Avila defends analytics department: 'We went from nothing'
Detroit — Since the end of the 2017 regular season, the Tigers have been repeatedly questioned and roasted over their supposed commitment to analytics.
Most recently, they hired old-school manager Ron Gardenhire, though general manager Al Avila quickly brushed aside concerns that the 60-year-old former Twins manager can't learn new tricks. He can, and he will, Avila insisted.
But there were two other public revelations over the last three weeks that appeared far more damning, the first coming from ousted manager Brad Ausmus, the second from traded ace Justin Verlander.
In early October, Ausmus gave his final weekly interview to 97.1 The Ticket, and during the segment, he said the Tigers still are in the early stages of building up their new "Caesar" program.
"It just wasn't available," Ausmus told 97.1, speaking of in-depth data, "so it wasn't a huge part of my daily job."
Then, early in the American League Championship Series, after Verlander tossed a nine-inning shutout masterpiece against the New York Yankees, Sports Illustrated unveiled in an intriguing in-depth profile that Verlander was floored by the sheer amount of information available to him after he arrived in Houston from Detroit following the stunning, late-in-the-evening trade Aug. 31. Specifically, the Astros had state-of-the-art film technology which helped Verlander revamp his slider, adding tilt that has turned that pitch — always special — into a lethal bat killer.
Avila was asked about these two anecdotes last week, after introducing Gardenhire to the media.
And, to Avila's credit, he didn't dispute Ausmus or Verlander.
"There's no doubt, we went from zero to where we are today," said Avila, who led the Tigers' managerial search — which began with 47 names and featured 10 interviews that were attended by several front-office folks. There was no mention of anyone from analytics getting a voice. "I can say, we're getting closer to the middle of the pack.
"But we went from nothing."
Avila's comments came just days before the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers — two of the most forward-thinking organizations in baseball, two ball clubs that rely the most on new-age information and analytics — were to meet in the World Series.
When Avila took over in the summer of 2015, after Dave Dombrowski was fired after nearly 14 years on the job, Avila's first comprehensive interview was granted to The Detroit News. During the hour-long discussion, Avila was asked what would change in his tenure, and volunteered that analytics would become a much bigger focal point moving forward. The reality was, it had to be. Dombrowski had the benefit of Mike Ilitch's blank checks; Avila wasn't going to have that luxury.
When Avila took over, there was one person manning the Tigers' analytics department, and even that one employee wasn't totally devoted to analytics. There were other responsibilities. Now, more than a $2-million investment later, the Tigers have an analytics department of eight full-time employees — men and women — led by Sam Menzin, director of baseball operations, and Jay Sartori, a former executive with Apple.
They work in one office, two doors down from Avila's on the second floor at Comerica Park. One of Gardenhire's first visits after arriving in Detroit late last week was to the analytics department, which early in Avila's tenure was focused on the draft, trades, player acquisitions, etc.
"Now we're expanding more toward on the field," said Avila, noting the Tigers film and break down "hundreds of hours" of games, opposing pitchers, etc. "We could get spin rates, velocity, exit velocity, a lot of that information. The technology's here. Now, as we move forward in building the analytics department, we will have even more information for the manager."