Tigers will use more data to improve decision-making

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers grabbed plenty of headlines over the past couple of months, thanks in large part to owner Mike Ilitch’s deep pockets.

The team became just the second franchise in MLB history to sign two players in the same offseason to $100 million-plus contracts — joining the New York Yankees — when starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was brought in at the end of November on a five-year, $110 million deal and outfielder Justin Upton signed a six-year, $132.75 million contract earlier this week.

But one of the more underrated moves was the Tigers’ Moneyball-esque approach to improve their analytics department under first-year general manager Al Avila, helping bring the club up to speed in a game where analytical data is being relied upon more and more.

“We didn’t really revamp the analytics department,” Avila said Saturday during TigerFest. “We didn’t have an analytics department.”

So in August, Avila promoted Sam Menzin from analytics coordinator to director of baseball operations and hired former Apple executive and Toronto Blue Jays assistant general manager Jay Sartori to serve as senior director of baseball operations in November.

Together, Menzin and Sartori head the analytics department and serve multiple purposes, such as gathering and sharing data at the major league, minor league, amateur and international levels, providing manager Brad Ausmus with advanced metrics on pitching matchups and defensive alignments, and using sabermetrics to recommend which player acquisition would serve the team best.

Overall, their goal is simple — use data to make decisions easier.

“Those are the kinds of things that they can give you,” Avila said. “Then you turn to your scouts and you go with scouting information, which is how we did it with Justin Upton. Then if all comes together, you get the right player.

“(Analytics) is not the complete answer. It’s just one part of the process in putting together a team.”

And as technology continues to advance, much like MLB’s Statcast database that was launched last season, it allows for in-depth data to be readily available for people like Menzin and Sartori.

“(Statcast) tracks basically everything on the field, from where the players are positioned to how fast they’re running to the spin rate of the pitch, where the pitch is located, the movement of the pitch, and how fast the ball is coming off the bat,” Menzin said. “It’s really going to change the way baseball analysis is going to be done over the next 10 to 15 years. It’s still in its infancy, but it allows us to view what’s going on in the field and try to break it down into smaller pieces for us analyze.”

While Sartori admits sabermetrics has its flaws and doesn’t necessarily provide all the answers, that’s not the biggest challenge. Rather, it’s the fact that his job is never truly finished.

“Even the best teams always continue and always try to improve. You can always improve,” Sartori said. “Teams that have huge analytical departments are always trying to improve. They continue to add people and continue to tweak how they do things, so it’s a never-ending cycle.”

And even though it’s only been a couple of months, Sartori believes his situation with the Tigers isn’t much different than the time he spent with the Blue Jays from 2010-13.

“When I went to Toronto, it was a similar type of scenario there and we kind of started to build things up (in analytics) and got to a strong spot,” he said. “I see this hopefully working out the same way. The guys we’ve got here, I think we’re working toward that.”