Niyo: Hail, Caesar! Tigers finally ready to play numbers game

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers’ most noteworthy acquisition from this past offseason answers to just one name.

That’d be “Caesar,” the moniker given to the new central data hub for the organization, which is the result of a collaborative effort headed up by Jay Sartori, the team’s senior director of baseball analytics and operations. And while Sartori is quick to point out Caesar — named in tribute to ownership’s pizza-making empire – is hardly the endgame here, he’s also ready with a quip or two about its early-January debut in the office, “when it became self-aware.”

Like any piece of software, there’s truly no finish date on this project. The updates will keep coming, and the system will keep growing.

“You can always make it better,” said Sartori, the former Apple executive who joined the Tigers in late 2015. “But that said, the day when it did go live, yeah, it was a good sense of accomplishment.”

And to celebrate, he says, “I bought doughnuts for everyone.”

He did the same in 2013 in Toronto, where he helped launch “The BEEST,” the Blue Jays’ database named for then-team president Paul Beeston. And dollars to doughnuts, there were similar celebrations taking place in various offices around Major League Baseball in recent years, as other franchises got their act together, realizing there is indeed strength in numbers.

“Generally speaking, most — if not all — teams have a similar type of system now,” said Sartori, who, in another sign of the times, will be speaking about this topic as part of Fox Sports Detroit’s “advanced stats” broadcast Tuesday night.

‘Change is coming’

He won’t say much, mind you. Proprietary interests still come first when it comes to this stuff. But fueled by the data explosion of the last decade, as well as the success of teams of varying market sizes, from Oakland and Pittsburgh to the curse-killing Theo Epstein in Boston and in Chicago, emphasizing analytics is no longer the exception in baseball. It’s the rule, generally speaking, which is also why general manager Al Avila’s comments shortly after his promotion in August 2015 were so telling.

“We didn’t really revamp the analytics department,” Avila explained at the time. “We didn’t have an analytics department.”

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They do now, finally. And while it remains to be seen what they’ll do with it, or how well they’ll utilize the work that Sartori and his staff produce — stat-savvy fans cringe almost nightly at some of manager Brad Ausmus’ decisions — the Tigers’ future may depend on it, as ownership and the front office decide what to do about a bloated payroll and an inevitable rebuild.

Detroit has ranked near the bottom of the league in cost-per-win the last several years, and with attendance steadily declining since 2013 — coupled with the passing of owner Mike Ilitch and his win-at-all-costs mandate this winter — it’s no wonder Avila began warning the fans last fall, “Change is coming.” The Tigers are going to have to figure out a way to be more efficient.

Caesar’s role in that evolution is fairly simple, actually. It’s a hub for data entry that connects all parts of the organization, from scouting to player development to the front office. Every piece of information on a player is in there — from scouting and medical reports to statistical and contract breakdowns — allowing for quick, clean analysis and well-informed decision-making.

The Tigers’ full-time analytics staff still is relatively small compared to some others. But in the last six months, Sartori and baseball operations director Sam Menzin have been joined by analytics manager Jim Logue — he spent the last decade working for the Yankees and is focused on quantitative analysis and R&D — as well database architect Mike Burger and analyst Tom MacEachern.

Together, their job is to make everyone else’s job easier through technology, helping to make sense of the terabytes of information that are now available. Things changed dramatically in 2007 with the introduction of the Pitchf/x system, which tracks data for every pitch. Now that’s true for hitters and fielders as well, and now there’s not a part of the game that isn’t catalogued, from spin rates to exit velocities, launch angles and route efficiency.

The new norm

Ask the Tigers what they’re doing in the areas of virtual-reality training or wearable technology and they’ll balk, again citing proprietary reasons. (“What I’ll say is we’re certainly going to explore everything,” Sartori said.)

But fans already are getting a taste of the new Statcast reality during game telecasts. And coverage of the game continues to move — albeit glacially in many corners — from descriptive statistics to more predictive ones, from batting average to weighted on-base average, earned-run average to fielding independent pitching, and fielding percentage to defensive runs saved.

More important, the debate over analytics’ role within the game is not what it once was, perhaps, or certainly what it was portrayed to be when Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” became a box-office hit in 2011, with old-school scouting clashing with new-age thinking.

“I think the ‘warring factions’ thing is old news, in a sense,” Sartori said. “We’re all working together now. Because everybody knows you can’t just do it using half the information. That’s not good for anybody.”

And for everybody who thinks this is a bad thing — the notion that sabermetrics has taken root, and the system has become self-aware — well, I hate to break it to you, but time’s almost up.

“Look, I’ve got an Apple Watch strapped to my wrist that a couple years ago didn’t exist,” Sartori said, laughing. “And even in the public sphere, you’re watching the game the other night and Justin Upton hits a home run and they’re instantly telling you how hard that was hit. These are things that are very new, relatively speaking. So there’s a lot of ‘new’ going on.

“But it’s funny. I have a lot of these conversations with family and friends. I’ll talk to my dad, who is a lifelong baseball fan, and sometimes they just don’t understand what the data is leading to. But that’s true in any industry: People are resistant to change. And it takes time. But eventually the things that seemed radical yesterday are just going to be accepted as normal.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo