Shortly after Al Avila was named general manager of the Detroit Tigers, Fox Sports' Jon Morosi tweeted out a hint that Avila will use more analytics than former president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. About a week later, Avila expanded on this idea, stating that the Tigers were lagging behind other teams and that he’ll "fast-forward" the expanded analytics department. Avila is not going to completely abandon traditional scouting -- without it, they never would have signed J.D. Martinez, among others -- but mentioned that a balance between the two methods will be used.
We have already seen this change in the front office by the promotion of Sam Menzin, who has published work at FanGraphs and previously worked as a statistical analyst under former director of baseball operations, Mike Smith. Menzin now has the freedom to hire two more analytics experts to further expand on this new philosophy. But the real change is what will ultimately happen on the field.
"The information is funneled to the manager and to the staff," Avila said. "I would say they use it to their discretion, as much as they need it. I don't turn in the lineup card to our manager; I never have and never will.
"I'm not gonna have Sam come up with the numbers and go down there and say, 'This is what you're gonna do.'"
Avila has stated that Ausmus' job is secure through the rest of the season, but declined to comment on 2016. However, is Ausmus already buying into this new philosophy? There are a few things that Ausmus has changed, perhaps coincidentally, right around the time that Avila was named general manager.
I first noticed it with Jose Iglesias batting second. Ausmus has used Iglesias in the ninth spot in the batting order for most of the season, even though he has been batting over .300 for most of the season. An "old school" strategy would point to the protection argument, stating that a batter will perform differently in a different spot in the batting order, seeing different pitches and not be as good as where he is comfortable. The "new school" people would say that the evidence shows that there is a slight, but very minimal effect in how a player performs based on who is on deck. With the way Iglesias has been hitting, the advantage of having him bat in the top of the order outweighs any effect of turning over the lineup that batting ninth has.
Jose Iglesias only batted higher than seventh four times this year before July 29. Since that day, Iglesias has batted second in every game for the Tigers. In those 13 games, Iglesias has batted .250 in 57 plate appearances, which is not a spectacular figure, but we're still dealing with small samples.
The other noticeable difference is the bullpen management. Bullpen construction was Dave Dombrowski's biggest weakness during his tenure with the Tigers. However, despite the disadvantage provided by his personnel, Ausmus has not always used his bullpen very efficiently. One of the most infamous instances came in a game on July 21 against the Seattle Mariners. The Tigers were leading 8-6 going into the eighth inning, and Ausmus elected to use Neftali Feliz in that situation. He continued to leave Feliz in the game despite having both Joakim Soria and Alex Wilson available in the bullpen. Feliz promptly gave up a grand slam and the Tigers lost 11-9. On his bullpen management that game, Ausmus proclaimed that he need to keep Wison fresh in case of extra innings, and that he wouldn't change anything in how he managed.
Except, Ausmus did change. On July 30 against Baltimore, the Tigers took a 9-7 lead into the 8th inning. Al Alburquerque was called upon to get through that inning, but like Feliz, was struggling. After putting two men on, Ausmus changed his strategy and went to Alex Wilson, not only to finish the eighth inning but also to pitch the ninth and complete the 5-out save.
Yet again, Ausmus used a non-traditional way to maneuver through the ninth inning against the Royals on August 5. With Joakim Soria traded away, Ausmus didn't have anyone in the bullpen with much closing experience to protect a 2-1 lead. So, he did the next best thing and played the matchups. He used Blaine Hardy to get a switch-hitter and lefthander out, then did the unthinkable and made a pitching change in the middle of a save situation. Alex Wilson came in to get the final out against a right-handed batter.
With Wilson shut down with shoulder fatigue, the next two save opportunities went to Bruce Rondon. And Ausmus is being flexible with the ninth inning role.
"It doesn’t mean he (Rondon) will get all of them. He needs days off, too. And Wilson is going to pitch at the back end of games somewhere, maybe the eighth, maybe even the ninth."
The problem with these examples is the timing. They all happened around the trade deadline when Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria were traded away. Cespedes was the Tigers' former number two hitter, so someone else had to take over and Jose Iglesias was a logical choice. Soria was the former Tigers' closer and with no one else in the bullpen with much closing experience a unique circumstance was bound to happen.
There are about seven weeks left in the season, so it'll be interesting to see what, if any more managerial changes Ausmus makes and if they will involve advanced metrics at all.