Analytics boss answers all with MLB buzzing about Yankees obsession

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Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone are running neck and neck in one of America’s favorite pastimes — more than baseball itself — which is deciding who to blame most when disappointment far outweighs distinction.

The Yankees (42-41) have underachieved expectations and payroll, playing lethargically and stupidly and that leaves the general manager and manager targeted for public animus, jockeying for who the fan base would most like to see fired.

Yet, another factor has hovered over these Yankees: A sense that they have descended to their worst state since the early 1990s because Cashman has more and more empowered the analytic wing of his front office when it comes to decision making at the expense of scouting. As one outside AL executive said, summing up a lot of what you hear from competitors these days, “They have eyeballs [scouts] and meetings, but I think it is weighted 90-10 [toward analytics], just by the moves they have made.”

And in this world there is an Oz-like figure behind the scenes in vice president/assistant GM Mike Fishman, who runs the organization’s analytic department. He came to the Yankees in 2005, and there is no doubt that his department’s size and influence have both expanded dramatically over the years. But has it gone too far in determining who plays for the Yankees and how the games are played, leading to a Frankenstein monster of a team that is disjointed and lacking in so many areas, namely athleticism, lefty hitting, rotation depth and baseball IQ?

So between games of Sunday’s Mets-Yankees doubleheader, I spoke to Fishman for more than 40 minutes about the various concerns involving the 2021 Yankees. But there was an obvious place to begin, and that is whether the Yanks have gotten out of whack in what they value, how they value it and who has the greatest say on the value.

“First, there are a lot of analytic-heavy teams that are having a lot of success — the Rays, the Red Sox, the Brewers, the Dodgers, the Giants,” Fishman said. “These teams are having a lot of success. As far as us, analytics are part of our process. It is part of the process for most teams. It is not our only process. It is not how decisions are made [exclusively analytic]. It is providing information for our decisions, for our players, for our coaches, for the front office. It is not making all of the decisions. It is part of the decision to make sure we are making good decisions using all of the tools available.”

But what of the league-wide buzz that the Yankees have tilted so strongly in one way, often fueled by those who work for the Yankees in scouting telling industry buddies that they are more and more not heard at the same level? In speaking to reporters last week, Hal Steinbrenner said that when it comes to his process, he has not changed and that he’s valued the input of more traditional scouting types in the hierarchy such as Tim Naehring and Jim Hendry the same as ever in a mix with analytics.

“I would say league-wide there is a growing influence of analytics,” Fishman said. “I don’t think more so for the Yankees. I wouldn’t say it is winning the day in most decisions. There are a lot of decisions that go opposite of what analytics [recommend]. I think it is an over-characterization of analytics winning the day. There is so much that goes into every decision. A lot of decisions are made that are the opposite of the analytical recommendation.”

But when I asked if he could provide examples of where analytics did not carry the day and scouting did, Fishman did not respond for 10 seconds, offered hesitating non-answers for about another 10 and then said that there are in-game decisions, for example, involving relievers that are not following analytic suggestions. He then added, “There is a lot of talk that analytics makes the lineups. Analytics does not make the lineups. Boone makes the lineups. All the information is provided to the coaches and the staff.”

Fishman then said, “I can’t think of a good example off the top of my head. They are numerous. Every day there are decisions, some are analytic decisions, some are not.”

Is it possible, though, that Boone knows who has the power in the organization and that his decision making is being made to please who is in charge at City Hall. The Yankees, after all, have not only leaned heavily in the majors on analytics, but also with who has been hired and what they are preaching up and down the system. So in Game 2 of last year’s AL Division Series against the Rays, for example, is Boone controversially starting Deivi Garcia for just one inning before inserting J.A. Happ because he thinks it is the right maneuver or because if it is close at all, simply align with who has the organization’s strongest voice?

“I don’t think so,” Fishman said. “I don’t think there is an element of City Hall where you have to go one way. The narrative is out there.”

The strongest complaint about the Yankees — one that I believe — is that there has been a loss of feel in assembling a roster. I am no enemy of analytics. They are vital and even the angriest Yankees fan should not lose perspective that it helped — among many other items — the Yanks score Luis Cessa and Chad Green for Justin Wilson. But is there too much concentration on obtaining the best paint colors at the expense of making sure those colors work in unison on a canvas?

For the 2021 Yankees, each individual decision can be explained and, often, the individual decision is a winning one. However, once assembled, particularly regarding the positional group, there are too few lefty hitters, too little athleticism and limited baseball smarts.

“To that, a lot of this is the same team that has had success,” Fishman said of a lineup that was top four each season in runs from 2017-20 and scored the most overall in that period and was central to a playoff team each season. “So this was individual players who were brought together and they are not having success this year, but they had success in the past. This was a lineup that produced runs the last couple of years and isn’t this year. So the same argument can be used, it is individual players brought in together, but it worked together as a productive lineup. And it hasn’t been a productive lineup this year.

“You have homegrown stars — [Aaron] Judge and [Gary] Sanchez — who came up together. Then there were guys we got in prospect trades, Gleyber [Torres] and [Clint] Frazier. Then there were undervalued guys like [Luke] Voit, [Gio] Urshela and [DJ] LeMahieu. Each of those decisions, you wouldn’t turn down acquiring any one of those players.”

When it came to obtaining Giancarlo Stanton, Fishman said there “was a decision to acquire that type of [slugging] player, but the roster as a whole was not, ‘Let’s go out and get this type of player.’ ”

As for making the team too easy to game plan against by being so right-handed, Fishman argued that if that were true, opponents would be loading up on righty pitching against them, and that is not the case. The Yankees have the eighth-fewest plate appearances against righty pitching while they have the 11th-most against lefties.

“We just haven’t hit well against righties or lefties,” Fishman said. “We are not mashing lefties this year.”

Despite all the righty hitters, the Yanks’ .730 OPS versus lefties was just 13th in the majors entering Monday. But this heavily righty-hitting, non-athletic lineup has led to the second-most double plays and the fewest doubles, triples and steals. It has made the Yanks more homer-or-bust than ever, emphasizing how becoming so much of one element has defused the Yanks when that one element [homers] is good but not great.

“This is the lineup that had success,” Fishman said. “You would live with the double plays if the rest of the production was there. But the rest of the production is not there, so the double plays stand out. It is not easy to turn over a lineup. These are the players we acquired for good reasons and we have had success with these players. And some of the players are not having the same level of success. Some of it is hard to predict.”

Fishman said, “It is not neglect” when forsaking defense or athleticism. He said the goal has always been the same, to create “the best run differential and that will generally lead to the best won-lost record.”

Is it possible, though, that the Yankees remained stuck on a philosophy of how to generate the greatest run differential and that other analytic departments recognized, for example, that speed or contact or being able to think and play at a high level simultaneously were attributes that were needed to go along with power? I have, for example, always wondered if the Yanks are trailblazers in analytics or simply if they see what is working in the moment and then put their manpower and finances behind that, leaving them one step behind in figuring out what is next.

“It’s possible,” Fishman said. “You never know what teams have come up with internally. Everyone has their own research groups. If they come up with something good, you want to keep it a secret for as long as you can. So it is possible that some teams have discovered what we haven’t. It’s also possible they haven’t. We’ve done a lot of good work in this area. And I think this is a strength of ours. But it is possible that some teams could have passed us in certain ways. … We have been out in front in certain things and there are some things we were aware of, but slow to implement.”

Fishman insisted that the Yankees have not stayed with this nucleus stubbornly to prove they can win with it. He also downplayed that the Yanks should have anticipated that changes in making the baseball less lively to begin the year should have motivated roster alterations without fully knowing just how the ball would play. As for the step-up in enforcement in sticky stuff hurting the Yankee pitchers more than others, Fishman said it was still too early to know. But the Yankees had the majors’ second-best ERA (3.16) through June 2, and since the memo that there would be a crackdown went out on June 3, they had the fifth-worst (5.47).

So is this simply a roster that cannot function at a high level in the environment of 2021?

“We will have to see,” Fishman said. “The players, even with the changes in the game, are capable of more than they have produced this year. The hope is the production is going to improve with the players we have. Our job is to continue to look for ways to improve the roster.”

To that end, Fishman said the plan is still not to be sellers before the July 30 non-waiver trade deadline. He called the season “salvageable” and said the belief remains that this is a talented roster underperforming. Fishman said he understood the criticisms of his department because of the team’s poor play. Yet he continued to rebuke the ever-growing criticism that the failure is directly tied to his department gaining more and more influence on how the roster is assembled, coached and provided with tactics.

“The process hasn’t changed,” Fishman said. “The analytics we are using hasn’t really changed from the time we were a successful team over the past years. We continue to try to evolve and try to learn more. Analytics is a discovery process trying to learn new things and make yourself better with better information. We are continuing to enhance our research and find the next new thing. That’s a constant process. Analytics has not changed; it has always been part of the process. It’s a valuable tool. We are going to continue to look for higher ground.”

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