Seen the roster of the first-place Houston Astros lately? They’ve got a submarine-style pitcher who’s pretty good, but that’s not who we mean. Check out their talent in the positions of mathematical modeler and senior technical architect. And how about their boss, the director of decision sciences? He’s a former NASA researcher.
These guys have all the tools to win, including an algorithm and a database.
Maybe you first heard about statistics-based scouting from the 2003 book “Moneyball.” The concept and technology have advanced significantly since then, bringing us to a remarkable milestone: baseball’s first computer hacking scandal.
The FBI and the Justice Department are investigating unidentified members of the St. Louis Cardinals front office, who allegedly broke into the Astros’ proprietary computer network, which holds data about player performance and scouting decisions. The Cardinals say they are cooperating, and no one under investigation has been suspended or fired.
The Cards and Astros have a direct connection because St. Louis’ former analytics guru, Jeff Luhnow, is Houston’s general manager. Investigators said whoever broke into the Astros’ computer system gained access by trying passwords Luhnow had used while he was in charge of a similar database he oversaw for the Cardinals.
The cult of baseball statistics spread from the seats to the front office more than a decade ago and is changing the game as much as the development of the slider or the introduction of night games.
When Theo Epstein came over from the Boston Red Sox to become president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, one of his first tasks was to build a number cruncher like Carmine, the Sox’s computer system. Luhnow did the same after leaving St. Louis for the Astros.
Houston’s program, named Ground Control, inputs all of the obvious and arcane stats available on major, minor league and college players, as well as video of their swings or pitches, to become a tool for analyzing and projecting a ballplayer’s value.
A little more is known about Ground Control because last year someone broke into the system and posted some of the Astros’ scouting and deal-making information online. That hack now appears to have been linked by authorities to the Cardinals.
Baseball has its peculiar culture. You can steal signs from an opposing catcher. You can steal second base. But no way can you break into an opposing team’s computer. That’s a felony. There’s no cyberprying in baseball.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE