Tigers nurturing young analytics department

Tigers nurturing young analytics department

DETROIT -- While the Tigers look to pare down their payroll this offseason, their analytics department is quietly growing -- and growing up.

"It's in its infancy, as analytics departments go," general manager Al Avila said during his end-of-season gathering last week.

It's not going to stay that way for long. If the Tigers are going to do more with a lower payroll, analytics will likely play an increasing -- but not necessarily dominant -- influence in how the team spends its money.

Avila created the department last offseason as part of his organizational buildup after being promoted to GM in August 2015. The Tigers hired former Blue Jays analyst Jay Sartori from Apple last November to run the department with baseball operations director Sam Menzin.

Initial reaction was that the Tigers were moving in a different direction after years of relying more heavily on traditional scouting. However, Avila made it clear that analytics would be a part of their evaluations rather than a force. When the Tigers signed Mike Pelfrey to a two-year, $16 million contract during last December's Winter Meetings, Avila acknowledged the risk while absolving his analysts.

"I'm not going to throw them under the bus, because this is not an analytical signing by any means," Avila said at the time.

Pelfrey of course, struggled to a 4-10 record and 5.07 ERA this season, and while he's under contract for 2017, his role is unclear. That played no part in the analytics buildup, but it certainly doesn't hurt the value.

How much of a role analytics plays in the immediate future remains to be seen. As Avila explained, the Tigers aren't likely to do much in free agency this time around, aside from backups and Minor Leaguers signed for depth. The most prominent acquisitions are expected to be any young players and prospects brought back in the trades Detroit undertakes to go younger and leaner, as Avila put it. However, the increasing amount of information available on the Minor League side -- not just through statistics, but through the widespread adoption of Trackman to measure player movement on the field -- provides an opportunity to evaluate prospects.

The more important work on the analytics side is the groundwork for the future, notably an in-house software system the Tigers are developing to help evaluate and store information on players.

"We're going to call it Caesar," Avila said. "We're building Caesar as we speak. That won't be operational, fully operational, until January."

The Tigers are adding manpower on the analytics side as well. As observers noted on Fangraphs and Twitter, the team has three listings for analyst jobs -- two full-time, one an internship.

"We will be hiring several more people in that area that will basically just be doing the calculations, mathematics, formulas that they create to help us make better situations, which is not in place right now," Avila said. "In reality, [the department] is in its infancy right now."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.