While the use of data analytics is now widespread in sports, Baseball was really the one that kickstarted it all. The nature of the game and the sheer volume of statistics it produces makes it comfortably the best suited, and the success of its acolytes - most famously Billy Beane at Oakland Athletics - means that its adoption by MLB teams has been rapid. There are, however, still many detractors of data-driven decision making in sport, who prefer to rely on more traditional scouting methods.
One team attempting to strike a balance is the Detroit Tigers, where general manager Al Avila and its director of baseball operations Sam Menzin are looking to expand their data analytics program as a means of reinforcing their decision making processes. As part of this drive, they have also now hired as senior director of baseball operations and analytics, Jay Sartori, who most recently managed the sports and entertainment categories of Apple’s App Store. He previously served as an assistant general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2010-13, and as the director of baseball operations for the Washington Nationals for one season. The appointment follows the hiring of two full-time employees and two part-time consultants, including Christopher D. Long - a former senior quantitative analyst for the San Diego Padres.
The Tigers are applying analytics to a number of areas that they feel they’ve, as Avila says, ’been missing out on.’ Avila points to its use in the offseason, the pursuit of free agents, possible trades, and in the draft, analyzing and projecting the impact of players in the minors, and finding six-year minor league free agents. Defensive coordinator, Matt Martin, has embraced the use of data when determining which shifts to employ. Menzin, however, notes that the real point ’is combining data from your scouts, medical staff and player development staff, as well as the performance and melding that together.’
Both Avila and Menzin are toeing a fine line, being careful not to rely exclusively on the data and let it rule their decision making, but also acknowledging that failing to use it as a part of the overhaul approach would be foolish and will likely see them lose competitive advantage. The reality is that the amount of information at hand increases exponentially, and while a single coach may have been able to deal with what was coming in before, they no longer can.
‘There's a plethora of information,’ Avila said. ‘You talk to some of the older guys that played years ago, and they'll tell you it's too much information. To a certain degree, that could be true. It's information overload. But it's up to the individual players and coaches to determine when enough is enough. The information is there to be used and consumed. Everybody uses whatever they feel that they need’.
Avila’s reasoning is sound, embracing the data but leaving the final decision in human hands. Whether his approach yields success remains to be seen.