Detroit — When commissioner Rob Manfred released his nine-page report detailing the findings and sanctions following Major League Baseball’s investigation of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing escapades in 2017 and 2018, he cited a failure to establish a culture where, “adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization.”
It was, in other words, an organization big on ambition and light on integrity; big on analytics and technology, short on humanity; big on intelligence, short on wisdom.
You can say what you want about the organizational culture Al Avila has established with the Tigers, but it has been mindfully and determinedly built on a balance of intelligence and wisdom, a balance of new-school analytics and old-school ethics.
“It’s been my philosophy the whole time,” he said Thursday before the Tigers headed out for a two-day bus sweep across the state. “You have to embrace the analytics and technology. It’s here and it’s helpful. It’s great information and it really helps players.
“But you also have to have good fundamentals. You have to have good solid leadership. You have to be courageous. But you also have to be humble. For me, it’s always been, let’s go out there and do our best, but we want to show some humility, too.”
Look at the leadership Avila has put in place just this offseason. He hired a director of pitching development and strategies (former USC head coach Dan Hubbs) and an organizational hitting coordinator (Kenny Graham), both advanced in technology and analytics. He also hired former Angels bench coach Josh Paul to coordinate analytics with manager Ron Gardenhire at the big-league field level.
A concerted effort to meld both doesn’t automatically preclude the Tigers from ever using technology to cheat, of course. But, listening to reactions from players on Thursday, it certainly never has been encouraged.
“The way I was raised, you work hard to earn it,” pitcher Daniel Norris said. “Cutting corners is just, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Even if I knew for a fact I’d never get caught, I still wouldn’t do it.”
Michael Fulmer, who absorbed a good beating in Houston in 2018, couldn’t fathom it, either.
“As a baseball player, I fight each and every day to make my dream become a reality,” he said. “And I am living that dream I’ve had since I was 4 years old. To disrespect the integrity of the game, I don’t know how I could live with myself.
“Playing this game that I love and doing it for a living, I don’t see how you could go about yourself like that and be OK with it.”
Fulmer and Justin Verlander used to talk often about teams stealing signs. Verlander, when he was still with the Tigers in 2017, might have been victimized by the Astros’ scheme. On May 25, he threw three shutout innings at Minute Maid Park and then gave up three home runs in the fourth inning.
Later that year, he was traded to the Astros and helped them win a championship.
“He’d been very adamant about it when he was here,” Fulmer said. “We talked about it a lot. But obviously, he’s not a hitter and there was nothing that he was doing wrong.”
Pitcher Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Astros in 2017 and was with the Tigers briefly in 2018, is at the center of this storm, too. He went on record with the Astros’ tactics in an article in the Athletic. While he’s taking some criticism for it, his old teammates are applauding him.
“I understand every perspective of it,” Norris said. “I get it. But at the same time, it was out there. People were voicing it for a long time. It’s not like he was the only person who rung the bell or blew the whistle. It just finally got out.”
Fiers warned the Tigers of the Astros tactics before they played in Houston in 2018.
“He just told us what they were doing and to make sure we switch it up and have multiple signs ready to go,” pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said. “It was kind of the same thing in Boston, too. It’s funny, you’d go into Boston or Houston and you’d look at their home and away splits and you’d go, ‘This just isn’t adding up.’
“It’s not right for all those pitchers that went in there and got beat around and hurt their careers. Hopefully this puts an end to that.”
Matthew Boyd, the ace of the Tigers staff heading into 2020, said the antidote to such schemes was better preparation.
“If we hear about someone taking our signs, legally or illegally, it’s our job to go on the field prepared for it,” he said. “We know there are guys who are really good at catching guys tipping their pitches. There are teams really good at bearing down when they are on second base. And we know there are some teams we can’t figure out what they do.
"You just have to take the appropriate steps to prepare for that.”
Gardenhire acknowledged Fiers’ warning, but when asked what could’ve been done about it joked, “Don’t put trash cans around the dugout.”
“Mike went out and spoke his mind,” Gardenhire said. “MLB took action and hopefully we will be better for it. Analytics are a part of baseball and analytics means computers and cameras and all kinds of stuff. Teams try to use it to gain an advantage.
“Cameras on the field is kind of rough, but everybody is trying to win, trying to figure out how to beat the other guys. Things didn’t work out for them this way, but hopefully baseball will be better for it going forward.”
One thing the players weren’t buying, though, was the use of electronic buzzers and other wearable technology on their bodies.
“I can’t imagine someone going that far,” Fulmer said. “Using a video camera in center field to get the catcher’s signs is one thing. But having a buzzer, I just don’t see it. Maybe that’s just me. But the integrity thing, I don’t see people going that far to gain an advantage.”
You would like to think the dire consequences handed down by Manfred, and subsequently by the Astros and Red Sox ownership groups, would be a strong deterrent.
“Baseball has gone through a lot of adversity,” Gardenhire said. “As long as I’ve been in the game, I’ve seen a lot of it. You just take a step back, let baseball clean itself up, get it done and you go on. We’re just going to go about our business and try to go about it the right way.”