As news broke on Thursday that the Detroit Tigers had hired Ron Gardenhire as their new manager, reactions ranged from muted to deeply unhappy. For a seeming majority, Gardenhire represented an uninspiring but ultimately worthy choice to steer a young, rebuilding franchise on a steady course. However, for a decent percentage of the fanbase who have watched enviously as the most successful franchises seamlessly integrate old- and new-school thinking in recent years, the decision felt like a big step backwards for the Tigers.
Ever since general manager Al Avila took the helm in the middle of the 2015, he has laid out a vision for the organization’s future that would seem to preclude an old-fashioned manager from ever getting the nod again. The Tigers have invested substantially in upgrading their training facilities. They have raced to close the gap between them and the rest of baseball in technology, additional scouts, and in building their own analytics database (along with a stable of analysts). Avila has repeatedly acknowledged a need to get smarter, more progressive, and more efficient.
Unfortunately, Gardenhire feels like something of a repudiation. He was just about the most old-school candidate considered for the job. He has handled a lot of scuffling young teams in the past, but typically runs a good clubhouse. While he took some talented Minnesota Twins teams to the playoffs early in his tenure there, those appearances went poorly. We’re also nearly a decade removed from them, so it’s not unfair to wonder if the game has passed him by to some degree. And until recently, he has often dismissed the growing emphasis on the use of analytics in the game.
That’s an opinion rebutted by the success of progressive, analytics focused organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays, the Houston Astros or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whether you like him or not as manager, Gardenhire doesn’t seem to fit with the strategy and goals Avila has been selling over the past few seasons.
Gardenhire is familiar, like comfort food for a front office settling in for a long, multi-season winter. Faced with extremely low expectations and an opportunity to take a chance on a new voice, Avila instead made the most conservative move possible. For many, the Tigers simply reversed the Brad Ausmus error with this hiring, adding a traditional, veteran manager at a time when they are looking to get younger, smarter and closer to the cutting edge.
The integration of coaching and analytics isn’t an insignificant concept. Teams are using more data analysis to maximize their players’ results in ways coaching alone cannot. One approach isn’t better than another. In the best organizations, they are cooperative.
A manager and his staff have to be able to teach the game. They have to be able to manage high-strung guys in a high pressure environment. Gardenhire is well prepared on those fronts. But to maximize your effectiveness in those goals, a manager and his coaching staff have to be open and engaged with the information a good analytics department can provide. Younger players especially are coming to expect it, and their progress is going to be the measure by which Gardenhire is judged.
In the best organizations, you see openness and better communication between the coaching staff and the number crunchers. A good coaching staff not only takes a cursory interest in the analytics department’s work, but is actively engaged, exchanging ideas, and asking questions. From there, it requires commitment to put best practices into action, both as a team and on a player-by-player basis. None of that happens if the manager is only casually interested.
Those requirements extend not just to Gardenhire, but to his coaching staff and his overall influence within the organization. Since his time with the Twins, has Gardenhire been converted?
Famously crusty Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had his eureka moment several years ago. Realizing he was on the brink of losing his job, Hurdle and the Pirates’ front office finally warmed up to all that a modern analytics department could do for the club. The result, as chronicled in Travis Sawchik’s book Big Data Baseball, was a very low payroll team that finally turned itself into a respectable franchise after years of mediocrity.
To validate his hire, Gardenhire is going to need to take similar steps. Certainly an analytics department is valuable in the draft and in valuing players, even if the manager of the major league club doesn’t emphasize their work. But they won’t get the best they can out of their roster without total buy-in.
As the offseason grinds along and Gardenhire starts giving interviews as the team’s new manager, reporters will have a keen eye for comments about these concerns. His choices for the coaching staff will also be scrutinized through that lens. The front office should be looking to him to clean up the team’s fundamentals and to quiet a clubhouse that has grown restless. They need him to squeeze as much value out of their players as possible, whether for future trade value or as building blocks. The rebuild can’t just be a waiting game. The Tigers need Gardenhire to an asset and not a stumbling block towards their goal of building an effective, modern organization.
Gardenhire may well prove to be a placeholder as the Tigers look to rebuild their organization from the inside-out. But that doesn’t mean his hiring is insignificant, or that his impact on the franchise will necessarily be temporary.
For Al Avila, he now has his guy and so he now owns all outcomes. But, a “same old Tigers” mantra isn’t going to be easily overcome.