"A Data-driven Method for In-game Decision Making in MLB" is easily the worst title of the eight Sloan paper finalists, which is a shame, given that it's actually an interesting application of machine learning that's directly related to one of the most important aspects of baseball game management. By "in-game decision making," authors Gartheeban Ganeshapillai and John Guttag are referring to one decision: When do you pull your starting pitcher? More specifically, when do you pull your starting pitcher, if it's late in the game and the score is close?

Using data from the first 80 percent of the 2006-2010 seasons, the researchers built a model that estimated whether the starting pitcher would give up at least one run in the next inning of late (5th-inning+), close games, and used this to make a recommendation as to whether to pull the starter mid-frame. This model was accurate in 81 percent of innings. The "researcher" model was then tested on the last 20 percent of the 2006-2010 seasonsâ€”21,538 innings in totalâ€”and it disagreed with the actual decisions made by MLB managers a remarkable 48 percent of the time.

In 6,201 innings, the model recommended keeping the starter in, and the starter was kept it. The pitcher gave up a run the next inning 18 percent of the time. In 9,288 innings, the manager opted to keep the starter in when the model recommended pulling them, and in these cases the pitcher gave up a run the next inning 32 percent of the time.* In other words, the result implies that managers should be pulling their starters a lot more often in late, close situations.

If you follow NFL statistics, you might be noticing some parallels between Ganeshapillai's and Guttag's research and the work that Brian Burke has been doing for fourth-down calls. NFL coaches have become slightly less risk-averse on fourth down in recent years, just as MLB managers have become more reliant on middle relief. Nevertheless, these two mathematical modelsâ€”both, to be fair, limited by the amount of contextual information they can employâ€”imply that coaches/managers are still far from "maximizing" their decision-making in these situations.

One critical difference: Most would agree that more fourth-down attempts would make football more exciting. No one's clamoring for more pitching changes, and the deep-throwing starter is still venerated in baseball (seriously or otherwise). On the other hand, the baseball powers-that-be seem generally more amenable to this type of analysis, and good starting pitching has the nasty habit of being expensive.