On a typical day David Appelman wakes around 4:30 a.m., the time when FanGraphs updates. The website hosts statistical analysis, graphs and projections for every player in Major and Minor League baseball.
No, Appelman isn’t early to rise out of an obsession with fantasy sports, but out of a desire to ensure all is well with his creation.
Appelman, 39, lives in Arlington and launched FanGraphs in 2005. The site was born out of his love of the sport and disdain for his day job. Appelman is meticulous, at least when it comes to data. And finding new ways to analyze the game is his “bread and butter.”
Every day is a bit different for Appelman as he constantly stumbles into new projects. He could be looking for new hires or coding projects or just doing general business management that ends up siphoning off large chunks of his day. Whatever the task, he’s happy to do it to keep FanGraphs alive out of a responsibility to his staff, his fans and his values, which he believes are partially motivated by his Jewish upbringing.
“The concept of tzedakah is something which resonates with me,” Appelman said. “There are certain values which probably have made their way into how I run the business.”
Appelman has been passionate about baseball since childhood, although he can’t exactly put into words why. He was the kid who prized his sports cards and enjoyed sorting them by team. He didn’t get into fantasy sports, where participants pick players for imaginary teams and score points based on the performance of those athletes in real-life games, until he attended the University of Rochester in New York. It was there he joined a league with some friends “and became obsessed with it.”
“I watched more baseball than I had ever watched and I got really into winning,” he said. “[Fantasy sports] is a very good way to connect with the game, to feel very invested in individual player performance. And it gives you an extra rooting aspect for the game. Fantasy sports makes every game interesting.”
Appelman continued playing after college when he got his first job as an analyst at AOL. The job involved taking dial-up network stats and turning them into graphs and charts for executives. Appelman became dissatisfied with the work and wanted to do something more meaningful. He regularly read the analysis on BaseballHQ.com and thought he could apply his work skills to baseball. So he launched FanGraphs in August 2005.
Traffic to the site grew, and by the following summer, Appelman had quit his job to go all in for the site. Eventually Appelman launched a blog component to FanGraphs featuring data analysis and, over time, he started hiring writers.
When it comes to playing fantasy sports, Appelman said he’s not as passionate as he used to be. He still plays in the league he originally played in, but the business has changed his relationship with the game.
“The enjoyment of the game is still there, it’s just different. It’s definitely a job,” he said.
The business continued to grow over the next 15 years until FanGraphs crashed into a brick wall called COVID. A halt to sports meant a halt to sports statistics. That led to a drop in site visits, and subsequently, advertising revenue. In response Appelman cut the salaries of 10 full-time staffers, including himself, and laid off more than 20 freelancers.
“It was a real disaster,” Appelman said. “We were in really bad shape. And there wasn’t a plan B.”
But lucky for Appelman, the fans came to the rescue. People continued to pay for site membership, buy merchandise and donate. Between that and the PPP loan, FanGraphs was able to survive. Appelman attributes the outcry of support to FanGraphs becoming “part of the baseball ecosystem.” He said the support was “validating” and “amazing to see.”
“When there was some concern that maybe FanGraphs was going to go away, I think a lot of people came out and willed it into continued existence,” Appelman said. “We’ve become just a part of how people follow baseball.”
With sports having returned from their pandemic-induced hiatus, Appelman expects to build back up his audience moving forward.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Appelman’s experience creating and maintaining FanGraphs, he said it’s one of perseverance.
“I don’t think I’m super special in terms of my coding ability,” Appelman said. “Other people can do this. It’s just about sitting down and actually doing it. “