NASHVILLE — From the time owner Hal Steinbrenner said in late August that he planned to hire an outside company to evaluate how the Yankees operate — specifically when it comes to their use of analytics — there was widespread organizational skepticism about exactly what that would mean in terms of any changes of significance occurring.
Last month general manager Brian Cashman threw cold water to a degree on it, making it clear that what had been described in some circles as an “audit” by the company, Zelus Analytics, isn't that at all.
“How do they run their algorithms, how do they evaluate certain things using their analytics and we get to compare ours to what they do and then maybe see a blind spot or two,” Cashman said. “That’s all it is. If we see in some of their algorithms they do something a little different, we’ll ask why and we’ll make a determination if that’s a better way or is our stuff better than their stuff. That’s really all that’s about.”
Mike Fishman, who has been the Yankees' assistant general manager since 2016 and oversees the club’s analytics group, on Monday expanded further on the notion that Zelus’ evaluation, which is expected to last throughout the 2024 season, isn’t what it at first appeared to be.
“We are not opening our books at all,” said Fishman, who joined the organization in July 2005 as an analyst in baseball operations. “We’re getting access to what they’ve done, they’re not getting access to what we’ve done. So then it will be on us to determine how to use their work and how to use our work and decide what to use and when and adjustments to make. But they’re not doing an audit of us.”
It was Fishman, Steinbrenner disclosed in November, who recommended the hiring of Zelus, a disclosure quickly placed in the fox-watching-the-henhouse category by more than a few in the organization.
Fishman’s analytics group, mostly praised in the media over the years as cutting edge and ahead of most teams when it comes to its processes, came under the most fire it ever has this past season as the Yankees staggered to an 82-80 finish that resulted in the franchise’s first playoff-less year since 2016.
The increased criticism of the group — and those critiques began well before the lost 2023 season — prompted an impassioned defense by Cashman in early November.
“We’ve got good people. I’m proud of our people and I’m proud of our process,” Cashman said Nov. 7 in Scottsdale during a fiery hour-plus news conference, parts of which quickly went viral. “Doesn’t mean we’re firing on all cylinders, doesn’t mean we’re the best in class, but I think we’re pretty [expletive] good, personally, and I’m proud of our people.”
Fishman said he “appreciated” the full-throated defense by his boss.
“He recognizes the work that the analytics department has done,” Fishman said. “I think he understands that the analytics department has created a lot of really good information and tools over the years and recommendations as well.”
Among the criticisms of the Yankees in recent years is that the organization has increasingly, with rare exceptions, followed almost exclusively the recommendations of the analytics wing in everything from player acquisitions to coaching hires to how the minor leagues are run.
Steinbrenner, in a Zoom call with reporters a few hours before Cashman’s explosive news conference, promised “changes” in how the club operates, though without specifying.
For his part, Fishman said, “There are changes we plan to make but haven’t fully implemented.”
Although Cashman called the narrative of the Yankees being almost entirely run by the analytics department “a lie,” it nonetheless is a widely held belief, including in his own organization, and has been for several years.
Players, though appreciative of the amount of information at their disposal, increasingly have discussed among themselves their frustration with aspects of the influence of the analytics group, something Aaron Judge gave some public voice to at season’s end.
“I think on the analytics side, the information and resources the Yankees provide are great,” Judge said Oct. 1 in Kansas City. “It's about how we use them and how we value them. An aspect that we maybe need to look at again."
Fishman said discussions with players — he didn’t specify with whom, but it’s not a stretch to assume Judge was one — have taken place in that regard.
“That’s definitely part of the process,” he said. “There’s definitely some things that we could have explained better or educated better on.”