San Francisco Giants ride Techball to the top
Economically, the Giants can't compete with clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers, who are flush with cash from mega TV contracts. Baseball's big boys typically generate about $100 million more per season in cable-TV fees. San Francisco's annual revenue is $300 million a year, compared with about $250 million a few years ago.
As the Giants become more successful, their payroll of young talent escalates. The Giants just signed reigning MVP Buster Posey to a nine-year, $167 million deal.
"Player salaries aren't going down, and we need to drive future revenue," says Baer, moments before answering questions from fans in a live tweeting session from a Virgin America flight. He is sitting next to the 2012 World Series trophy in first class while it is transported to New York, where the Giants were founded.
On the baseball side, it's a "classic combination of scouting, tech and analytics," says Evans. He, like his peers, says data used by all sports has grown exponentially the last few years to gain better measure of a player's skills.
"All clubs have access to the same information; it's how you digest it," says Evans, who discreetly declines to say what data the Giants focus on, for competitive reasons.
And that's just a slice of what teams study. The challenge is judiciously using data without getting lost in the numbers, according to Evans and others.
"We are learning even more about baseball than ever before through technology and analyzing data," Evans says. "But you can get too caught up in technology and forget about the players' and manager's ability. You still have to play the game."
The St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians are considered the most sophisticated practitioners of analytics in baseball, according to Gennaro and others. The Giants, he adds, are particularly strong on the business side.
Andrew Miller, senior vice president of strategy and business analytics for the Indians, traces his team's analytics roots to the late 1990s. Back then, it focused on medical data on players, and strength-and-conditioning programs, says Miller, a former investment banker for tech start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s.
Although most teams are split into baseball and business organizations, technology is a common thread, says Bob Zweig, chief information officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He joined the D'backs in 2008 after stints at eBay, Ask.com, PayPal and other Silicon Valley firms.
Arizona collaborated with the Giants, Minnesota Twins and MLB to make instant replays available to fans in less than a minute on mobile devices at their ballparks.
The Giants' Schlough assiduously meets with teams from all sports to brush up on social-media trends and to swap ideas. Every year, he and his team visit two cities — whether it be huddling with the NBA champion Miami Heat on player evaluation or meeting with Philadelphia city officials about rolling out Wi-Fi citywide.
The Giants have carved a digital niche with innovations in ticketing. In a nod to airlines, they helped pioneer dynamic pricing, in which ticket prices are set based on demand for that game. More than half of MLB's 30 teams now use some form of dynamic pricing.
A longstanding double-play ticket window lets Giants fans sell their seats online, making it easier for its 29,500 season ticket holders who can't attend every game. The Giants are one of about 10 clubs — the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, among others — that accept Apple Passbook technology to deliver single-game tickets.
Dynamic pricing is "our No. 1 secret sauce," Baer says. "For us, the question is, 'Is this a business or a service?' In the end, we want to promote season-ticket satisfaction."
"Social media has helped us define this band of misfits" — the Giants' 2010 title-winning team's nickname,says Bryan Srabian, in his fourth year as the Giants' director of social media.
BASEBALL'S DALLIANCE WITH DATA
Baseball is increasingly benefiting from advances in technology whose origins can be traced to the airline and medical industries — in the form of miniature sensors, high-frame video technology, battery technology and data mining, says Kim Blair, vice president of Cooper Perkins, a consulting firm that builds tech products that measure the performance of athletes.
YarcData, a company overseen by supercomputer pioneer Cray, started as an intelligence-gathering tool used by the federal government to pinpoint cyberthreats and other security risks. Health care providers such as the Mayo Clinic also used it for fraud detection and cancer research.
Today, it is marketing its Graph Analytics hardware-software product to Major League Baseball teams as a way to predict results of pitcher-batter matchups to give managers an in-game edge.
"Pretty much all the teams buy into it," says Ari Kaplan, president of AriBall, which has done analytics work for 20 MLB teams, including the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers. His company's Scoutables software program sifts through mountains of data from sources such as MLB and Sportvision on players and comes up with a list of their strengths and weaknesses, that is presented in bullet points in a text report.
Clubs always have pursued a statistical edge, Kaplan and others say. Earl Weaver carved a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s and '70s by keeping detailed notes of each game. The Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians effectively used data to discover and develop minor league talent in the 1980s and 1990s.
Companies such as Inside Edge pushed pitching and batting charts to the fore in the early 1980s, with easily readable graphics that showed "hot zones" for hitters and pitchers.
"Raw data means nothing until it can be presented and read," says Randy Istre, co-founder of Inside Edge, which started in 1983.
At one point, the service worked with six world champions in a row (Yankees, Florida Marlins and Diamondbacks). It now works with 15 to 17 teams a year, including the Giants.
Unquestionably, the Oakland A's rode the success of sabermetrics — the specialized analysis of baseball through statistics — to a 103-win season and 20-game win streak in 2002 that was chronicled in the book Moneyball.
"Give Moneyball its due," Evans says. "You could probably write 30 Moneyballs because every team has its story. But that book captured a unique time in A's baseball and what they accomplished."
Each year, teams are looking for a magical, Moneyball-like ride. The Giants have been that team two of the past three years.
But for them to maintain an edge, the Giants concede, they must continue to innovate.
Longer term, there is talk of a ticketless and cashless environment, where fans equipped with wearable computing devices — perhaps a band — can wave it as they pass through turnstiles to activate their ticket or present it to a vendor when paying for merchandise.
The Washington Nationals have a jump on the competition here. They've dropped paper tickets this year for season ticket holders in favor of smart cards with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded inside and the seat location printed on them. Season ticket holders will just touch the card at a turnstile upon entering the park rather than have a paper ticket scanned.
"It's (ticketless system) literally the wave of the future," says Schlough, who has studied such a system at a professional German soccer club. "You have to keep moving forward, looking for new ideas."