Sunday, September 19, 2021

Canada’s Olympic softball team partners with SAS

Feature Image: Team Canada’s softball team at Tokyo. Source: Sue Ogrocki/AP

With hard work, determination, and help from SAS, Team Canada’s Olympic women’s softball team made it to the podium at the Tokyo Games. Canada’s women’s softball team partnered with SAS to use data and analytics to analyze players’ tactics, a collaboration that resulted in a bronze medal. This is the first Olympic medal for the softball team.

According to Team Canada softball coach Mark Smith, the idea of using analytics sprouted when one of the team’s backers, Own the Podium, asked if analytical information would be helpful.

Smith said he was unfamiliar with the idea, although the softball team has used some analytics in the past for general topics like batting averages and field statistics.

“There was a meeting held at the Canada Pan Am Centre in Toronto and in Scarborough. I believe there were a few other people from SAS, myself, a couple of people from Own The Podium, and the conversation just sort of started from there. If you were going to build some type of an analytical model to be able to use to prepare what would that look like? I really didn’t have the answers to that.” Smith said.

Karl Quon, senior technical manager at SAS, said that the company wanted to invest its technology and resources in the Olympic team to help them achieve their goals.

It took the efforts of Smith, Quon, other members of the SAS team, and the softball players to develop a system that would best track all the team’s data. And it did not just happen overnight. Quon said that data for a project like this cannot be compiled with the snap of a finger. It took years of planning, and since 2017, SAS and Canada’s softball team have been collecting data and analyzing it to enhance the team’s performance.

The analytics dashboard

Using an analytics dashboard developed by SAS, the team was able to track Canada’s pitching and hitting tendencies as well as the opposing team’s tactics. Quon described the analytics dashboard as a “centralized repository” that contained analytics and data which tracked the team’s trends over the years.

As the Olympics approached, Smith said the team was focused on tracking the five pitchers from the teams they would face at the games.

“We wanted to know what their patterns were. For example, most pitchers at the world-class level can throw three pitches, they can throw a drop ball, they can throw an off-speed pitch, they can throw a riseball or a curveball. We wanted to know how often do they throw each pitch in a game,” he said.

To further analyze the data, the team created heat maps that allowed them to see at-bats (a batter’s turn batting against a pitcher) which helped them verify the sequencing and how the pitcher tended to pitch to Canada’s hitters. Smith said this analysis enabled them to begin preparing for the Olympics.

The analytics dashboard was divided into four quadrants of different colours.

Pitch report. Source: SAS

“In the top left quadrant, it may be green, and green may mean, that’s where the pitcher throws pitches, but no one swings at that pitch because it’s just obvious. But then down here in the lower part of the quadrant as it starts to go from green to red, this is where the pitcher throws a lot of pitches, and this is where a lot of hitters tend to swing pitches. So the colour coding gives you the visual of where they are really strong in the strike zone versus where they are really weak in the strike zone,” Smith explained.

Training in a pandemic

According to Quon, Team Canada and SAS worked on gathering old data from past games during the height of the pandemic when in-person training was limited.

“There’s not much opportunity, especially now with the pandemic to actually have head-to-head competitions with these other teams. So you’re actually trying to glean a lot of this information from historical competitions, and looking at those tendencies as well.”

Smith added that while the pandemic slowed things down physically for the athletes as they were not competing as much, it gave the team time to think about the strategy of the game and take a breath, as preparations for the Olympics can be fast-paced.

“I felt that [the pandemic] was a particular advantage for us because it gives us a chance to really look hard at some of the things that we had looked at leading into 2020… We would have video sessions, we would have Zoom sessions where we had the team on and put up the charts we talked through things. It gave us lots of time for questions and answers from different players,” Smith said.

At the Olympics

When the team arrived in Tokyo, the data and analytics from SAS were more important than ever, focusing in particular on the data they had from Mexico’s team, who Smith described as their “rival team.” Smith said the team reviewed Mexico’s hitting and pitching and focused on what they had accomplished and what weaknesses they had, a strategy that applied to all the teams Canada played in the Olympics.

Canada celebrates after scoring a run against Mexico during the softball bronze medal match on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Source: Mark Blinch/COC

“We did Mexico the first day, we did the United States the second day, we did Australia…and then as we get closer to the actual games, you know, two nights before we play Mexico, let’s go over the data one more time let’s make sure we’re on point with how we’re going to approach them, and how we need to be prepared,” Smith said.

That tactic worked; the women’s team won their bronze medal match against Mexico with a final score of 3-2.

The future of tech in sports

Analytics is being used in sports like softball, baseball and basketball, and the bronze medal win shows how much value it can provide if used effectively. A great early example of how its use helped a team succeed is Moneyball, the tale of how the Oakland Athletics used analytics to help them build a winning team on a relatively tiny budget. 

Quon and Smith agree that this technology will remain in softball and baseball, but it could have a place in other sports that have not picked it up yet.

According to Quon, “You can’t ignore this. It provides a wealth of information that a lot of these sports did not have at their disposal before. I guess a lot of people would kind of look at professional sports as the catalyst to do that. Looking for any edge you can gain over your competitor.”

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