense of it.” Today baseball is using data and visualizations to help pitchers and hitter optimize their performance. A good friend of mine, Ari Kaplan, is one of those people who are helping teams make sense of it. Ari is able to provide pitch-by-pitch information, pitching and batting trends, as well as information about the strike zone called by each umpire. As you can well imagine, this information can be the difference between winning and losing and based on the teams in the playoffs, I expect that every team in this year’s playoff has used stats to get them into a more advantageous position, the days of scouts going to every game and taking notes may still be happening, but by removing emotion and moving to a data based strategy is one that has begun.

Technology and sports has become inseparable and those that take part are creating an advantage that can help a team win a world championship or world series.


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