Avila bringing new look to Tigers' front office

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — For spending more than 20 years together, Al Avila and Dave Dombrowski are wildly different.

■ Dombrowski wears sport coats; Avila isn't against wearing his "Casual Sunday" outfit on a Wednesday.

■ Dombrowski is politician-like, preferring formality in all settings; Avila can be spotted schmoozing at the hotel bar at the Winter Meetings.

■ Dombrowski has a reputation as a micro-manager; Avila does not.

So, things are going to change in the Tigers front office, which now is run by Avila, who, at 57, finally has become a general manager.

In his new office this week, he talked about his new job, but only vaguely spelled out the differences between himself and Dombrowski, his boss from 1992 until last week.

There was one difference, however, Avila was willing to explain in detail.

"One thing I will bring different is expanded analytics," Avila said. "I will tell you that I feel that we have a ways to go to catch up with the industry. We have been making some strides, but we'll fast-forward a little bit and add to that department.

"You'll see a big difference there."

In his time with Detroit, starting in November 2001, Dombrowski did some grand things -- with the help of owner Mike Ilitch's grand check book. He bought and traded for one big name after another, and that led to one of the greatest periods of sustained success in Tigers history, including five playoff appearances and two trips to the World Series. But the ultimate goal, a World Series championship for the demanding owner, never happened. And late last month, when told his $170-million ballclub would have to be trade-deadline sellers, Ilitch had finally had it.

So on Tuesday, Aug. 4, Dombrowski was relieved of his duties.

Three days earlier, Ilitch already had his new general manager in place, calling Avila to offer him the job.

And, the 86-year-old owner assured Avila the win-now mantra remains the same, and so, too, will the hefty payroll.

Combination what works

Baseball always has been a game of numbers. But since the release of "Moneyball," first the book, then the movie, the numbers of focus have been changing — from dinosaurs like home runs, RBIs, batting average and ERA to new kids OPS, FIP and the like.

Front offices started realizing, for example, a player who hits .180 has some value should his on-base percentage be .360.

The numbers go deeper than that, and aren't just used for player evaluation, but for game preparation, as well.

It was telling, then, one of Avila's first moves as general manager was to promote 20-something Sam Menzin from analytics coordinator to director of baseball operations. Menzin also soon will be given the green light to hire two analytics experts.

"We will expand little by little," Avila said. "There are certain areas that we've been missing out on. Sam is preparing those conversations. Preparing for next year, in the offseason, the pursuit of free agents, possible trades."

Avila said expanded analytics also will help in the draft.

But he said analytics will not replace the team's use of traditional scouting, a department that also will add staff in the coming months.

Avila said there has to be a balance when it comes to player evaluation. And he should know, having forged the reputation as one of the better talent evaluators in the game, a skill crafted since his days in the 1980s when he was an assistant baseball coach at St. Thomas University in Florida making $18,000 a year.

Years later, with the Marlins, he signed Miguel Cabrera as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, signed future World Series MVP Livan Hernandez while he was driving all over Latin America with a box of contracts in the back seat of his car, and drafted Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez.

The Tigers also never would have ended up with J.D. Martinez if they had been relying solely on analytics. Avila knew Martinez as a kid in Miami and never lost touch. So when Martinez was released by the Astros last spring, the Tigers swooped in despite analytics that might have suggested otherwise.

Fifty-three home runs in 234 games later, chalk up a win for traditional scouting.

"One thing I will bring different is expanded analytics. I will tell you that I feel that we have a ways to go to catch up with the industry," Tigers vice president and general manager Al Avila says.

"The combination is what works, the scouting with the analytics," Avila said. "You have to have one balance out the other — the opportunity to use both in order to put together the team."

Technology coming

Advanced metrics, or Sabermetrics, often can cause friction between a front office and a field staff, as it did between "Moneyball" architect Billy Beane and A's manager Art Howe years ago, and more recently then-Angels GM Jerry Dipoto and Mike Scioscia this year.

Managers, it seems, often are the last to buy into the new-age approach. Jim Leyland, for example, felt like his 50 years in the game were more valuable in decision-making than whatever the HP LaserJet could spit out.

Current Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, in his second year, is willing to listen to numbers provided him by Menzin and Co., and defensive coordinator Matt Martin uses the data when determining which shifts to employ.

And while the Avila-Ausmus relationship will be interesting to watch these final seven weeks of the season — Avila has only committed to Ausmus as his manager through the end of this year — it doesn't appear analytics will be a deal breaker.

"The information is funneled to the manager and to the staff," Avila said. "I would say they use it to their discretion, as much as they need it. I don't turn in the lineup card to our manager; I never have and never will.

"I'm not gonna have Sam come up with the numbers and go down there and say, 'This is what you're gonna do.' "

Avila said analytics will help in two other areas, as well — analyzing and projecting the impact of players in the minors, and finding six-year minor league free agents who could help, as Avila has done with players such as Quintin Berry and Matt Tuiasosopo, among others.

The Tigers also have plans to ramp up their video-technology capabilities, Avila said.

Avila will have a lot on his plate the last month and a half of the season, and he'll have voids to fill in left field, as well as in the rotation and bullpen.

Dombrowski usually filled those with marquee names via splashy signings or blockbuster trades.

Avila probably will do some of that, too.

Unless, of course, the numbers strongly suggest otherwise.

"It's not going to take over," Avila said of the expanded analytics. "It's going to help us make what I think are better decisions."