Detroit — I’ve been carrying around these quotes from agent Scott Boras since he spoke at the general managers’ meetings in Las Vegas in November. His words struck me at the time as extremely relevant to the Tigers, and even more so since manager AJ Hinch and president Scott Harris built a 10-coach big-league faculty, including three-man hitting and pitching departments.
Boras talked about what he called the “analytic bombshell,” about the disconnect between those who create the analytics and produce the data and the players it’s all supposed to help. He said he’s heard from far too many players that feel teams are asking them to focus on methods and standards that are different than those they used to get to the big leagues.
I have witnessed some of that the last couple of years with the Tigers, and not just from dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers. Akil Baddoo and Spencer Torkelson both got their heads spun around last season. While it would be inaccurate to blame their struggles solely on any analytic bombshell, both battled a tug-a-war between the ways and means that got them to the big leagues and the adjustments they now were being asked to make.
Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario, veteran hitters with respected track records, looked uncharacteristically unsettled at the plate all season. When Javier Báez hit rock bottom early last season, he reverted not to the hitting plans and suggestions of the hitting coaches, but to an old-school tip he got from Manny Ramirez back in 2014 when he was in Triple A with the Cubs — to slightly separate his hands on the bat.
But I’ve also seen the opposite, where acceptance and adaptation led to improved productivity.
In 2021, finally healthy after knee and elbow surgeries, Michael Fulmer was asked to transition to the bullpen. It took him a while to come around to some of the suggestions pitching coach Chris Fetter was making. Fetter was asking him to attack hitters a different way than he had in the past. He was showing him metrically and digitally how his slider worked, how he could play it off his four-seam fastball.
Fulmer always had thrown his slider off his fastballs, using his sinker as his primary weapon. Fetter was asking him to use his slider as the predominant pitch and work his fastballs and changeup off it.
Once Fulmer committed to it, though, he thrived. And he would talk later about how he wished he’d have adopted the changes sooner.
Still, it seems baseball teams and players are walking an ever-thinning line between positive instruction and paralysis by analysis.
“To be given a flood of information daily without the proper bridge for execution, we’re finding clutter,” Boras said. “We’re finding players that are mal-performing, players whose confidence levels are shaken. We need to add the analytics bridge. We need to create new methodology.
“We need baseball people to understand analytics and we also need analytics people to understand that we need a communication bridge — a method and a timing to communicate this information to the players.”
Building a bridge
Harris will argue that what he and Hinch have built with this enlarged coaching staff, with four additional coaches on staff, is indeed an analytics bridge.
“We’re trying to build these departments so we can reach the players where they’re at with different voices and different perspectives and different expertise,” Harris said. “How it will function will be different than how you think. There’s a vast amount of expertise, a wide range of expertise. They all offer something a little different for the players.”
It will be fascinating to see how, for example, the three-man hitting department operates.
James Rowson, 46, is the oldest of the three and has the most experience as a traditional big-league hitting coach, having been with the Twins’ Bomba Squad teams in 2017-2019 and then as the Marlins bench coach the last two seasons.
Keith Beauregard, 39, was the minor league hitting coach and field coordinator for the Dodgers and he is well-versed in hitting mechanics and biomechanics. This is his first big-league job.
Michael Brdar, 28, just six years out from his playing days at University of Michigan, seems to offer a unique blend of the traditional and new methods. He’s also considered an elite game-planner.
It’s not like players will be divvied up among these three coaches. Nor will the three coaches be standing behind the batting cage hammering at the players in unison. In theory, these coaches represent a library of methods and instruction. It’s on the players to seek and take out what they need.
“Not every player is the same,” Hinch said. “You don’t coach every player the same. Not every player is going to be focused on the different voices. I will pay attention to make sure we’re not overloading any of the players.
“But our focus and goal was to make sure we had a variety of perspective to help the players.”
What Miguel Cabrera might need on a daily basis throughout a season certainly is different than what Kerry Carpenter and Ryan Kreidler might need. Hinch admitted it took most of the season last year to get a firm grasp of what Báez needed.
The responsibilities of the three-man pitching faculty are a little more clearly defined. Whereas no lead hitting coach has been designated, Fetter is the unquestioned chairman of the pitching department.
Juan Nieves, while adept at using the data and technology, is a bit of a pitcher-whisperer when it comes to nurturing egos and building confidence, particularly with the Latin-born players.
The new man, Robin Lund, a former biomechanics professor and college pitching coach, will have a more behind-the-scenes role — part trouble-shooter, part pitch doctor, part early-detection device when it comes to fatigue and possible injury.
Diversity in instruction
Harris, when asked about the expanded coaching staff at the Winter Meetings in December, talked about the value of diversity.
“Not just in the traditional sense of the word,” he said. “We have talked a lot about meeting players where they are, not where we want them to be. Meet them in their own language, with their own preferred means of communication — meet them in their own cultural cues, their own humor.
“Just make it a comfortable environment to be coached.”
This, it seems to me, to be the definition of an analytics bridge. And yet, part of me still thinks this is instructional overkill, especially at the big-league level. Some grousing among the older players seems inevitable. Some may feel burdened by the informational overload.
But break down the Tigers’ roster. Look at how quickly these players are getting to the big leagues. Guys like Torkelson, Riley Greene and Baddoo didn’t even get 1,000 at-bats in the minor leagues. Look at the large group of young players like Nick Maton, Matt Vierling, Eric Haase, Jake Rogers, Donny Sands, Kreidler, Carpenter and other who are still just taking their first steps at this level.
And even though the Tigers have three veteran pitchers at the top of the rotation — Eduardo Rodriguez, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen — the likes of Matt Manning, Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske, Garrett Hill, Wilmer Flores, Alex Faedo, Reese Olson, even injured Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, are far from finished products.
You can see the method to the madness. Maybe the “culture of development” is more than an industry buzzword or management cliche. Either way, it should make for a compelling case study this season.