Detroit Tigers Hire Private Statistical Analyst


After the sabremetric revolution began gaining steam within baseball front offices just over a decade ago, many clubs have gone to great lengths to get an upper hand. Many teams have hired former scientists, NASA employees, and college geniuses to not only perfect the statistics they have on hand, but also to create new formulas to exploit the weaknesses of opponents.

Mar 25, 2014; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones (51) comes out to talk with the starting pitcher Rick Porcello (21) and catcher Alex Avila (13) during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it was seeing the Houston Astros hire former St. Louis Cardinals number-cruncher Sig Mejdal (who was, along with CBS’ Nando Di Fino, a star of the exceptional fantasy baseball tome “Fantasyland” by Sam Walker), but the Detroit Tigers have brought in their own analyst courtesy of a formula designed to emphasis pitching potential. 

Rod Hesbrau, formerly of the University of Wisconsin’s mathematics department, has been working on a theoretical pitching model that uses several different measurements to gauge whether or not a strikeout will be upcoming, or just how much “stuff” a pitcher will have on any particular day. The Tigers, who obviously place a huge priority on pitchers with cannon arms and high ceilings, found his work to be revelatory, and decided to bring in their own baseball nerd.

“It was an idea we had kicked around for several years, dating back to 2006,” assistant GM Al Avila said. “This is someone who has an innate understanding of our organizational system, and has had full access to our data and has been making strides already to not only streamline our existing data, but to create new information that we can use to further cultivate our pitching.”

Like pitching metrics xFIP, ERA+, and DIPS, Hesbrau has taken on open-minded view of pitching in terms of not only what the pitcher himself is able to control, but how the pitcher will be able to use those possibilities to dictate whether or not the pitcher can coax a strikeout from not just one batter, but by how many batters: Potential Strikeouts with Realized Pitches, or “P-kwRP” for short.

For a roughly intangible formula like this to work, the Tigers provided Hesbrau with reams of data on several of their starters, specifically Rick Porcello.

Ostensibly, Porcello has been improving each of the last four seasons judging by his strikeout rate, walk rate, FIP, and xFIP, and if we think back we remember how highly touted he was right before the 2007 MLB draft. The results haven’t shown up on the field yet, but what Hesbrau has done is work with the P-kwRP formula to determine Porcello’s strikeouts for the season, and it should be able to deduce how many he’ll have against a certain opponent.

Off-hand, this seems preposterous: baseball data is used as a reflection of what a player is capable of, and attempts to use any formulas to guess how said player will do in the future. Can a predictive model for the most unpredictable positions really be within reach? The Tigers certainly think so, or else they wouldn’t have made the move to give Hesbrau his own Orange, Blue, and Math office.

“Let’s not mince words,” Hesbrau said in an interview with the Ann Arbor News on Saturday, “What we’re trying to do here is crystal-ball-type stuff – if P-kwRP is successful, the Tigers will have one of the best systems in place to target and train draftees and current pitchers to maximize their potential. It would also help revolutionize how to manage a bullpen or a starting rotation in the playoffs, which has seemed to be a bugaboo in Detroit’s last few post season exits.”

Such talk can be dismissed as unfounded confidence in a hypothetical mathematical field, but that’s what many said with Voros McCracken first developed the idea of a stat that measured a pitcher’s performance without the aid of defense, and subsequently spawned a stat that measured a pitcher’s performance without defense and taking the effects of a ballpark into mind. Of course, Hesbrau has tinkered with even more open-minded ideas that may seem ridiculous now, but may affect manager Brad Ausmus‘ handling of what appears to be a crippled Tigers’ bullpen.

“You take a look at the bullpen now, and wonder why a starter can be used freqently in short but effective periods of time over multiple days,” Hesbrau said. “I’m trying to pitch a 12-man rotation – no pun intended – where the only reliever needed would be the closer. But what kind of analyst would I be if I advocated the closer position?”

Only time will tell if a private genius can tell if Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, or Joe Nathan can be used to maximize their already impressive potential, but, like the Cabrera extension, it’s not our money, so what could it hurt? And what better day to install such a position than April 1?