Post-Dombrowski Tigers get up to speed on analytics

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Dave Dombrowski

Lakeland, Fla. – Red Sox owner John Henry created a near-rebellion on something approaching Boston Tea Party levels last week when he announced the Red Sox were backing away from analytics after a few too many last-place finishes.

This was akin to a Silicon Valley company saying it was getting rid of computers. But then the Red Sox issued all kinds of alerts and bulletins and clarifications that, no, they weren’t abandoning metrics in evaluating players and teams. They were, in fact, going to expand them.

Well, OK. Issued within the rebuttals was the caveat that Dave Dombrowski, now six months into his new job in Boston, might apply “different weighting” to the various numbers but that, in fact, the Red Sox were expanding their numbers-crunching staff.

The Tigers, of course, have decided to do the same. And it’s quite a jump. What gave the initial Red Sox report credence, beyond Henry’s words, was that Dombrowski was always less enamored of metrics than were some of the science’s true zealots: Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, and, of course, Dombrowski’s front-office predecessor, Ben Cherington, to name but a handful.

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The irony to the Tigers being veritable cabooses on the analytics train during Dombrowski’s time here is that Dombrowski is a math expert. He was a Cornell student during his early college days and later at Western Michigan so thoroughly aced a complex math exam his professor thought he had cheated.

The prof came to learn of Dombrowski’s Cornell stint, and test scores that got him accepted there, and apologetically patted his student on the back.

In any event, Dombrowski always has preferred a good scout’s testimony to algorithms when it comes to assessing players. To be fair, most GMs do. But the analytics end of baseball has become so thorough, so detailed, so comprehensive and empirical, that to not place more credence and investment in them is asking for, well, a last-place finish, which is where a certain team from Detroit finished in 2015.

After becoming Tigers GM last summer, Al Avila instantly decided he was pepping up a department that was, inexplicably, on the tender side. He had already added Sam Menzin to a department that pretty much had been the earlier province of Mike Smith, who is now doing immensely important finance work as part of the city of Detroit’s rebirth.

Avila offered Smith a heavier job, which Smith reluctantly turned down for his new venture. Avila then brought aboard Jay Sartori, a former Apple staffer who was a Blue Jays assistant general manager from 2010-13. And to the group another whiz – just ask those who have seen his work – in Andrew Koo, a former Blue Jays intern and graduate of Waterloo University, in Toronto, who also wrote for the brilliant analytical engine, Baseball Prospectus.

The Tigers are still shaking off a bad contract with an earlier analytical group, and it won’t be overnight that they achieve parity with the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, and a few others who have had a long head start on parsing baseball numbers.

But they’re getting there. The irony is, it is happening under a GM whose background, compared at least with Dombrowski’s, might have suggested an opposite emphasis.

Intriguing, Avila’s tenure to date. It makes clear how many thoughts and how firm of a philosophy a one-time assistant had been formulating during all those years under Dombrowski.