Data analysis – the SQL

David Laurila is probably my favorite baseball interviewer. If you’ve been around me for very long, you’ve probably heard me say that. He posted another good interview with Buck Showalter yesterday at Baseball Prospectus. It’s worth reading the whole interview, but Showalter’s response to the first question got me thinking. Or rather, it touched a nerve of something I’ve been thinking about ever since this post by Patriot.

David Laurila: You’ve been around the game for a long time. How much has the use of data evolved over the years?

Buck Showalter: Without trying to step on any toes, this isn’t something new. I remember charting hitters in the Florida State League in 1984, putting a spray chart out with a red stencil. You had a humpback for a fly ball, a straight line for a line drive, you had a dotted line for a ground ball. There was where they hit it, what kind of pitch was it, what the count was…this was 1984. This is not some brand-new approach. Back then, I didn’t hear a lot about it, but other people were doing it, I’m sure. Eye in the sky, scouting…I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but this isn’t something new in baseball, OK? But now it’s being done with a computer, instead of by hand, and there are a lot more numbers and what have you.

DL: Essentially, you were using a lot of data nearly three decades ago?

BS: I was. We were looking at hitter-pitcher match-ups way back when. I was keeping them in the minor leagues and when I first started managing the Yankees you had matchups against guys and where they hit the ball.

Is the fundamental difference between the Pete Palmer-Bill James generation of saberists and the current generation the understanding of the power of databases and facility with them? Because I can’t imagine trying to answer many of the questions I want to answer by poring through hand-charted data, and I find myself much quicker to consider alternative and difficult data sources than the average saberist today.

I’m not criticizing Showalter’s understanding of the game, nor was he criticizing saberists. But the relational database…it’s really something, isn’t it?

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The relational database indeed is wonderful, but now that so much stuff has been digitized, what with Project Scoresheet, Pitch f/x data, etc., sabermetricians are ready for the next step: pattern recognition software. There are probably patterns in the data that we already have that we haven’t noticed yet, partly because what we’re doing now is asking a question and hunting through the data for an answer.  Pattern recognition software allows you, in effect, to get answers to questions you didn’t realize you should have asked or could ask.