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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Solving the Yankee Equation, One Number at a Time


This season has also seen a profound shift in the Yankees’ approach at the plate. For years, they have been among the most patient teams in baseball, but overnight the Yankees have become one of the most aggressive, going from third in pitches per at-bat last year to 25th this season with virtually the same lineup.

As one of their performance-science initiatives, the Yankees have even used eye-tracking devices, which might help predict or improve reaction times — a potentially useful tool for hitters.

In addition, the decisions to acquire players like catcher Brian McCann, Headley, outfielder Dustin Ackley and the former Yankees Brandon McCarthy, Chris Young and Nick Swisher were driven significantly by what the Yankees found by digging deeply into numbers.

“It would be naïve to think we’re all here because of old-fashioned scouting,” reliever Andrew Miller said.

Fishman is circumspect in discussing the Yankees’ analytics work in detail.

“If we find an inefficiency to the game that we can exploit and then it’s made public, it’s no longer an inefficiency,” Fishman said. “Everybody knows about it.”

He added: “People who do research in baseball are making a choice: I’m going to do something that’s going to the benefit of the team that’s going to help them win games, and my research is not going to be made public. I’m not going to get the glory for my research.”

In fact, it is sometimes quite the contrary.

The Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage, a former Yankee, in an expletive-peppered interview with ESPN.com in March, lamented the increasing number of high-ranking baseball executives with elite college degrees who had not played the game.

“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it,” Gossage said. “I’ll tell you what has happened: These guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever they went, and they thought they figured the game out.”

In actuality, Gossage said, they did not know anything.

When Gossage’s rant was being discussed on a television in the Yankees’ clubhouse during spring training, a team employee called out with a playful laugh to one of the analytics staffers passing by: “Hey, nerd: They’re talking about you.”

Gossage’s comments were met mostly with eye-rolling, just another crank shouting at children to get off his lawn, and they also earned him a scolding from Cashman. Fishman shrugged it off, even if Gossage could have been talking about him.

“There’s a lot of randomness in baseball, so sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong,” Fishman said. “But for the most part, I think we’ve been right a lot more than wrong.”

Fishman, who grew up in Fairfield, Conn., began viewing baseball as a game of probability when he was all of 7 years old. That was when he began playing Strat-O-Matic, a game that uses dice, along with cards that contain the statistics of major league hitters and pitchers. Within two years, Fishman was developing his own weighted formulas for evaluating a player’s worth.

By the time Fishman and his brother Rocky, who is two years older, were teenagers, they would gather their friends for weekend-long Strat-O-Matic binges at their house, with research notes and cards scattered all over the floor.

The cards, noted Rocky Fishman, who now works as an equity derivatives strategist for Deutsche Bank, did not have personalities or hot or cold streaks, except the ones randomly provided by a roll of the dice.

Instead, he said, it was all about numbers and “the ways to maximize your odds of winning a baseball game.” In effect, his kid brother was already acting like a 21st-century baseball executive even though it was still the early 1990s and he was not old enough to vote.

By the time Michael Fishman reached high school, he had also found another outlet for a fierce competitive streak: math competitions. He entered a statewide contest in eighth grade in which the top four advanced to a national event in Washington. He finished first.

When Fishman arrived the next fall as a ninth grader at the Hopkins School in New Haven, he felt like a hot-shot basketball recruit on a college campus because upperclassmen knew all about him.

Naturally shy or reticent, Fishman does not carry himself with the cocksure gait of a former athlete, nor is he compelled to fill lulls in a conversation. Those who have known him describe him as determinedly loyal and with a wry often understated sense of humor.

David McCord, a teacher who coached the math team at Hopkins, recalls two things about Fishman: He was rarely seen without a Mets cap, and he became a galvanizing figure within the math team, a captain in the truest sense, drawing in other students who, like Fishman, might have been “a little off kilter in their social progress — very funny, quirky kids.”

“There is an intensity there that is not at all obvious,” McCord said. “One of the things about Michael, and this is very rare, is it just all made sense. I don’t think at any point in high school anything in math was trouble for him. It just made sense.”

‘Orchestrated Strategy’

In many ways, numbers are the prisms through which Fishman sees the world. In college, he and his friends would devise their own formulas to calculate which food at the cafeteria constituted the best deal. And when Fishman was organizing a “Simpsons” marathon before graduation, he ranked dozens of episodes on cassette tapes to determine the viewing order.

Sometimes his pursuits conquered campus obstacles. When Fishman prepared for the housing lottery at the end of his freshman year at Yale, he did not like his chances. So he read through the rules and set about improving his odds.

Fishman identified the suite he wanted at Yale and canvassed his friends to see who wanted to share it or live in adjacent rooms. Then he studied the selection order, which was weighted by seniority and room type, and contacted those picking ahead of him to gather intelligence. The final domino was persuading an upperclassman to switch rooms.


Yankees’ reliever Andrew Miller pitching in the All-Star Game.

Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency

The lottery unfolded precisely as Fishman planned: He got the room, suitemates and neighbors he wanted, and for the next three years his suite became the social center for his circle of friends.

“It was an orchestrated strategy,” said Saul Nabata, who met Fishman in a computer science class when they were freshmen and roomed with him the next three years. “He took some very creative approaches instead of saying, ‘Here’s the rules of the lottery, and you go ahead and follow them.’ He was always extremely clever and analytic.”

When Fishman had earned his degree in math, the use of analytics in sports was nascent — and baseball was near impossible to break into without having played the game at some level. So Fishman became an actuary at an insurance company.

But he also began a side career in the fantasy sports industry, where he became a well-known figure. Then “Moneyball” hit, and suddenly doors into baseball began to fly open.

Fishman sent letters to all 30 clubs. He prepared two projects — on how in-game moves affected win probability and on relief pitcher valuation — that he hoped would showcase his problem-solving skills. He landed an interview with Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, the protagonist in “Moneyball,” at the 2004 winter meetings, and Beane peppered him with questions.

The A’s analyst job eventually went to Farhan Zaidi, now the Dodgers‘ general manager, but Fishman was encouraged enough to continue his hunt, touring spring training camps and meeting with more teams. One asked him for a sample project on batting orders, another was interested in hiring him as a computer programmer, and several asked if he was interested in an internship; he was not.

By July 2005, the Yankees expressed interest. Cashman brought Fishman in for an interview and, within a week or so, offered him a job.

“I don’t know how I expected it to go,” Rocky Fishman said of his brother’s pursuit of a career in baseball. “But I don’t know if he was terribly happy doing what he was doing. It became clear as he started going down that path that he had a pretty sensible plan. He didn’t take on a baseball career haphazardly.”

At the end of that initial season, Eppler, a scout with a degree in finance, became the Yankees’ director of pro scouting. His office was near Fishman’s, and by the time the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, their offices were next door to each other.

Over the years they developed a near daily routine: Eppler would go into Fishman’s office each morning and they would talk — about the Yankees, amateur scouting, pro scouting, life in general.

“He was a confidant of mine and I think I was a confidant of his,” said Eppler, who was hired by the Angels after last season. “Brian was so inclusionary that he grabbed opinions from multiple departments and his court, but if he’d come and ask me or Fish something, usually we’d already discussed it with each other.”

Fishman said his relationship with Eppler was vital in understanding the perspective of a scout, who might see qualities in a player or his character or personality that Fishman would not. He also credited Gene Michael, the team’s special adviser and former general manager, with sharing his vast array of experiences.

“I always want to understand things from a different perspective and want the organization to make the best decision possible using all the information possible,” Fishman said. “I can’t go to a high school game and identify what those players are going to be 10 years later the way scouts can. But I want to use what they’re doing to help us make the best decision.”

Ever-Changing Dynamics

While the influence of Fishman and the Yankees continues to grow, there remains a degree of skepticism or indifference in the clubhouse. The bullpen coach Gary Tuck, who was close with Manager Joe Girardi and was lauded for his work with catchers, was fired after last season in large part because of his resistance to analytics.

Few players have much direct contact with the data analysts; their reports are often disseminated through the coaching staff. And those reports have an impact. Headley, the third baseman, has been moved further off the line defensively this season and has been encouraged to be more aggressive in certain counts.

“It’s a different dynamic being told by somebody who hadn’t played the game before where you need to stand,” said Headley, who recalled veteran pitchers like David Wells, Greg Maddux and Chris Young yelling at him if he strayed from the line.

Headley continued: “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve done this for 15 years,’ or somebody who’s done it for 25 years coaching. But I think the more you communicate, the more you talk, you realize we’re trying to accomplish the same thing and that there’s a nice balance. It’s a tool, not the tool belt.”

Earlier this year, Headley asked David Grabiner, the director of quantitative analysis for the Yankees, to bring him something that might be useful.

“It can be frustrating when you get information passed down to you without any communication,” Headley said. “More than anything, I’m trying to get that relationship going so that when he brings me something there’s that trust that this is something that might really help me, it’s not just some obscure number.”

Carlos Beltran, the Yankees’ best hitter this season, said that while he studied video, he considered himself an intuitive hitter, relying on his 19 years of big league experience to guide him. But Miller, the reliever, said he believed that would change with the next generation who will come up understanding metrics such as Z-scores or wOBA and use them to influence how they swing the bat or throw the ball.

That generation may soon be on its way.

A raft talent in the Yankees’ minor league system has inched its way closer to the majors. And no matter how the next iteration of Yankees look, they are certain to be shaped by Fishman’s increasingly visible hands.

Correction: July 25, 2016
An earlier version of this story misstated the academic discipline of Ben Baumer, an assistant professor at Smith College. He is an assistant professor of statistical and data sciences, not data and sciences.

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