Detroit Tigers new front man aims to modernize a franchise stuck in the past

Detroit Free Press

Change and baseball go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. A few swear by it. Most resist its creamy charms, at least until that’s all there is to eat.

Baseball is changing. Home runs are down. Strikeouts are up. Overall hitting is down, too.

The ball is less springy, stored in humidors and sooner or later will be delivered to umpires in miniature hyperbaric chambers. Next season, the pitcher will have a timer, the runner will have bigger bases, and the manager will no longer be able to shift the infield defense so easily.

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Turns out four-hour games aren’t so fun anymore. Neither are endless pitching changes, empty base paths and everyone swinging for the fences.

Not that the sacrifice bunt will return as a staple anytime soon, nor does it need to return, for that matter. But maybe it shows up in another form? Maybe singles will become the rage again? Maybe contact in general will return and everyone will get to participate in the sport?

I don’t know.

But Scott Harris might. At least Christopher Ilitch is paying him a lot of money to take the best guess he can, the best guess as to where baseball is headed next.

The Detroit Tigers owner introduced his new president of baseball operations Tuesday afternoon and spoke of a new era at Comerica Park. Only the choir was missing.

Harris, 35, arrives in Detroit as the next great hope of the future, in charge of a franchise (relatively) stuck in the past, with a mission to field a squad that can thrive in the analytics-heavy era of baseball.

Or, better yet, jump to the next era, whatever that might look like.

Harris came from San Francisco by way of the Chicago Cubs, where he absorbed the philosophies of a couple of forward-thinking organizations. Sound familiar? It should, especially if you’re a Lions fan.

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Don’t worry, though, Harris has no aim to turn the Tigers into Silicon Valley Midwest, unlike a certain New England tandem who tried to turn the Lions into the Patriots … without Tom Brady.

Harris respects the Giants and the Cubs, and is grateful to both, but he intends to stitch together what he’s learned and what he’s formulated on his own into something new. And he said all the right things at the news conference Tuesday, emphasizing player development and data and mastering the strike zone, on both sides of the ball.

If that sounds suspiciously like a football man, well, that isn’t the worst thing ever. Football, whatever else you think, isn’t shy about change, or about holding up those who move it to new places as heroes.

Perhaps because baseball feels static relative to football, it’s easy to think of the game as less supple, more immutable, coiled tight against change. But as mentioned, the game is changing by the season.

The most successful franchises adapt and often forecast where the sport is headed. And if you were to single out a reason for the last regime’s ultimate failure, this would be it.

It’s not by accident that Ilitch used words like “progressive” and “innovate” when he spoke about his new president of baseball operations. That’s what he expects. And that’s what Harris believes he can deliver.

Among all the talk about improving the way the Tigers evaluate and develop players, no words were more tantalizing than when Harris said he wanted to “stay ahead” of where the game is going.

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“It’s important to differentiate ourselves,” he said.

Mimicry is fine. And, sure, every team would love a Justin Verlander leading its rotation. Oh, wait. But there aren’t too many of those, and there are more ways to win than by overpowering hitters.

Harris intends to find them. He intends to build a team (he wouldn’t say how long it would take) of which Detroit can be proud. He’s aware of the fanatical nature of the fan base, the franchise history, the promising young players in the system — yes, there are a few.

“This is an exceptional opportunity and responsibility,” Harris said. “But this isn’t my team. This is Detroit’s team. … We’re going to be mindful of that with every decision we make.”

Again, he hit the right notes, and he didn’t even need to sing. Others in the game have done it for him.

“The next Theo Epstein,” said one.

Maybe so. Not that Harris is looking to become anything other than the first Harris.

Cliché, right? Sure, it is. But it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

This region has had its share of newcomers talking about big things the last decade. Lately, a few of them may prove they can follow through. Perhaps Harris will as well.

To do this, he’ll have to remake a franchise that was stuck in 2006. A good year for baseball around here, certainly. But also, a year that’s more than a decade and a half in the past.

The game has changed and will continue to change. The Tigers believe they have their man to keep up.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@shawnwindsor.

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