From Baseball to Databricks, Why Evangelism Works

By Jason Rushin

Published on February 21, 2024

A woman presenting to a group in an office

If you’re unfamiliar with Moneyball, the book or the movie, it’s a surprisingly entertaining story about baseball and data science. That’s not a combination that would typically bring out Hollywood luminaries like Brad Pitt and Aaron Sorkin or command over $100 million in box office sales. But, no matter how you feel about baseball or data, it’s easy to be riveted by this story.

Ari Kaplan is one of the real-life players profiled in Moneyball — data players, not baseball players. In fact, he’s referred to as “the real Moneyball guy” and has worked his data magic with the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, and other teams before moving into the tech industry. 

Today, Ari bats for Databricks as Head Evangelist, where he touts the company’s leadership enabling massive-scale data engineering, collaborative data science, full-lifecycle machine learning, and business analytics. Alation is also a Databricks partner with a dedicated integration that enables visibility across all of an organization's workspaces as well as the source systems, analytics, and AI tools.

So, where do baseball and data science intersect? Ari shared his story with Alation CEO Satyen Sangani on the Data Radicals podcast.

Bringing data cultures to baseball

Ari was one of the first to bring data science and analytics to sports barely over two decades ago. The concept was to take a very limited professional sports budget, find undervalued players, and make recruiting and strategy decisions based on data instead of gut feeling. As an undergraduate at Caltech and a rabid baseball fan, Ari started using analytics to remove gut and luck from the game and measure player performance.

Ari’s work became viral, or as viral as things became in 2001, and garnered the attention of the Today Show and the LA Times. Just like that, the LA Dodgers’ general manager made contact, and the two had a meeting later that same day.

What Ari did was evangelize a data-driven approach to sports. He advised coaches to look at physical ability but combine it with hard facts. Did the player do well in the minor leagues? Did they do well against major-league quality players? Did they learn and perform better when subsequently facing the same opposing team? How did their data compare with peer players?

Once Caltech’s public relations department caught wind of Ari’s project, the Moneyball concept and its focus on data culture became mainstream in sports. Ari now estimates thousands of data scientists, analysts, and others work directly for sports teams and with adjacent vendors, gambling outlets, and more — creating a billion-dollar “sports analytics” industry.

Evangelizing data cultures with the data intelligence platform

Fast-forward many years, and Ari is now evangelizing the benefits of data and AI for Databricks. The company has been very successful over the years, reaching in 2023 a $1.5 billion revenue run rate, over 10,000 customers, and a valuation topping $43 billion.

Databricks is noted for, among many other things, creating the lakehouse architecture, which combines the best elements of data lakes and data warehouses to reduce costs and deliver on data and AI initiatives faster.

“[It’s] how to get intelligent and AI-driven insights on your company's data assets,” Ari explained on the podcast before he brought it back to baseball. “So, Texas Rangers. They are one of our more visible customers. [It] was really a journey of enabling their own staff to take data that they collected, data that Major League Baseball collects…and then having a culture in place, whether it's their general manager who comes more from the baseball background or some of their more analytically-driven business people and strategists, to make these recommendations. And with Databricks, think of us as like the underlying plumbing.”

Databricks ingests, transforms, performs workloads, and creates predictive analytics from that data. Before Databricks, only a small subset of the Rangers’ staff could access the data. Now, with Databricks, the team’s data is fully democratized to enable a truly collaborative data culture.

Using data for business, sports, and humanity

Ari is a true evangelist in every sense of the word. He continued on the podcast extolling the virtues of a data culture, even for sports teams but especially for more traditional businesses, and explaining why a good data culture always keeps improving. Because as soon as someone writes a book and makes a movie about what you’re doing, everyone will start doing it, too!

“[E]verybody has the same data on the talent side for the newest draft prospect that may be coming up,” Ari added. “And then you're starting to watch second-order things like how do they learn over time? What's the next evolution of where people are gonna start being able to differentiate in prediction so that they're able to get to more high fidelity, higher quality differentiation relative to their peers? Because if everybody's doing it, then the question is, what do you have to do to actually stay ahead?”

Ari’s tales don’t stop there. On the podcast, he explained Databrick’s horizontal approach to partnerships, how data is being used in sports other than baseball, and where AI is going to change the data game. He even touched on how he’s using data to further an investigation into a World War II hero, Raoul Wallenberg, who helped save civilians during the Holocaust but then disappeared shortly after the war.

It’s easy to be riveted by Ari’s data culture evangelism. Michael Lewis may have authored the book Moneyball, but if there’s one person who can truly spin a good story about data, it’s Ari Kaplan!

Listen to the full episode: The Impact of Analytics on a Zero-Sum Game.

  • Bringing data cultures to baseball
  • Evangelizing data cultures with the data intelligence platform
  • Using data for business, sports, and humanity
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