This article was going to be an analysis of the Detroit Tigers at the halfway point of the 2015 season. Instead, when I came to the subject of their manager, I found myself having a lot to say.
That’s why you’re reading this article about Brad Ausmus.
We’re 243 games into the Brad Ausmus era — exactly one-and-a-half seasons, and the youthful Tiger skipper has yet to be below the .500 mark, though he’s been teetering at the mark for the last few weeks. Miguel Cabrera is on the disabled list for the first time in his career and now may be the time when we see what this young manager is made of. Will he wilt under the pressure of a mediocre season without his superstar for several months? Or will he rally his team and push them to the top of the division where they’ve made residence for the last four seasons?
I don’t know, and neither do you. We can’t tell the future. But we can look at how Ausmus has handled the Tigers in his 243 regular season games so far and make a determination as to how well he’s doing.
I’ve never prescribed to the theory that a manager can make that big of a difference to a team. I generally feel that it’s easier for a manager to screw things up than it is for them to make a huge impact. Rarely in baseball history has a manager gone to a team and completely turned a team around for any sustained period of time. (Don’t scream Jim Leyland at me. Smoky came along just when the Tigers had a crop of fine young ballplayers, and while he deserves credit for guiding the team to the ’06 World Series, it’s the front office that’s most responsible for the success of this franchise over the last decade). Managers can only do so much, the players have to play the games, and baseball history is filled with teams with poor managers who won (look no further than Ned Yost and the Royals).
When I evaluate managers I look at the things they can control: (1) who plays (2) how the bullpen is used (3) their ability as an in-game manager, and (4) how well they are respected by their team. Under this last one I also file their ability to handle the media and be an ambassador for the franchise. For example: Sparky was great at that. Leyland wasn’t.
But let’s get back to Brad. I’ll address each of the four points one at a time:
1. Who Plays
Let’s get something out of the way first: a lot of fans get upset about the batting order. It doesn’t matter. As analysis has shown, random batting orders in computer simulations score just about the same amount of runs as any other set order. The key when making a batting order is to have your best players at the top so they get the most plate appearances. Ausmus does that, obviously.
On his teams so far, Ausmus hasn’t had that many tough choices for playing time. This is a veteran club with set players all over the diamond. But there are two spots worth noting and I think Ausmus gets good grades in these cases. This season with the acquisition of Anthony Gose, the Tiger manager has had to juggle his two center fielders, the other being Rajai Davis. So far, Ausmus has went to the hot hand and the results have been good. Both players are line-drive hitters with great speed, but Gose is a little more dynamic and a better defender. Davis has more extra-base pop. I like what Ausmus has done here in a situation where he’s been dealt two similar role-player types.
The other spot where Ausmus has had to make a decision is at catcher. Granted, the injury to Alex Avila this season forced his hand, but the Detroit manager could have played veteran Bryan Holaday or asked for a new piece from outside the organization, but instead he’s had the courage to play rookie James McCann. The young receiver is very solid behind the dish with a strong arm and great instincts. As a former catcher himself, Ausmus deserves some credit for the way McCann has adjusted to the big leagues so quickly. He’s also been a pleasant surprise with a .426 slugging percentage. In his short time at the helm, Ausmus has handled his everyday lineup just fine.
2. How the Bullpen is Used
The Tigers have had more than their share of bullpen problems in recent years, from Papa Grande to Stompin’ Phil Coke to Al Alburquerque kissing baseballs to Joaquin Benoit blowing THAT GAME in the 2013 ALDS to Average Joe Nathan making obscene gestures to the fans. Ugh.
But so far in his tenure, Ausmus has shown that he’s willing to think a little outside the box. With Nathan out with season-ending arm surgery, Ausmus has juggled his pen with aplomb. He isn’t attached to any on pitcher in certain spots. He’s been comfortable giving the ball to Soria in the eighth, or to Chamberlain at crunch time too. He isn’t afraid to use untested pitchers like Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson either. Unlike Leyland, Ausmus doesn’t feel he needs a formulaic approach to his bullpen — no “sixth-inning guy” and “one-out guy” for him. He’s willing to experiment and also go with the hot hand.
3. Ability as an In-Game Manager
It can drive you crazy if you have a manager who does weird things that cost your team a chance to win a game. So far, Ausmus has acquitted himself rather well as an in-game manager. Part of the young, sabermetrics-aware managerial crowd, Ausmus isn’t in love with the bunt and he doesn’t take excessive risks on the base paths. He does have the Tigers running more, but that’s because he has the weapons to do that and it’s paid off. There have been a few games where he’s been a little slow getting an arm warm in his bullpen, which has been puzzling, since he’s a former catcher, but it isn’t a big deal. Under Ausmus, the Tigers are using the defensive shift far more than they did under the previous regime — the biggest change since Leyland retired. As a result, the Tigers’ defensive efficiency is at league average, which is quite an improvement over recent seasons.
The new young Tiger manager uses his pinch-hitters well (a tactic that’s almost disappearing in baseball with the short benches), and he doesn’t have any idiosyncrasies that are cause for alarm.
4. Respect as a Leader
Like his predecessor, Ausmus is well respected by the team. He’s not an authoritarian in the same way Leyland was, but it’s very clear he’s in charge. So far we haven’t had any clubhouse problems under his watch. The fact that he played in Detroit and had a long big league career helps him gain the respect of his players. He’s a cerebral guy which can be misconstrued as being dispassionate, but Ausmus has a real fire in his belly. He wants to win as bad as anybody does. Overall, the Detroit skipper is a fine front man for the organization and he’s held in esteem by baseball people throughout the league.
It’s easy (and reflexive) to blame the manager when a team performs below expectations. Sometimes that’s warranted, but often it’s not. Most of the time a team plays badly because the players fail to perform. Fans who think a manager (and his pitching/hitting coaches) can “fix” what’s wrong are not paying attention to how hard baseball is.
As Yogi Berra once said when asked about one his teams that was playing poorly: “What do you want me to do? It’s not like football where I can design new plays.”