Catching Up with Baseball’s Mystery Cray Owner

By Tiffany Trader

March 3, 2015

If you’re a sports fan and an HPC-watcher than you know that supercomputing has hit the major leagues, Major League Baseball (MLB) that is. Last year, a MLB team purchased a Cray Urika supercomputer with the aim of transforming enormous volumes of disparate data into game-winning intelligence. The technology and implications of this early-adoption trend are interesting, to be sure, but what people really want to know is which team spent upwards of a million dollars to purchase the Urika graph appliance.

Cray of course would like nothing more than to disclose the name of this big-time customer but since they are obligated to keep this trade secret, that leaves pundits relying on their own analytical prowess to come up with a well-formed hypothesis.

In a feature piece devoted to the growing use of data analytics in the most beloved American sports, ESPN reports on both the data converts and the statistically disinclined. Teams are ranked and classified according to five categories: all-in, believers, one foot in, skeptics or nonbelievers.

Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League are all represented in the report, but the authors note that baseball is ahead of the game when it comes to using statistics to inform decision-making, thanks to the pioneering work of Bill James who coined the term sabermetrics. Derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research, the approach uses data to empirically study and analyze game activity.

In the ESPN assessment of data devotees, one baseball team got particularly high marks: the Houston Astros. The Astro’s sabermetrics investment includes a nine-person team dedicated to the science, assembled by director of decision sciences (and former NASA biomathematician) Sig Mejdal and general manager Jeff Luhnow.

The Astro’s commitment to big data analytics and their use of data to inform game play led the ESPN researchers to conclude that this must be the mystery Cray supercomputer owner.

“All signs point to the Astros being the mystery team that purchased a Cray supercomputer last spring, allowing for fast computation of large amounts of data, and they are learning how to translate their analytical prowess into realized gains on the field,” the authors affirmed. “Their use of defensive shifts evolved through back-and-forth between the field and front office staff, culminating in the Astros deploying the shift more often than any other team in baseball last season. Without a doubt, the Astros are all-in.”

The Astros may indeed be sold on sabermetrics, but they haven’t been sold a Cray Yarc Data Appliance, at least not yet – not according to Cray’s PR manager Nick Davis.

Davis would love nothing better than to tell you who that mystery team is, but for now, all he can say is who it is not: and it’s not the Astros.

“We applaud the Astros for their adoption of analytics, but the team with a Cray won more games last year,” writes Davis in a recent blog. “No slight against the Astros. I am a Mariners fan, so I understand not always having a winning record.”

As for the need to keep big secrets, Davis admits it’s frustrating but it comes with the job.

“We have a number of large, well-known companies using our supercomputers to create a competitive advantage in their industries, and they don’t want their competitors knowing what they’re up to,” he says. “I can respect that. But as a PR guy, I would love to tell you about the cool things that our finance, manufacturing and energy customers are doing with our systems.”

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