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April 3, 2014

Inside Major League Baseball’s “Hypothesis Machine”

Nicole Hemsoth

When it comes to sports statistics, there’s no richer source of historical data than baseball. With over 140 years of detailed information on individual players, teams, and winning trends, the addition of digital data is powering even deeper analytical capability to help fans and team owners make decisions.

Baseball data, over 95% of which has been created over the last five years, will continue to mount—leading MLB decision-makers to invest in more powerful analytics tools. While there are plenty of business intelligence and database options, teams are now looking to supercomputing—or at least, the spawn of HPC—to help them gain the competitive edge.

Last June, we talked with Cray CEO, Peter Ungaro, who dropped a hint that MLB was their big Urika graph analytical appliance user, but waited on the sidelines for more details, including who the team might be. While the team is still a secret (understandably—this could be the skeleton key to a winning season) we were able to get some details about YarcData’s role in MLB from Cray’s Tim White, who manages the government and intelligence business unit and has been the point man for the mystery team’s walk down graph analytics lane.

White, who left General Dynamics’ Advanced Information Systems division after 8 years to come to Cray, is no stranger to advanced analytics. At General Dynamics, he ran national security, law enforcement and intelligence projects on site, where he was able to understand firsthand the challenges and benefits of real-time information gathering. He said when Cray called him to push into markets with some of the toughest graph analytics problems, he immediately saw the opportunity. Government use of complex graphs to mine for relationships between disparate datasets is expected—but the same value there in understanding how multiple variables translate into unseen ties applies to baseball (and other areas, including fraud detection, drug discovery and more) just as well.

He explained that what teams, just like governments and drug development researchers, are looking for is a “hypothesis machine” that will allow them to integrate multiple, deep data wells and pose several questions against the same data. They are looking for platforms that allow users to look at facets of a given dataset, adding new cuts to see how certain conditions affect the reflection of a hypothesized reality. While he says there are multiple tools for doing this on both the hardware and software front, there is a particular marriage of both elements that works particularly well for graphs. This combination includes a large shared memory machine that lets users cut around unpartitionable problems. At the software core are SPARQL and RDF, which he agrees are specific tools but are the only ones that can tackle large-scale complex graph problems that are otherwise difficult to untangle without the blend they’ve packaged into a Urika box.

urikaTo put the complexity of the graphs MLB is working with in context, White told us that they’re operating in the 10-20 billion edge graph range. That’s no problem for Urika, however, says White, at least compared to trying to manage that kind of large-scale problem using basic joins. For background, the appliance is graph-specific and tailored to RDF, which can be an unwieldy data structure unless it’s humming on a big shared memory system. Urika uses the thread-hungry Cray native XMT processor and while it has that capability, it’s not designed for running floating point vector calculations. The value here is dipping into deep memory to hunt for similarities and associations that expose buried relationships between factors.

“Urika is unique in that it’s a global shared memory machine that lets you look at data in an unpartitioned fashion. This is very critical if you’re looking at graphs, which by nature are unpredictable. Further, certain graphs are non-partitionable—and if you do partition it, it changes the result of a query,” White explained. “There is no MapReduce job or partitioning that will do anything but fracture the graph to a point where it’s no longer reconstructable—and even for those you can reconstruct, it would take a lot of compute power.” Where this works is with memory-bound problems versus those that are compute-bound, in other words.

Urika is also fitting for the big data of MLB given the disparate data sets required to piece together a best-case-scenario for team leaders. There are lots of sources and combining that data requires a data structure that allows for federated queries. This is exactly the reason big pharma and a few others find RDF machines useful (in the case using SPARQL queries). “You could go ahead an do the equivalent of a hundred-way join from a relational database—the question is, how big of a dataset can you do that against?” asked White. “Unless you have something like Urika, which has the ability to do it memory and with massive multi-threading, you’re not able to look at enough data.” He said that when compared to what they’re doing inside Urika, for normal relational databases, this would be the equivalent of a 30-50 way join. Pulling from the large shared memory pool using SPARQL queries offers a more seamless blending of conditions to hypothesize against. And herein lies the selling point for operational budget-constrained MLB.

Although we’re not privy to pricing, the Urika appliance runs in the order of well over a million bucks. However, to put this into some context, consider the ROI. The average win in baseball brings a smaller team a couple of million, a large MLB team between $5 and $7 million. That’s one win. Let’s say Cray’s graph appliance is able to help team owners piece together what happens if you take the average player for  a particular position versus the player they’re analyzing across the course of a season. While those many factors involved are multifaceted, when it comes down to one small decision at the bottom of the ninth with loaded bases, that one switch in decision-making could mean the loss or gain of millions in a winning situation.

So this all begs the question, why buy an expensive near real-time analytical HPC platform if the time itself isn’t necessarily an issue? Couldn’t there be cheaper ways to run this on a SAS or SAP HANA box after the fact? Or for that matter, a shared memory cluster of one’s own devising primed to run the latest, greatest analytics software?

White responded by pointing to the nature of their approach to graph analytics, agreeing that real time here doesn’t have anything to do with immediate in-game decisions. Rather, their queries can be submitted, run very quickly for fast analysis, then analysts can run that same query again in a hurry with different variables. This effectively allows them to tweak the question with new conditions. This “hypothesis machine” approach is what makes the difference, says White, pointing to the burdened systems MLB and other organizations have that can’t be used to tailor one query after the next in rapid succession to find answers and hidden connection between factors they didn’t even know to ask.

The variables for each iterative query range from the outlandish to the expected (RBI, homerun histories, Golden Glove data) and even to the subjective (sentiment of fans, coach and player confidence, salaries, TV revenue, etc.). All of these are collectively referred to as “field effects” which is a certain science in itself.

White agrees that there are many excellent analytical software and hardware platforms out there to choose from, but most of those tend to focus on data that is known. Such platforms consider data from a range of databases that are all finding answers, but don’t go far enough into the masked relationships that baseball (and for that matter government intelligence, pharma and others) require to make real progress.

“We’re past the point of thinking software can solve all the problems,” said White. The hardware matters—in fact, it’s the reason why big organizations with large-scale data-driven challenges are looking seriously at HPC platforms. They’ve managed to eek all the performance out of their code, custom or otherwise, and now see the need for a marriage between the metal and the mind—in MLB, big government and beyond.

“These users want to ask a lot of questions. They want to get those results right away, then change the question. So they go through 20 or 30 different facets of the same question to find what’s interesting. It’s the iterative quality of Urika that’s interesting, it becomes their hypothesis machine—they go through all the hypothetical queries to find the difference maker,” says White.

So we’ve worked out the why on the graph analytics investment side, but with so much of this still subjective science, how on earth did Cray manage to talk an MLB team (these are historically cash-strapped organizations on the operational side) into this? To what extent are team owners concerned with data partitions and multi-threading?

Not at all, says White. However, they have been doing analytics that are much closer to Excel operations than anything bordering supercomputing. In fact, when asked about what Urika replaced at MLB shops, White hinted that it didn’t go too far beyond Excel or general business intelligence tools. This, however, he says, will be a gamechanger. Literally.

To be clear, this machine isn’t powering immediate gameplay. MLB rules prohibit the use of electronic devices during game time. When news first leaked that a mystery team was using the graph appliance there was some confusion about “real time game play data” that could shape the decision-making of coaches. This isn’t the case. Rather, the analytics are run after the fact (and before new games, seasons, or investments in player contracts). These are data for the playbook—the one analog “device” that’s allowed. And the output of the graph should lead to an approximate answer to, “when the ball hits at this level under these conditions based on history and contemporary circumstances X is the best option.”

It would be a thrill to compare playbooks before and after advanced analytics have been run but, sadly, we’d need to know the team who bought the Urika. There have been a lot of guesses, perhaps we should look to the downtrodden MLB club that suddenly pulls some amazing wins out of thin air this year for clues.