FanGraphs Knows Baseball Stats

David Appelman wanted to win his fantasy baseball league. So he created a company that could help him do it.

Photo by Erick Gibson

Name: David Appelman

Age: 35

Lives In: Clarendon, with his wife of five years, Shoa

Current Job: Chief executive of FanGraphs, a baseball analytics website for fans and insiders that publishes more than 400 articles a month on topics such as fantasy baseball advice, statistical trends and top baseball prospects. The site averages about 1.2 million unique visitors per month and has a content agreement with ESPN Insider.

First Love: I lived in New York until I was 13, but grew up a Red Sox fan. My mom’s family is from Boston and they took me to Fenway.

Passion Project: As a kid, I was a huge baseball fan. I was really into collecting baseball cards. Like, really into collecting baseball cards. I started FanGraphs in 2005 because I wanted to win at fantasy baseball.

First Job: Analyst at America Online. My job was to build these big packages of graphs tracking dial-up network stats and connection issues for executives for the weekly meetings. I would get all of this data and compile it into packages of, like, 200 graphs. I thought it would be cool with baseball stats if I could similarly graph them and see trends.

Full Roster: What started as a small hobby project is now more of a baseball media company that I run out of my home. We have nine full-time employees spread out across the country and more than 30 freelance writers.

The Moneyball Factor: If I’m at a bar and there’s a baseball game on and I end up in a conversation with the person next to me, it’s not a given that they know what FanGraphs is. But ever since [the book and the movie], people ask what I do and I say, “Baseball analysis… like Moneyball.” And they immediately get it.

Site Strategy: We are mostly advertising-based, but we currently have an NPR-style membership where you can give $20 and become a member for a year. We also have an ad-free membership [which hides all the ads from the site] that’s $50 a year. It’s been doing pretty well.

Game Changer: FanGraphs has made a difference in how people think about baseball—including players. Very early on I wrote an article about one pitcher in particular, using pitch data before a lot of this kind of data was publicly available. I suggested that he would achieve greater success (in fact he already had) by pitching inside more often. After his next start, that pitcher emailed me. He said he had tried out what I said and the result was fewer strikeouts, but more weak contact with the ball [which led to more outs and a lower pitch count]. It’s pretty cool when a Major League pitcher draws advice from something you wrote.

A Young Man’s Game: The younger players who are coming up are used to this stuff. They are more receptive to looking at and understanding all of this data, trying to figure out the things they are doing wrong. It doesn’t take much of an improvement to make considerably more money in baseball. An extra win and you can make an extra $5 million to $10 million.

Strong Arms: I’m a Max Scherzer fan. I’m just generally a fan of dominant pitchers like [Hall of Famer] Pedro Martinez and [three-time Cy Young Award winner] Clayton Kershaw. I like the idea that pitchers can make the best batters look kind of silly.

Defensive Play: One of the big things teams are interested in now is injury prevention. I think a lot of work is going to be done—from biomechanics to training programs—to figure out how to keep pitchers healthy. There were an insane number of pitcher injuries in the last two years, and these players are worth tens of millions of dollars a year.

Getting on Base: I don’t play much softball, but we do have a company-wide annual Wiffle Ball game. And I’m decent at Wiffle Ball. I’m a contact hitter. Not necessarily able to hit it over the fence, though.

Pinch-Hitting: I actually have a really terrible memory when it comes to stats. I’m not good at recalling baseball trivia off the top of my head. That’s why having FanGraphs is very useful for me.

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