During a recent episode of Talking Pitching which bounced from Korean catchers to the most impressive change-up he’s ever thrown, KBO pitcher Dan Straily mentioned something about his preparation almost as an aside:
“My game plan hasn’t really changed because my game plan resource adapted to the KBO. I use a company called Codify and this guy basically makes individualized heat maps for me. He has this system in place where, even if you’ve never faced the hitter, he has so many people that are like you and [information on] what hitters have done and how they’ve reacted. It makes me feel so comfortable, I’ve used it for …this’ll be year number five with him.”
An esoteric service that was not only creating individualized heat maps but was being utilized at the big league level made me very curious. As Straily would later mention, Codify isn’t too well-represented on the internet. A google search returns a definition of the word as opposed to anything baseball related. After a bit more digging, I found an Instagram page and became introduced to what could be one of the most impactful pitching tools since Driveline.
Michael Fisher cut his teeth in the financial industry analyzing data and building models before his 150-mile-a-day commute and newborn daughter made him reassess. The now 50-year-old was looking for more stability while trying to find other banks or financial agencies that may have been able to utilize his analytics. In 2003, he started Codify, “a company that provides analytics consulting services.” Never did he think it would turn into a service that currently represents dozens of Major League Baseball players including several All-Stars and a World Series champion.
Mike isn’t just a financial whiz with a penchant for analytics; he’s been a passionate fan of the game of baseball for quite some time. “I don’t know if I could do it anymore, but I [once] could tell you the starting rotation of every minor league team [for the A’s],” Mike said to me in one of our many talks. It was that fandom mixed with a chance encounter that led to the beginnings of the baseball wing of Codify.
Back in 2010, Mike was at a family barbecue when he struck up a conversation about baseball with his uncle’s wife. It turned out she had a son who played for the Kane County Cougars, a local Oakland Athletics affiliate, named Dan Straily. A diehard A’s fan who “bleeds green and gold,” Mike was familiar. She introduced Mike to Straily and the two hit it off.
“At one point he started a Dan Straily fan page with just a bunch of obscure facts,” says Straily from his hotel room in Korea, “it was honestly quite entertaining.”
The two kept in communication as the years went by and once Straily hit the majors in 2012, Mike would send some pitch f/x information his way. “I never really thought about helping him,” says Mike, “it was more trivial stuff, ‘Hey, did you know we could look at this stuff?’”
At that point, Straily was having success doing what he’d done in the minors and feeling confident about it. A 24th round pick, Straily spent just three and a half seasons in the minor leagues thanks to an amazing fastball/slider combination. Through his first two MLB seasons, Straily had a very respectable 3.94 ERA over 191 IP with a near 20% strikeout rate. While Straily enjoyed talking with Mike and the pitch f/x stuff was fascinating, there was no need to tweak or adjust what had already brought Straily success. Then things started to change.
Straily started to yo-yo a bit between the A’s and the minors until he was traded to the Cubs along with Addison Russell and Billy McKinney for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. A year later, the Cubs packaged Straily and Luis Valbuena, and sent them to the Astros for Dexter Fowler. Straily was later DFA’d by the Astros, then traded to the Padres for Erik Kratz and then, less than a week later, DFA’d by the Padres.
It was around that time that Straily called Mike. “There was a point in 2015 where I was just like, ‘Michael, what has changed?’ I know I was throwing up to 94 and was younger and all that stuff, but what has changed? What’s broken?”
Mike went to his computer and was able to deliver some concrete answers regarding Straily’s arm slot and other minute mechanical issues. This helped Straily revert back to some of the fundamentals that made him successful in the first place. “It helped me,” says Straily, “and so that was really the start of us being kind of like …a team.”
That offseason, Straily went to Driveline where he improved his mobility and shoulder health and was later claimed off waivers by the Reds. Rather than just relying on their pitching coaches, however, Straily also started to consult with Mike a bit more. “[Mike] would just send me this chart where it was green, yellow, and red with each one of my pitches on it. It was like ‘this guy you should throw sliders to, this guy you shouldn’t throw sliders to and it was that simple but it birthed what is now the heat maps.”
Most baseball analysts – whether casual or obsessive – can take a quick trip to Fangraphs or Baseball Savant and pull up a basic heat map. From what I’ve heard, the issue seems to be that a fair amount of organizations aren’t taking things that much further, instead they’re relying on fairly rudimentary heat maps.
“Teams were starting to give pitchers maps and they were literally quadrants,” Mike tells me. “They didn’t even show the strike zone, just a point in space. The lines were intersecting in the middle with no information or just BABIP. It was worth very little.”
Mike, with some help from Straily, set out to change that. He started out by creating same-handed matchup heat maps, then opposite-handed matchup heat maps, then from there he’d remove or replace what he felt wasn’t beneficial and bring in what he felt was lacking: runs above average, wOBA, swing rate, contact rate, etc. As Mike told me, “we just started enhancing in cycles and have been ever since; it’s still improving.” After five years of tweaks, hundreds of iterations and millions of calculations, they started to resemble this:
What you’re looking at is an actual Codify heat map that Mike has delivered to a pitcher. Per Mike’s request I’ve removed the specific pitcher this is for as well as the batters this information is to be utilized against.
For example sake, let’s say this is for Matthew Boyd (it’s not) and the four hitters are, from left to right, Batter A, B, C and D. What Matthew Boyd wants to do is exploit a hitter’s weak points or “get into the blue” as Mike would say. As is true with most heat maps, the bluer the area, the worse a hitter performs in that area. So Boyd can more effectively use his four-seamer at the top of the zone against all four hitters, he can come in against Batter A and B, but will be more likely to get hit if he tries to do the same against D.
Some interesting things to note: there’s a lot more room to work at the bottom of the zone than the top, and there are a lot of instances where the risk/reward is extremely prominent. For example, look at “Boyd’s” cutter against Batter B. One of the bluest squares is incredibly close to an orange square. If Boyd can execute that cutter near the top of the zone, he’ll get positive results. If it leaks down even a bit, it could get hammered. There are hundreds of squares a pitcher can go to (some aren’t even featured above according to Mike). So what goes into determining their color?
There’s no way of knowing the multitude of variables that go into making these heat maps, or what Straily and Mike commonly refer to as “the soup.” It’s proprietary to Mike and he’s justifiably reticent to say too much. From what I can suss out, though, it’s a lot and it’s not what you may think of at first. Mike isn’t just looking at each pitch individually, he’s looking at their repertoire and seeing how it plays overall. Whatever is going into Codify though doesn’t matter, really. All that matters is if the heat maps are effective, and if Liam Hendriks has anything to say about it, they are.
I asked the 2019 All-Star how much of the success he experienced in his career best season could be attributed to Codify. “Almost all of it. I started the season not very confident in what I was doing. Having a resource in my back pocket that I could use before a series or especially after a bad outing was enormous.” Hendriks’ teammate and Codify user Blake Treinen had this to say after his All-Star, career best 2018 season:
View this post on Instagram
Shout-out from Blake Treinen on @mlbnetwork ! 👊💥⚾️ #getintotheblue #blaketreinen #oaklandathletics #athletics #washingtonnationals #nationals #baseball #mlb #milb #pitching #pitch #pitcher #pitchers #shoutout #shoutouts #amazing #wow #johnsmoltz #christianathlete #christianathletes #video #instavideo #30clubs30days #smart
You’ll notice a similar word in both Hendriks’ and Treinen’s statements: confidence. Straily, whose Codify-fueled KBO results are league leading, also mentioned the word a lot. “I have to make 90 – 100 decisions a start…[Codify] gives you so much confidence and takes so much pressure off the decision of where to go”.
While the metrics and calculations behind Codify continue to evolve with the game, the process of dealing with pitchers has refined and solidified since the company’s inception. When Mike finds out a pitcher is interested in connecting with him he’ll “jump to Pitcher List right away” (he swears he isn’t pandering) to figure out their arsenal.
He’ll jump on a call with them or start texting to get a good sense of how they think: Does he need to be convinced or is he already sold because Liam Hendriks uses it? Is he a pitcher who likes to drink from the straw or the firehose? If they’ve reached an agreement, Mike will give them their own customized maps that pick random hitters and ask them if they see any surprises. He’ll then explain at a relatable level why their maps look the way they do. This serves a dual purpose: to help show pitchers why Codify is legitimate and to get a better idea of how to communicate with that pitcher should he agree to work with Mike.
If they do come to an agreement, the next steps can vary. While Mike will distribute maps to his clients either every day (relievers) or every five days (starters), pitchers communicate with Mike in different ways. Some guys prefer what Mike refers to as perpetual “After Action Reports” (thorough breakdowns of that game), while some will check in once every couple of weeks and others will reach out when a prospect comes up to figure out the best way to attack. Once September rolls around, Mike’s job gets a bit more difficult as he adjusts for expanded rosters but that’s in essence the beauty of Codify: it’s constantly updating and adjusting to give pitchers the most informed data.
Liam Hendriks using Codify; source: @GetIntoTheBlue on Instagram
“All my stuff is built custom and there’s one thing I definitely know, it’s never going to produce results that line up with the team,” Mike tells me. “Some of the teams are doing sexy stuff and have maps in common with mine […] but there’s a key difference: I can help dig in and say here’s why this is a blue spot.” While it seems some organizations are interested in making individual maps of swing rate or contact rate, Codify is taking those same variables, as well as others, combining them and adding personalized elements based on that pitcher. “While their maps look backwards, my stuff is predicting what happens next time.” This does not mean that all organizations are misinforming their pitchers, that’s by no means the case. Codify isn’t meant to be a fork in the road between a pitching staff and a personalized heat map. Instead, it’s a second opinion. But one from a family doctor who knows a heck of a lot more about you.
There’s a misconception permeating through the industry that I’ve been culpable in spreading: that because organizations are becoming more analytical, they’re doing things right. That a team getting an analytics department is a harbinger of better times ahead. It doesn’t appear that this is always the case. While progress has been made in other areas – both Nelson Figueroa and Jameson Taillon have led me to believe that workouts and nutrition have become more personalized – it seems that many organizations are still approaching things from the macro as opposed to the micro; forcing organizational ideologies on starting pitchers as opposed to embracing them for their unique skillset.
One pitcher, who requested he remain anonymous, told me a story about how after he’d been acquired by an organization, a high up from the pitching staff informed him that, “they don’t do Driveline”. Laughing this off, the pitcher began a Driveline exercise until the same staffer cut him off: “we don’t do Driveline here”. While this pitcher decided to carry on regardless, he spoke of others who didn’t feel comfortable and instead resorted to doing Driveline exercises on concrete in the garages of their hotels before coming to the field. “There’s way more of that in the game than we still realize”.
“‘You need to bag your slider,'” a coach said to one of Mike’s many anonymous clients (some just prefer anonymity while others don’t want their organizations knowing). “‘Last time you threw it you gave up a home run’. ‘Well, yea,’ retorted the pitcher, ‘but did you look at the previous 300?’, ‘Just bag it. Throw a cutter instead’, ‘Sure’. So what did the pitcher do?” asks Mike with a laugh. “He kept throwing the slider and told them it was a cutter. It literally had the same characteristics. It was his slider. Literally the same pitch. But he told them it was a cutter and they said, “See! See how good that cutter is? See how much better a pitch that is than your slider?”
My intention here is not to slander organizations. There are dozens of pitching coaches and front offices significantly benefitting pitchers. It seems ill-informed however, to automatically conflate an analytically forward organization with one delivering information best suited to their pitchers.
“I was fighting like hell for my big league career and the explanation I was getting [from teams] was the same information you would have handed Max Scherzer,” says Straily. “The same information that Gerrit Cole would have been given and, sorry, but I’m not those guys. I should never pretend like I am when I’m on the mound but when you hand me information like I’m the same version as them, I have a little bit of a disagreement with that.” This is precisely where Codify shines: by treating each pitcher as unique as opposed to trying to make them emulate what Justin Verlander is doing. Even if it means going against the grain.
View this post on Instagram
Always interesting to see what happens when guys go middle/middle with their heater regardless of intention…can you see why our pal Shawn Armstrong was so effective there in 2019? Our system is certainly looking, trying to separate good luck from good opportunity… 👍 #getintotheblue #baseball #mlb #milb #pitching #pitch #pitcher #pitchers #amazing #wow #locationlocationlocation #blue #art #science #planning #execution #maps #success #instagood #instacool #analytics #nevergiveup #intel #zone #luck #skill #hot #cool
The last thing a pitcher would ever want to do is throw a pitch middle middle. Unless of course, a batter doesn’t have success there and, according to Codify, not every batter does. One could certainly make the case, as current Phillies pitcher Bud Norris does in the comments of the above Instagram post, that these could all be mistake pitches that Armstrong got lucky on. Let’s take a look at the data. Of the 190 pitchers who threw at least 500 fastballs, 151 threw a minimum of 50 middle middle. The league average wOBA on those center cut heaters was .393 with the xwOBA being .411. Shawn Armstrong’s wOBA/xwOBA? .051/.189. While you could say he got a bit “lucky,” you can definitely make the case that he had success where most pitchers don’t. Exploiting unconventional weaknesses are a part of the game theory that Codify both preaches and practices.
A pitcher utilizing Codify is not guaranteed success. Mike has clients that haven’t made All-Star teams or posted elite ERAs. While Mike can provide the most well tested, thoroughly researched heat maps, a pitcher can still struggle with their execution. Or say they are executing, there will be times when pitchers get away from their game plan.
“(Sometimes) the competitive animal inside of a guy causes the pitcher to throw a pitch he knows is red as a personal challenge to the hitter.” There are also times when a pitcher can memorize a map to perfection, execute superbly and just get beat.
“I have 10 major league hits,” Straily says, laughingly, “my maps are 100% blue and I have 10 hits. If you drill blue against Kris Bryant every single pitch, mixing speeds, mixing everything you’re gonna have some hits, it’s just bound to happen.” The point is, there’s never going to be a fool-proof, perfect plan and Mike knows that. Codify isn’t there to make you a perfect pitcher, it’s there to make you a more confident pitcher and if the choice is between having this personalized intel and basic scouting reports grounded in not-so-helpful data, to quote Straily, “I’m taking Codify every single time.”
One of the final questions I asked Straily was how he would recruit another pitcher to join Codify. His response, as is often the case with Straily, was honest and truthful: “I go back through and look through all the clients that Mike has had, and it’s not the Kershaw’s, the Cy-Young award winners, it’s guys like myself. Guys who had a lot of success and all of a sudden were like…what happened[…]If I can get a pitcher to jump in before having to learn the tough lessons that I’ve had to learn, to skip some of those lessons on the learning curve, they should.”
Mike is striving to better pitchers with forward thinking analytics, but he’s also doing much more. He’s providing a service for the pitchers we all root for, the struggling starters who are a tweak away, the journeyman done wrong by past organizations; the kind of pitcher that is much more the norm than we realize. More poignantly, the man who is giving these pitchers a shot at their dream is one of us: a diehard baseball fan who just wants to help pitchers be the best version of themselves. What sets Mike apart however, is he seems to be that rare conduit that Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh speak of in MVP Machine that can take high-level data analysis and turn it into, “Hey, throw your slider here.”
Around the beginning of spring training, Mike was in Mesa, AZ to meet up with some potential clients when he heard a knock on his door. It was Liam Hendriks. “He’s got his postseason jersey, signed. He hands it to me and says, ‘I never could have done this without you, man’. I felt literally like an electric shock run through my body. I mean…green and gold baseball guy forever I mean…I’m still going to help my clients beat the A’s when they play ’em but…holy moly.”
Something tells me that won’t be the last jersey Michael Fisher receives.