RKB: Shifting the D to See Whether Analytics Drives the Motor City’s Baseball Team

The Detroit Tigers have the reputation of being a team late to baseball’s new analytical revolution, but they quietly have been making front-office hires (no, Brad Ausmus did not count) purportedly to try to catch up in that area, and there’s evidence that it’s happening. For example, two weeks ago, something occurredfor what I believe to be the first time in Tigers history, when manager Ron Gardenhire cited input from the analyitics department– excuse me, “analytic department”– as the reason for a decision he’d made:

If you’re excited — or angry — about seeing Jeimer Candelario in the lead-off spot Wednesday night, then feel to credit — or blame — the Detroit Tigers analytics department.

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said the recent spate of roster changes prompted a consultation with the club’s analytics and research department in an effort to find an ideal batting order.

“We did some research and the analytic department put all the data in there to try to see what gives up our best opportunities,” Gardenhire said. “(Candelario’s) name came up first as lead-off.”

Just the one analytic so far, but it’s a start. Now that we know the Tigers have sabermetric analysts and those analysts convey strategic input to the coaching staff, it’s fair to inquire into the quality of that input. As it turned out with respect to the above example, Candelario only hit leadoff for two games, and while he performed well (four hits, including a double and home run, and two strikeouts in eight plate appearances), it did not seem to be a part of Gardenhire’s long-term plan. Very likely coincidentally, the team lost both of those games, and Gardenhire moved Candelario back to fifth, where he’s hit for most of the season, for the next game, a win. As Lindbergh and Miller’s The Only Rule Is It Has To Work reminds, it’s one thing to develop sabermetrically informed strategies and another to implement them with coaches and players. (And, as beat writer Evan Woodbery pointed out in the article quoting Gardenhire, Detroit didn’t have many good options for the leadoff position anyway.)

More recently, Tigers observers and fans have cited with excitement a data point on defensive shifts an FSD producer pointed out over the weekend as more good evidence in this area, even suggesting that the team was becoming a leader (first place!) in the realm of new analytics-based strategy:

The irony of the timing of this was that it came as lead Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton was in the process of dismantling the notion of the shift as a useful defensive strategy.  Continue reading