Brandon Taubman is the Director of Baseball Operations for the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros.
He joined the franchise’s front office after working at both Ernst & Young LLP (EY) and Barclays, leveraging both his experience in financial valuation and his success at fantasy baseball. Big data is a heavy hitter in Brandon’s lineup as he focuses on player analytics, roster construction, contract valuation and industry economics. Since joining the organization in 2013, he has helped transform “the worst team in baseball” into a potentially perennial powerhouse that just won its first championship.
As part of our series on the Transformative Age, we talked with Brandon about that remarkable upward swing and how big data is changing sports.
What first brought you to EY?
As an applied economics and finance major at Cornell, I was inclined to find the best job possible within the finance industry. I was attracted to EY because of its Business Advisory Program, where I could move from practice to practice within the Financial Services Organization (FSO).
I also was attracted to the reputation that EY had for genuinely taking care of its people. So it did not take too much deliberation before I decided that this would be a wonderful place to start my career. And I’m glad I did, because I also met my wife at EY, who still works for the firm. So EY has helped me professionally and personally in many different ways.
Is there anybody who stands out when you think about your time at EY?
There are three people to whom I owe a lot in particular. Rob Oleksiuk had a positive influence on my work ethic — he is so committed to doing a good job, and he really set an example for me and the rest of the team in the Derivative Valuation Center (DVC). Rob gets a lot of junior people who know nothing about derivative valuation but who are eager to learn. He was always really patient with me and had the long-term view in mind.
Outside of the DVC practice, I had the good fortune of serving on several projects for partners Mike Sheptin and Gary Kozlowski on Channel 2 projects during the sub-prime mortgage crisis. This was a time when our clients had less budget to engage external consultants, so both Mike and Gary rose to the occasion and found a way to be supportive of their clients in the hardest of times.
Do you keep in touch with any other people at EY?
In the early going, I forged really strong relationships with Ryan Moore of the DVC —an amazing friend away from the office, and an amazing colleague and teammate in the office — and Craig Jacobs outside the DVC. Craig actually had an opportunity similar to mine to go work for ESPN, and he’s currently Vice President, Media Partnerships at Major League Soccer. Josh Lafer is another member of the 2007 new-hires class who remains a close friend and has had a lot of success in the finance industry.
How did you make the move from finance to baseball?
When the daily fantasy sports industry was in its infancy, a friend and I saw an opportunity to create a side business to systematically beat the competition, draft the best teams, and play in high volume to get results that were better than the breakeven point. Baseball is the sport where analytics is most neatly applied, so that’s where we had the greatest success.
Each game is packed full of discrete events: a pitcher throws the ball, the batter decides to swing or not … If he swings, does he make contact? If he makes contact, what are the parameters of the batted ball? And the game can be measured that way, as a series of mostly independent events.
What about the leap from fantasy baseball to reality?
I started to get really interested in the areas of baseball research that were allowing me to build a better projection model, so I reached out to baseball analytics people. When I realized how much I was actually enjoying that sort of work, I thought there might be an opportunity for me to break into the industry full time.
One day in February 2013, I saw a job posting from Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow for an entry-level analyst position, and I got my first shot in baseball. We started with the worst team in baseball, and it’s been an amazing upward swing since that point.
It’s been a very impressive trajectory for both the Astros and you. What factors helped you get from that entry-level position to Director of Baseball Operations?
The key factor for me has been an alignment between the organizational culture that Jeff has established and my skill set and work style. His mantra is to establish a good process and follow that process, knowing that the best chance of getting the results you want are to stick to it. We constantly review our process and try to make it better iteratively.
How did your EY experience help?
I learned to work hard and to continuously pursue process improvement opportunities through my time in professional and financial services. The experiences that I had and the things I learned are just so applicable in baseball, even though the goal in one is to earn a return on investment and the goal in the other is to win ballgames and eventually, championships. If you’re willing to promote change and push for the right thing, and be a champion for new ideas that may give the organization extra value, then your bosses are going to see that and appreciate that.
How is the use of analytics evolving?
In the past five years or so, there has been a dramatic change in the sort of information that’s pouring into front offices, such as pitch tracking technologies and body tracking technologies. Analytics has expanded from player valuation to various areas of operation, including how we prepare against the competition and how we’re developing players to be better and more valuable to the organization. We’re finding we can now use data to have a proactive impact on the development of our players instead of taking a hands-off approach and letting the cream rise to the top, so to speak.
When you think about the role of AI and bots, what does the next decade look like?
This exponential rate of new technologies being introduced is giving rise to new research opportunities, new ways that teams can have a competitive advantage. So while you need to invest in both free agents and front office human capital and technology, it’s arguable that the rate of return the clubs are getting on new technology is supreme. But there’s always going to be more opportunity than there are resources to pursue them. It’s going to become increasingly important for organizations to make smart decisions about how they attack problems. The style or the approach of the analytical work will become its own competitive advantage.
What’s it been like to be a central part of the Astros’ success?
The significance of the success we’ve had is appreciated at different levels. On the city level, Houston loves baseball, loves sports and has always supported the Astros. And unfortunately, the Astros had never given its fans a championship. And then in the middle of our championship season, Hurricane Harvey hits and has a dramatic and catastrophic effect. To pull off what we did, when we did it, had extra meaning.
On a team level within baseball operations, this is the same group that’s been here for five years under Jeff, going along with an approach that was heavily criticized by the media and misunderstood at times. It’s redeeming to have it all work out and to know that we followed the right process.
And on a personal level, it’s beyond anything that I can describe. Even getting a job in baseball coming from finance was in and of itself a miracle. And then for that job to evolve to the point that it has, I can’t explain how gratifying it has been.
What does it mean to you to be an EY alum?
It’s a badge of honor. And it’s something that, quite frankly, I can advertise as proof of my having learned from the best and brightest and had diverse experiences with some of the premier financial services clients in the world. It’s almost like having gone to a great school, or having anything that is recognizable as prestigious by various people outside of the company or the industry.
How do you spend your time away from work?
I feel like I don’t need a lot of hobbies outside of work because I’m so passionate about what I do and thankful for the fact that I get to work in baseball, a sport that I grew up absolutely loving. When I’m not working, I try to spend as much time as possible with my wife, who made the move across the country for me. And we have a baby on the way. So being a responsible family man is really important to me.
Congratulations! When is the baby due?
In November — hopefully after we win our next World Series. That’s the dream!
More about Brandon Taubman
- Married to Leah since 2014
- Graduated from Cornell University in 2007
- Competitive Ping-Pong player