Wojo: Ilitch picks his Tigers leader, and it’s a young, inspired hire

Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers’ new leader seems bright and earnest and forward-thinking. He’s young but experienced. He understands the scope of the task and clearly isn’t intimidated by it.

In philosophy and demeanor, Scott Harris is precisely what the Tigers needed. In reality, we’ll see, as always. He’s only 35 and hasn’t been fully in charge of a major-league team. But his reputation precedes him, and he fits the vision of the savvy, low-key executive that Chris Ilitch craves. It’s no coincidence Ilitch sought advice from Steve Yzerman and AJ Hinch, among many others, before hiring Harris as Tigers president of baseball operations.

It may look like a risky move by Ilitch, but I think it’s an enlightened move, outside the box and outside the comfort zone. I assume it’s a relatively expensive move too, widely lauded by others in baseball. Harris spent the past three seasons as GM of the Giants and helped fashion a 107-victory campaign in 2021. He worked seven seasons under baseball’s renowned analytics oracle, Theo Epstein, and was part of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship.

Prying Harris from San Francisco, where he grew up and his parents still live, and where the Giants are a long-respected franchise, took some work. Before Ilitch could put his trust in the young decision-maker, he had to earn trust from Harris, who will take over a team enduring its sixth straight losing season.

“To go out and attract top talent like Scott, it’s very, very challenging in a very competitive league,” Ilitch said at the introductory news conference Tuesday. “Scott is widely regarded as a bright rising star. We looked at it as though it were a recruitment as much as it was an interview.”

The Tigers have so many fundamental flaws and personnel holes after Al Avila’s failed rebuild, compounded by crushing injuries, it’s silly to put a timetable on anything. Learned that lesson, didn’t we? Harris declined to get into specifics about the Tigers roster on his first day on the job. When asked if he considers this a rebuild again, he did what a smart person does. He asked for patience, without asking for patience.

“I don’t think labels are all that instructive, or even a guarantee that what you intend to do will happen,” Harris said. “We’re gonna make a lot of moves, and some of those moves will be calculated risks. We have to take calculated risks to narrow the gap between this organization and other organizations we’re chasing right now.”

Zone in

Ilitch praised Harris’ hunger for innovation, and it sounds like the stodgy Tigers are striding boldly (finally?) into a new era. Analytics in all its various forms will be a big part of it. Revamping the scouting department is likely. For those who thought Ilitch would hire someone with connections to his manager and try to recreate the Astros, this came out of nowhere, which sounds suspiciously like innovation. Hinch and Harris had never met, although they talked during the process and seem like-minded.

The most interesting nugget Harris dropped wasn’t a mishmash of numbers and generic promises. It wasn’t complicated but it was subtly sharp, as he summed up what he wants, and what the Tigers have sorely, sadly lacked.

“I believe the strike zone disproportionately influences just about everything you see on the baseball field,” Harris explained. “It dictates pitch counts, it dictates count leverage, dictates length of innings, dictates the load you’re putting on pitchers’ bodies and how many pitchers you’re gonna have to use throughout a series. It also dictates the quality of contact you’re giving up, which therefore influences the quality of defense that you can build. So we’re gonna start there. We want to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball.”

Sold. And sold.

You start at the center and work your way out. As visions go, it sounds simple, but if it were so simple, why have the Tigers consistently, maddeningly, failed to follow it? Their pitchers often lack command of the strike zone. Their hitters often lack sight of the strike zone. Tigers hitters whiff a ton, and their pitchers walk a ton. Aside from all the analytical mumbo jumbo, it’s the philosophy many smart teams follow. You don’t just need sluggers and 99-mph fastballs. You need baserunners. Your pitchers need quick outs.

Hinch has harped on it throughout this disastrous season as the Tigers’ offense hit horrific lows. Harris wouldn’t comment on specific players because he hasn’t talked to them, and he’s been a tad busy in the NL. Asked about the future of Miguel Cabrera, who has a year left on his contract, Harris held off until he knew more. He said he couldn’t comment on the Tigers’ young players. For the record, according to MLB.com, the Tigers’ farm system ranks 22nd and the Giants’ is 18th.

Harris wants pitchers to attack the strike zone and hitters to respect it. One player that immediately comes to mind is Javier Báez, the pricey free agent who has 134 strikeouts and 25 walks in a rough first season here. When I asked if he was opposed to such free-swingers, Harris was nimble in his answer.

“We’re not going to rule out any opportunity to get better, we’re not going to rule out certain profiles,” Harris said. “I haven’t talked to Javy since I left the Cubs, but I’ve seen the absolute best version of Javy. He is a dynamic impact player who brings energy to every game he plays. I don’t know what has happened here in Detroit. But the first step is sitting down and talking to him and trying to figure out what this season has been like for him, and figure out ways that we can support him better.”

‘Too good to pass on’

As far as payroll, Ilitch repeated his stance, that resources will be available. Last offseason’s $230-million investment showed it takes more than big checks. But in the weak AL Central, opportunity is ripe. Harris said he’s confident he’ll have the support he needs, and said he’ll also hire a traditional GM to bolster the front office.

“He has a tremendous drive to innovate, something you don’t always see in the industry,” Ilitch said. “His approach is progressive and forward-looking in how to win in today’s league. His ability to blend data and technology — he’s impressive, very intelligent, very humble, very low-key.”

Harris’ fiancée and parents watched from the front row in Comerica Park’s Tiger Club, after arriving late the previous night from California. Harris is well-traveled, having attended Columbia and Northwestern, but this cross-country sojourn was the leap of a lifetime, his first chance to run an MLB team.

As a precocious college kid, he’d written letters to all 30 GMs seeking advice. You dream of something that long, you take it when you get it.

“It was definitely difficult,” Harris said. “When I got to Detroit and started walking around with Chris, and seeing all that Detroit has to offer, it just felt different than any opportunity I’ve had. The combination of an exceptionally passionate fan base, tremendous resources in the division, a head start on some things they’re building under the hood, that was so inspiring to me. And tremendous ownership and business-side support. When it came time to make a decision, it was just something too good to pass on.”

That’s a win right there for a Tigers organization beaten down for several years. There’s nothing cookie-cutter or cost-cutting about this. Fueled by on-field failure, Ilitch recalibrated his vision and made an astute hire. Harris knows exactly what he’s getting into and traveled a long way to get here. Finding the strike zone is the first goal, and I’m guessing he’ll strike decisively.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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