The Detroit Tigers will soon have a "way." I was unaware that the Tigers did not already have a "way," or that it was of any real importance, but I am now wiser on both counts. In a recent Detroit News column, general manager Al Avila was quoted as saying, "This is basic, sound baseball stuff that we feel is necessary [in order] for the organization to have some continuity and consistency in the system ... 'The Tigers Way.'"
You've heard of The Cardinals Way? The Dodger Way? The Yankee Way? The Tigers, who by Avila's own admission are now playing catch-up in the analytics game, are also apparently playing catch-up when it comes to developing a "way," a unified approach to the game at all levels of the farm system. "We haven't had this," Avila said. "We want players from the minor leagues, when they come up, there's consistency from what they did in the minors to what they do in the big leagues."
Before you yawn and write this off as corporate jargon or front office cream-puffery, let's take a look at two other major league teams that know a thing or two about the value of having a system-wide strategy.
The Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays had the whole "losing a season" thing down. Ho, boy, did they ever. The Rays finished in last place in nine out of their first 10 seasons, and posted sub-.500 records in all 10. What they hadn't figured out was how to parlay all those nifty first-round draft picks into a winning team.
In the book The Extra 2%, author Jonah Keri notes that the Rays had a problem with "stereo teaching" at the minor league levels.
A pitcher coming up through the minor leagues might meet a pitching coach at A-ball who teaches the slider. At Double A, that same pitcher might be ordered to junk the slider and instead throw a curve. At Triple A, it's back to the slider. The different noises coming out of all those speakers can produce a player who hasn't mastered either pitch and isn't ready for the majors. Individual coaches, scouts, and roving instructors bring in their own expertise, with no guiding set of principles available to help convey a common message.
Mitch Lukevics had experienced success with the Yankees in developing a "uniform, top-to-bottom approach that would produce topflight, major league– ready talent" (Derek Jeter, anyone? Mariano Rivera? Andy Pettitte?). In 2006, the Rays made Lukevics their director of minor league operations in the hopes that he could replicate that success.
The Rays went on to win their division in both 2008 and 2010, with the help of names like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, David Price, and Wade Davis -- all of whom were either drafted by the Rays, or spent time developing in the Tampa Bay minor league system.
Ask Mitch Lukevics how much it helps to have a unified, franchise-wide "way."
Or you could ask Charlie Morton and the Pittsburgh Pirates about what happens when a player receives conflicting instruction from his coaches. Morton discovered how to throw a sinker/two-seamer in 2008 with the Atlanta Braves' Triple A minor league affiliate, and it proved to be a fantastic weapon.
He became such a successful ground ball pitcher that he earned the nickname "Ground Chuck," turning in a 2.05 ERA with a 0.987 WHIP for the Richmond Braves that year -- he even earned a brief call-up to the big show.
Then he got traded to the Pirates in the middle of the 2009 season, where his coaches promptly banned his sinker/two-seamer and told him to throw more four-seam heat. They liked his mid-90's fastball, Morton says in Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball. "There was an organizational decision made that I wasn't going to throw a two-seamer at all ... Four-seam, curveball, changeup; I did not have input."
Sawchik reports the results.
The decision was a disaster. Morton started 17 games in 2010, the first season he broke camp with a big league club. He went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA. He had the worst winning percentage and ERA in baseball. He allowed more fly balls than he ever had before. Those straight fastballs were hit hard and far, with 18 percent of the fly balls he allowed going for home runs. He didn't throw a single two-seam fastball that season.
Luckily for Morton, he got a chance to work with well-known pitcher-whisperer Ray Searage, who said, in effect, "go back to doing what you do best." Morton got his sinker/two-seamer back, and in 2011 posted a 3.77 FIP with a 97 ERA+, leading all of baseball with 0.3 home-runs-per-nine-innings.
Coaches mean well. Of course they do. But when players are receiving conflicting instructions at various levels, sometimes natural talent can get buried. The Tigers' own Nick Castellanos has struggled at times to capitalize on his natural hitting talent, and more than one source close to the situation has suggested "over-coaching" as the culprit.
The final chapter is a long, long way from being written on Castellanos's major league career, but it's a question worth asking: would he have struggled this much if his hitting instructors had been talking to each other and working according to a single plan?
That the Tigers are now focused on bringing a standard, unified approach to their minor league teams is a very, very good sign that the organization is ready to start taking player development seriously. After years and years of draft picks being treated like trade bait, perhaps we're about to witness a sea change that results in more minor league lottery tickets turning out to be jackpot winners.
Did you know there was a "Tigers Way?" There is, and it's about freaking time.