How lifelong Mariners fan uses analytics to 'quantify the vibe'
SEATTLE -- As a kindergartener, Mason Shigenaka spent his summer nights on the third-base side of the newly constructed Safeco Field. The year was 2001. The Seattle summer represented a juxtaposition of triumph and tragedy. For the Mariners, it was a 116-win, magical, historic season. For the nation, it was a reminder of life’s fragility after the attacks on September 11.
That summer shaped a generation of Mariners fans and inspired all Americans to cherish time with their loved ones. The time Shigenaka spent in the stands with his father, Gary, as they cheered on Ichiro, Mike Cameron and Bret Boone from their forest green seats formed a bond that would shape a career nearly two decades later.
In the same ballpark Shigenaka spent those summers, he now has an office. The name has changed, but the bones remain relatively untouched. A concrete and steel castle constructed with exposed beams, bleacher sections that overlook Elliot Bay and those same green seats Shigenaka sat in while he developed a love of the game.
Shigenaka is in his sixth season with the Mariners as the team’s business intelligence and analytics analyst.
“I help the organization make sense of business data. That entails providing reports, analytics and making data actionable,” Shigenaka said.
He self-identifies as a “numbers guy,” but understands not all folks within the organization can extrapolate data sets and make sense of those figures. That’s where he steps in.
“Making data actionable means telling stories with data and turning those numbers into a story that we can relay to executives,” Shigenaka said. “How is performance? Are we heading in the right direction? Are we trending up or down?”
His role includes using data science, visualizations, analysis and forecasting to improve business functions across the entire organization. One of his main responsibilities is to forecast attendance so that the Mariners can properly prepare T-Mobile Park for an accurate fan footprint.
“I work on forecasting attendance a year out and then re-forecasting attendance in the season,” Shigenaka said. “We collect a bunch of historical data and build a model that we input that historical data into. We essentially ask the model, ‘What do you think is going to happen? Are we on track? Do we need to have a discussion about coming up with creative marketing initiatives?’”
As a lifelong Mariners fan, Shigenaka knows baseball has a sneaky way of surprising you. While he works almost exclusively with quantifiable data, he’s well aware of qualitative factors that can alter predictive reports. He can’t predict the popularity of “BELIEVE” signs plastered around the city, or Jesse Winker’s newly coined “Electric Factory.” Using data science, he relies on the models built to provide an accurate forecast, knowing there will be uncertainty.
“How do we quantify the vibe? How do we quantify team performance? There’s not one answer. It’s high variability. It really varies across the league,” Shigenaka said.
Shigenaka’s career path was also a product of variability. During his first year at the University of Washington, he studied marine biology, taking after his father. Despite the path he originally chose, Shigenaka diverted his course of study to align more with his true passion: Mariners baseball.
“I had my mid-college crisis two quarters in. I realized working in sports was a dream of mine and I didn’t want to be kicking myself down the road if I didn’t at least try to get into the industry,” Shigenaka recalled.
The period of self-reflection helped him forecast his own future. After watching the movie “Moneyball,” he was inspired by the portrayal of analytics and how they could impact team performance. He knew he liked numbers and data science, a skillset he leveraged to get a foot in the door of the industry. Shigenaka graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in informatics while working as a business analytics intern with the Mariners. The Monday after he graduated, he started full-time with the team as a business analyst.
The past six seasons, Shigenaka has worked a job his six-year-old self would be proud of.
“I have fond memories of watching the ‘01 team when I was young,” Shigenaka said. “With Ichiro and the All-Star Game, it was so fun. I’d go to school the next day and brag to the other kids that I got to stay up late.”
The Mariners are cemented in Shigenaka’s childhood memories, but they also brought him closer to his cultural background.
“The best thing I was able to share with my dad was going to Ichiro’s final game in Japan in 2019,” Shigenaka said. “It was an amazing opportunity, not only to go back to Japan for the first time, since I had never been, but also to see a historic baseball moment with my dad.”
Shigenaka is half Japanese from his dad’s side, but he had never been to the country prior to the Mariners’ Opening Series in 2019.
“My dad is a second-generation Japanese American, and I’m third generation. I’ve had insight to the culture through food, but in terms of fully embracing my Japanese heritage, I haven’t really had the ability to do so,” Shigenaka said.
His connections to his heritage have come through his father’s steadfast documentation of his grandparents’ experience in the United States, an experience that has humbled and grounded Shigenaka -- reminding him of the hardships his family once endured.
His father, the historian, completed a series of interviews with his grandparents to understand their experience of being Japanese in America during World War II.
“My grandfather was interned,” Shigenaka said. “It’s been a very private subject for my family. After internment, my grandfather was forced to move to the Midwest, and he wasn’t able to return to California. He became a chef at a hospital in Lake Forest, Chicago. Being the only Japanese American family in the 1950s wasn’t a great time to embrace your heritage.”
During his trip with his father to Japan, Shigenaka said he realized that he had a lot to learn about both his family’s history and his Japanese heritage. At the start of the pandemic, he began to undertake the considerable journey of learning how to speak, read and write Japanese so that he could better communicate and appreciate his next opportunity to travel in Japan. On top of learning the language, he has worked to try to reach distant relatives who still live in Japan, hoping one day to meet and learn more about his family’s history.
During his time with the Mariners, Shigenaka has collected both memorabilia and memories at the same ballpark he was practically raised in. He gives back through mentorship for the Mariners’ Hometown Nine program, which helps youth of color find connections to the industry and the game of baseball. Despite the accomplishments, accolades and memorabilia he has collected over the years, it is a family relic that Shigenaka cherishes most.
“We have his last check framed from my grandfather's time as a cook in an internment camp,” Shigenaka said. “It’s something I want to hold onto. It’s an important part of our family history and how we ended up in Seattle.”
Shigenaka is a product of his brilliance and tenacity -- two qualities he undoubtedly inherited from his grandfather. Seattle, a city where Shigenaka became the man he is today, is now home to his family. T-Mobile Park, the beloved building he was raised in, is now his office.