By:  Holly Horning

It’s the same principle in theory.

You know, the one when you’re renovating your house and get lured into considering adding a fabulous spa-like bathroom with sunken tub or the ornate Italian gourmet stove that resembles the one from your favorite restaurant. You start to think how much they will enhance the quality of your life and decide to add them. But several years later, you realize that they have been largely ignored.

It’s the same with baseball teams. Just because your GM invests in specific resources or tools is no guarantee that they will be used. And if they are, they may not be used properly.

And over the past year+, my thoughts have come back to this theory more and more when it concerns the Tigers and analytics.

Are they actually using them?

And if they are using them, is everyone on board?

Are they using analytics effectively – and correctly?

I have my doubts.

But before we get into all of that, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about analytics.

– Just because you introduce them into your organization, doesn’t mean you are up to speed. It takes years to develop an advanced system. You can’t expect the Tigers, with a system that is barely 3 years old, to have the same level of performance or can compete with another team who has had them for over a decade.

– There is no cookie cutter analytics system. Each team will develop and incorporate elements, tools, machines and software programs that are specific to their needs. The leaders in analytics invent. The followers adopt their methods several years down the road, playing catch up.

– Each team’s analytics department has differing amounts of power and influence. Some simply exist, waiting to be used while others have significant power and the ability to dictate what manager and coaches will do.

– An analytics system doesn’t always offer the best answers or solutions that fit the team’s talent. It’s all about the talent that is running this department and how correctly they see the development and goals of the team.

And just because a team has an analytics department is no guarantee that they will have the most updated research or solutions. Case in point is the Tigers use of the shift this year, boasting about their league-leading 55.5%. The problem is that the teams known to have the best analytics started getting away from the shift as a superior defensive tool 2 years ago.

So what do we know about the Tigers?

We hear from Al Avila talk about the Tigers’ analytics department. But are their reports being followed? Does this department have any real power in the dugout? Or even in the Front Office?

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that their reports aren’t being taken as seriously as they should be.

Let’s review the evidence.

First of all, as teams adopted this tool, many reports were published citing the friction created between the manager and his staff with the geeks who run the programs. More than a couple teams admitted that studies sat on managers’ desks without being shared. And information was not being passed down to the players.

In most cases, it was the older managers who were reluctant to use this resource because the old phrase really is true – that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. It’s hard to ask someone who was raised with a traditional baseball background to turn his back on the gut instincts he’s used for decades and embrace the cold, hard data.

In the Tigers’ case, Ron Gardenhire is the 5th oldest MLB manager but he’s separated from 3 above him, who are technically “older” by less than a year. Add into this, Detroit’s ranking as having MLB’s oldest coaching staff. Gardy’s top 4 lieutenants are all over 60 with another just about to hit the big 6-0.

The trend continues with the Front Office. Al Avila is MLB’s oldest GM at 62. He is almost twice as old as 6 other GMs who are in their 30’s. Twenty GMs are in their 40’s. Four are in their early 50’s. Avila is the only GM over the age of 60 and is a decade older than those 4 GMs.

Increasingly, this is a younger man’s game to manage given the complicated technology now running teams. An education that many over the age of 50 missed entirely.

How much of analytics does Al understand or support?

But the bigger question is how much does he push this team into fully embracing analytics?

From what we see and read in the media, it’s not encouraging. When you read a story here or there, it doesn’t mean much. But when you read multiple reports that involve the GM, his Front Office, manager and coaches, then it gets very real. And scary.

Here are a just a few of the stories that raise red flags:

– Last month, Ron Gardenhire let it slip that he resorted, for the first time, in allowing the analytics department to determine the batting order. Something that is SOP for most teams these days. But the Tigers analytics suggested that Jeimer Candalerio was the perfect fit for lead-off spot. It lasted all of 2 games. Keeping JaCoby Jones in the 9th spot is a whole ‘nother conversation……

– Justin Verlander gave the infamous interview back in 2018 about how the Astros use of analytics was heads and tails above the Tigers. He claimed that he walked into a new clubhouse with so many resources and levels of information he had never imagined.

– Jim Leyland is, once again, on recent record affirming his dislike of analytics. The same man who sits in the war room during the draft to help Avila make decisions about which prospects to choose. The same guy who was responsible for the signings of both Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, which didn’t work out at all well. The same guy who is now based in Toledo and in charge of overseeing the young prospects’ development. How can the Tigers say they use analytics when they also rely upon Leyland’s advice?

– And with the news that more Tigers have been increasingly seeking outside hitting instruction (JaCoby Jones, Jake Rogers, Jeimer Candelario, etc.), the national media has written about Lloyd McClendon’s “outdated” hitting instruction of “swinging down” on the ball that flies directly against what analytics now tells us works best.

Analytics is just not used to determine how to play the game. It’s also used to predict a player’s future performance, durability and possible injury chances. And in these 3 cases, the facts don’t support it being used for such.

– Jordan Zimmermann was signed by Al Avila despite stats showing him starting to have problems, including decreasing velocity, a full 2 years (while still with the Nats) before the Tigers signed him.

– All of the Tigers 4 major free agent signings for 2019 (app. $20 mill of payroll) resulted in all 4 players going on the IL for most or all of the season.

– For 2020, Ivan Nova, was signed at age 33 and pitched all of 19 innings before being lost for the year.

Does this sound like a team that is committed to analytics? Or at least committed enough so that they achieve consistent results?

Al Avila wrote a letter to season ticket holders several years ago stating that he was “committed to beefing up (sic) the team’s analytics staff and is committed to using numbers to help it rebuild.”

But then he hired Ron Gardenhire who said “numbers lie a lot” and that he has a hard time believing in “all that stuff” – referring to analytics.

Does it sound like everyone is on the same page?

Does it appear that the analytics department has any real power? And if they do, is that information being passed down in the chain of command so that it reaches the decision-makers and the players?

That’s what it’s really about. It’s not enough to say you have something. You have to have a solid plan for using analytics and ensure that everyone within the organization is on board.

Otherwise, you’ll end up with inconsistent results, a lot of wasted money – and a slower, inefficient rebuild.

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18 thoughts on “USE IT OR LOSE IT

  1. What you’re saying, Holly, is we’ve got a bunch of old guys running the team who trust their “gut” and loyalty but refuse to acknowledge the numbers that explain their collective incompetence. Not exactly a recipe for success. I’d bet every one of them could be easily cleaned-out in a poker game because they fail to understand odds and statistics. But then they probably all play together – which makes it even.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. My father was 60years old. He won the Toronto city wide spelling bee. Then moved to Detroit and did it again. Was a judge in a Detroit area city wide Scrabble tournament. As a engineer for major projects I grew up used to seeing him give tv interviews. Was on Detroit tv for years. Not a stupid man. Yet my pre- school son ran the VCR for grandpa. Time matches on. I hold Chris responsible for not letting the grandchild have his day.

    Liked by 9 people

  3. The eggheads in the computer room can slice and dice the numbers ad nauseam but do you really think the “average” manager, coach, player is spending his free time pouring over charts, graphs and percentages. Most players could probably care less about launch angles and exit velocities – I’d be more interested in DISTANCE. Analytics can make you overthink the game, keep it simple – pitch, catch, hit, run, throw. I’ll take talent over numbers anytime.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree and feel an over reliance on in-game analytics is detrimental to baseball. I do believe, however, that analytics can be an important aid in recruiting, developing, training/ conditioning, and recovery from injury.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It appears that Al Avila’s purpose in adding an analytics department was an attempt to make superficial changes to the front office in an effort to disguise its fundamental failings for the purpose of keeping the good old boys network intact and avoiding the ax.You can’t embrace and implement a new paradigm in baseball management without hiring a staff that knows how to implement the changes. That’s why the Tigers continue to muck up player evaluation, development and coaching.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I find it comical when the Tigers do the occasional “PR” regarding their cracked analytics staff. We have heard so much about how bright and dynamic they are, yet you really wonder what role they actually play in the day-to-day management of the club. I believe the best organizations use a blend of art and science – qualities this regime has yet to demonstrate at any level of competence.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I’m 80 and do support the full use of analytics…how can you expect the elderly Tigers management to do the same? They all should be replaced with younger talent who think in a modern fashion. So who is responsible for this total failed judgement? It is Chris Ilitch, who is in way over his head as a pro sports owner.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. You can have analytics up the ying-yang but if your players don’t have the ability to recognize pitches, the discipline to lay off balls that break out of the strike zone, and the hand/eye coordination talent to put the bat on a ball in the strike zone, all analytics will do is create a different angle for the swing and miss.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hi, Spartan – You bring up an excellent question. For the record, analytics is not only about numbers. There are 6 components to it that also include tech. There are specialized cameras that can record every single movement of both pitchers and hitters. This allows teams to review the video and look for flaws so they can be corrected such as too much swinging and missng.. Many teams now have the ability to completely reconstruct a player’s form and make changes. Justin Verlander referred to those cameras when he moved to Houston and indicated then that the Tigers didn’t have one. Detroit did add a Rapsodo to evaluate pitchers 1-2 years ago. But the jury is out re specialized cameras for hitters. There are clues that either the Tigers don’t have one or aren’t using it. A national story about JaCoby Jones indicated that after years of frustration, Scott Bream made a suggestion that he change his stance (something those cameras would have suggested) and a scout told him to hire an independent hitting coach. These coaches all have these machines now which is why an increasing number of Tigers (and other players) are hiring them in the off-season. Thanks for keeping the conversation gong! – Holly

      Liked by 2 people

      • Holly, it is a little hard for me to hear this talk about analytics after growing up watching the likes of Willie Mays, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, just to name a few. Joe Garagiola once said of Rod Carew – “He could go 0 for 1976 and still end up with a lifetime batting average over 300”. Analytics has its place, but it cannot create talent under the bright lights of MLB.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Analytics can be an important aid in recruiting/ scouting, developing, training/ conditioning, and helping individuals recovery from injury. But keep the stat people out of the actual game and let players pitch, catch, hit, run on their own…you know, like baseball is supposed to be played.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Hi, Sprocket – I hear you. I never suggested, nor do I think any team believes, that analytics creates talent. I see it as a tool to be used in finding the strengths and weaknesses while also helping to correct deficiencies and also making a player more efficient. But overall, it is a tool that can maximize talent. That is, if it’s used the right way. 😉 Thanks everyone, this is a great discussion we’ve got going.and I hope everyone chimes in often with their thoughts and responses! – Holly

        Liked by 4 people

      • I have no doubt that Mays, Koufax, and Gibson would have been stars today. But keep in mind that not only did they not have access to analytics, but the guys they were up against didn’t either. All the players you cite, intensely competitive and intelligent, likely would have done all they could to get whatever advantage modern analytics might have provided. TY Cobb, asked late in life how he would have fared in the lively ball era, said “Oh, I would hit maybe .270–you have to consider that I’m over 60 years old!”

        Liked by 2 people

  8. When the more enlightened teams observe the Tigers’ signings and trades, it must be rather like the classic old “Simpsons” episode in which Homer walks on to a used car lot. The salesman takes one look at him, looks to the heavens, and says “Thank you, God!”

    Liked by 5 people

  9. A year ago I, with my own eyes, sat on my couch and watched Cristin Stewart fumble in left field and fumble at the plate. After watching him for a couple of games I knew he was in over his head. My thoughts weren’t – “Oh, the team’s analytics must know something I don’t know”. No, my thoughts were – “I have eyes, don’t they?”

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Holly, for all they seem to use it…. I sometimes think the Tigers Analytics department might as well be an old broom closet in the basement of their official offices…staffed by a retired janitor listening to an old transistor radio.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. There is absolutely no question that as long as Leyland and Avila are running the team, there is no way that analytics will be anything more than an attempt to appear to be in the mainstream. I do not even mean this in a derogatory sense, there is just no way that these guys in their 60’s and 70’s will be able, or even want, to embrace the new way of thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. What the Tiger’s have an analytics department??, would never have guessed that based on outcomes that this short season has provided. Just another attempt by AA to look they he’s doing something while doing nothing and as another poster said until the oldest group in baseball either moves on or gets moved out nothing is going to change

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