Stealing and hacking in baseball? Say it ain’t so


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, June 18:

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.

Yes, we’re talking about baseball, or rather the role of computer analytics to guide personnel decisions in front offices. 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.

Baseball has always been kind to math geeks because nearly every action on the field can be quantified. Some stats are easy to grasp: Batting averages are a fun way to learn percentages. But modern baseball science, commonly known as sabremetrics, goes to obsessive extremes. You know about earned run average and maybe on-base plus slugging. Are you good on VORP and PECOTA? (Look ‘em up).

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 introduction of night games. You may not notice the impact, but it’s right there on the field, where many players owe their jobs to the granular details of their statistical performance. Collin McHugh is pitching for the Astros instead of the Colorado Rockies this year because Houston’s analysts noticed his curveball spins at 2,000 times a minute, above the major league average of 1,500 times, according to a story on the Astros in Bloomberg Business.

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’ computer system. Luhnow did the same after leaving St. Louis for the Astros. Houston’s program, named Ground Control, inputs all 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.

“For every single pitch thrown in every game, we now know the location, acceleration, movement, velocity and the axis of rotation of the ball,” Sig Mejdal, the Astros’ decision sciences director, told Bloomberg. “If you believe, as we do, that this data has predictive ability, then you’re in an arms race to learn it and take advantage of it.”

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. Had you heard the Yankees were willing to eat some of pitcher Ichiro’s Suzuki’s salary? That came from the leak.

That hack now appears to have been linked by authorities to the Cardinals. The New York Times said Cardinals employees may have started poking around Ground Control out of concern that Luhnow had taken ideas and proprietary information from St. Louis.

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.

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