Tigers’ Lloyd McClendon embraces data tools without compromising old-school ethics

Detroit News

Minneapolis – Yes, he’s 61 years old. Yes, he’s been in professional baseball since 1980 and his three most impacting mentors in the game were Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont and Ron Gardenhire. But if you try to peg Lloyd McClendon as a dyed-in-the-wool old-schooler – well, you got two problems:

One, you’d be wrong, and two, you might have a fight on your hands.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said after taking the reins after Gardenhire retired on Saturday.

It most certainly is not. McClendon has 500 big-league wins as a manager, in stints with the Pirates (2001-2005) and Mariners (2014-2015). You’ve probably seen the videos of him throwing his cap and ripping the base out of the dirt and carrying it with him into the dugout after an epic ejection in 2001. And maybe you associate him with a different era of the game.

That’s would be uninformed and inaccurate. He stopped playing in 1995 and has been in the game coaching and managing since. To survive that long, to be effective that long, you have to adapt and grow with the game.

He gave an abject lesson in modern managing Tuesday night. In the fourth inning, he brought in late-inning reliever Jose Cisnero with the bases loaded and two outs. The Tigers were down a run. Cisnero struck out Byron Buxton with three 96-mph fastballs.

He made a similarly aggressive move in the fifth inning, bringing in Daniel Norris with two on and two out to face a left-handed hitting Max Kepler. Norris hasn’t been used in a situational-lefty role this season – or ever, for that matter – but he was the best matchup McClendon had against Kepler, and he got him to bounce to third.

After Norris gave him four outs, he still had Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia available to close out the game. 

“The traditional way of thinking on how to use your bullpen is gone,” McClendon said. “You have to manage the innings, inning by inning and what inning is most important to keep you in the ballgame. 

“I thought in that situation (in the fourth), bringing Cisnero in with the numbers he had and the matchup there was the right thing to do.”

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That is not an old-school approach, right there. It wasn’t a gut decision. The matchup charts put together by the Tigers’ analytics team told him what the best move was, percentage wise, in those situations.

Truth is, McClendon has been a long-time advocate of using analytics.

“Probably contrary to popular belief, I accepted analytics right away,” he said. “Listen, if somebody gives you a tool and says this can help you analyze and win a ballgame, you would be foolish not to use it.”

Here’s another example of McClendon’s aggressive managerial style – and on this one he is in lock-step with Gardenhire. Rookie Daz Cameron was thrown out at the plate in the fifth inning Tuesday. With two outs, he was waived home by third base coach Ramon Santiago, on a hard-hit single to left by Victor Reyes.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario fielded it clean in shallow left and gunned down Cameron by a few feet.

“We were sending him, regardless,” McClendon said. “There were two outs and we were hoping something good happens. It’s just one of those plays that happens. The first person I went to was Santy and I told him, ‘Good move.’

“We’ve got to be aggressive in that situation. They could’ve thrown the ball away. The catcher could’ve dropped it. You have to put pressure on the defense to make mistakes.”

McClendon’s way with players is every bit as compassionate as Gardenhire’s, but he has more of Leyland’s hard edge. After taking the walk-off gut-punch, he told his players, “Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. You’ve got to grind it out and turn the page.”

He’s also made it clear to the players that he’s not some substitute teacher just finishing out the semester.

“What I’ve been impressing on these players on a daily basis here is that you are auditioning, you are trying to win jobs for next year,” he said. “Your growth, your maturity in how you go about your business is being evaluated on a daily basis.

“You need to go out and give everything you got, every day.”

More: Tigers’ Brandon Dixon happy to get the call after long year in Toledo

McClendon has already let general manager Al Avila know he wants to manage and would like to interview for the job after the season. But he doesn’t know what direction Avila will go.

One thing for sure, though, he won’t be discounted by his age or any false notion that he is out of date.

“My philosophy is to go out and try to win every game,” McClendon said. “That hasn’t changed. You suit up, you want to win. And honestly, you want to use every tool possible to try to win. Nothing has changed in that respect.

“But you’d be a fool if you don’t get better, you don’t improve, and you don’t learn from your mistakes. Obviously, the game should slow down for you the more you do it. I would say I’m probably better with age.”

A smile cracked his face.

“I was going to say better looking with age, but I guess not.”

Twitter @cmccosky

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