Despite reputation for favoring scouting, newly hired executive will use data as tool
By Alec Shirkey
BOSTON -- Across the 11-plus seasons in which Theo Epstein and protégé Ben Cherington served as general managers in Boston, the Red Sox were consistently viewed as one of the most forward-thinking clubs in the Majors when it came to incorporating data analytics.
In hiring Dave Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations, coupled with Cherington's decision to step aside as GM, the Red Sox have created the impression that their front office is transitioning toward a more traditional, scouting-oriented style of player evaluation. But Dombrowski downplayed this notion on Wednesday during his introductory news conference at Fenway Park, instead defining his own approach as a mix of both ends of the team-building spectrum -- one that he hopes will bring another World Series trophy to Boston.
"I think we're in a spot in today's world where we're basically termed, 'You're analytical or you're non-analytical,'" Dombrowski said. "I don't really agree with that at all. I think the reality is that you use all the information you possibly can to come to the best decision you possibly can.
"We don't have -- or did not have [in Detroit] -- as big an analytical department as some other organizations do, for various reasons. But I did have people in our office that would give you any analytics that you wanted to get. And we would be up to date on any type of thing that you could get."
Principal owner John Henry's background as a financial trader made the Red Sox an ideal team to make some of the earliest forays into analytics in sports during the advent of baseball's so-called "Moneyball" era, and he followed through on those inclinations in 2003 by hiring influential statistician Bill James. Henry hopes to maintain a strong analytics department moving forward, but he, too, added that the team's reliance on data is not as all-encompassing as some might think.
"I think there's been an overemphasis in the media about the level to which we perform data analytics," Henry said. "We have terrific people in that area, but it's not the overwhelming basis for our philosophy. It's more of a tool. It often goes beyond being a tool because sometimes it can actually drive us in a certain direction. But it hasn't been the driving force in baseball operations under Theo and under Ben. And I doubt it will under Dave."
Henry and chairman Tom Werner still discussed at length whether Dombrowski would be a sound philosophical fit with Boston's data-slanted baseball-operations staff when the three met in Chicago last week. Ultimately, they came to an agreement and felt comfortable allowing Dombrowski to utilize analytics to the extent he sees fit.
"It's a very fast-changing world where data's more and more useful, but of course it's how you interpret it," Werner said. "For example, we've been aware that pitch framing by a catcher can actually cause a run differential one way or the other, depending on the particular talent a [catcher] has to do that. So that might be a metric that 10 years ago might not have been noticed, but it's certainly something that would be part of Dave's toolbox."
Those same tools will also be available to manager John Farrell, pending his return from Stage 1 lymphoma, and the rest of the coaching staff.
"[Tigers manager Brad Ausmus], I didn't know until we hired him," Dombrowski said. "At the time, I said, 'Brad, anything you want, we'll give you. You tell us what you want, we'll give it. And we'll do the same thing for John and [interim manager Torey Lovullo] here."
As GM of the Expos, Tigers and Marlins, Dombrowski had a penchant for swapping top prospects for Major League talent, often doing so in bold deals that later propelled his clubs into the playoffs.
Those players are luxuries Dombrowski could not quite afford to keep during his time with the Tigers, whose ownership aggressively vied to remain in contention during his tenure.
"We used the farm system a little bit different when I was in Detroit," Dombrowski said. "We had the pedal to the metal, trying to win a world championship, and unfortunately we fell short of that. And we traded a lot of our good, young talent at that time."
Looking ahead, Dombrowski says he will aim to improve a Boston pitching staff that through 119 games owned the third-worst ERA in the Majors (4.63). He may accomplish that by acquiring an ace, perhaps a power pitcher in the mold of former Tigers star Max Scherzer. The organization may also need to give up prospects highly valued by the previous regime in order to do so.
The degree to which analytics factor into those choices should become clearer with time. What remains certain is that Henry and his top advisors feel a strong alignment with Dombrowski, and as displayed on the Fenway Park scoreboard before Wednesday's game, the organization is extending him a warm embrace as he begins rebuilding the Red Sox.
"We have used data as part of our toolbox, but in the end, it's all about player evaluation, data and character," Henry said. "I think we're all united that we're giving Dave the responsibility of fielding a championship ballclub, and I'm sure he'll speak to his philosophy. But we've talked about it, and we think that there's a lot more in common than perhaps has been suggested."
Alec Shirkey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.