Brad Ausmus spent his playing career looking the opposite direction of his teammates from his position in foul territory as a big league catcher. Starting next spring, he’ll embark on a career where he’ll be looking at the game from another perspective – from the manager’s seat in the dugout.
On Sunday, the Detroit Tigers named Ausmus the 37th manager in franchise history, replacing the retired Jim Leyland, who held the job for eight seasons. Ausmus has been coveted as a big league brain since he hung up his chest protector and mask in 2010 after an 18-year playing career. A highly regarded receiver, Ausmus was a three-time Gold Glove winner behind the plate, and he earned his only All-Star selection as a Tiger in 1999.
But Ausmus isn’t coming to Detroit this time via the Houston Astros (he was part of three trades between the two teams in a four-year span), he’s coming as one of the faces of a new era in Detroit baseball. While this Tiger club is locked and loaded for winning right now, the hire is not just short-term, it’s a long-term move by team president Dave Dombrowski.
As I wrote back in May when I speculated that he might be the Tigers’ next manager, Ausmus is well respected in baseball, and that respect is well deserved. He’s very, very smart – an extremely cerebral man. But he’s a rare combination in that he also has a gritty, street-smart knowledge of the game of baseball. He can think the game and he can bring some game too.
The Tigers pluck Ausmus away from the Chicago Cubs, who had him on their short list to replace Dale Sveum. The Seattle Mariners most likely would have interviewed Ausmus, as well. And while Dombrowski denied that he felt any pressure to hire Ausmus early in this off-season, the interest in the former big league catcher must have factored into the timing a bit.
Only hours into the Ausmus Era, I’ve already detected some negative reactions to his hiring. Some of that can be chalked up to the inevitable throng who hate anything that changes. Those are the people who still wish there were eight teams in each league, NFL players wore leather helmets, and coffee was a nickel. (Come to think of it, since I’ve sucked down two cups while writing this, that last one would be nice, thank you very much).
Those questioning Ausmus’s hiring are making one of these arguments:
He’s never managed before
There was a time when the path to managing in the big leagues required a trip on buses that bounced down rickety roads through minor league cowpoke towns like Tin Fork, Texas, and West Cheese, Wisconsin. Those days are gone, and have been for a long time. Starting in the late 1970s, baseball’s front offices have become far more open to former players, creating another route to the job of “skipper” – namely, a front office gig or internship at the hip of an experienced GM. Used to be that the front office was dominated by a few owners who wielded all the power, calling all the shots. The prevailing wisdom was that managers should play a little baseball, go the bush leagues, cut their teeth for (usually) long stretches of time, get a job on a major league staff as a coach, and then wait their turn to get offered a manager’s job. That hasn’t really been the practice for more than a decade, though there are still remnants of that old system around to remind us of it. Leyland and Gene Lamont (who will stick around as bench coach) are examples of that.
Also, it’s prudent to point out that there is no evidence at all that prior managerial experience equates to better results as a big league manager. Mike Matheny just took his club to the World Series, and he never managed before his stint with the Cardinals. Joe Girardi had no prior managerial experience when he was hired to take over the Marlins in 2004, and he guided that mediocre team to a good record in his only season in Miami. Two years later he was hired by the Yankees to replace Joe Torre. Girardi won a World Series in his second season and has averaged 94 wins per year with the Bronx Bombers. There are many more examples of guys getting jobs with no or very little managerial experience, and doing quite well.
Ausmus wasn’t a good enough player to be a manager
Not sure what people mean by this, I tend to think they must be crazy. Do they realize that Leyland never played in the major leagues? Or that Gene Lamont barely did? Ditto Tony LaRussa? One of the greatest managers to ever go nose-to-nose with an umpire never played above Single-A ball – Earl Weaver. Sparky Anderson was a one-year infielder and wasn’t very good at all. Being a great player usually translates into poor results as a manager. Few great players have went on to be great skippers (Torre and Frank Robinson are exceptions).
One other note: Ausmus played 18 years in the big leagues even though he was a below average offensive player. His nearly two decades in the majors helps answer the first criticism, that he hasn’t had any managerial experience. Do you really think he’ll have a hard time filling out a lineup card or knowing when to call for a pitchout? Do you think he’ll wilt under the pressure of a 162-game season? Not a chance. MOST in-game decisions managers make are no-brainers, it’s the tangibles of leadership that are important from the head man. Ausmus was shoulder-to-shoulder with his teammates at the highest level of baseball for 18 seasons. He was the man behind the plate, calling games, handling game situations on the field, and dealing with pitchers and the offensive strategies of the other team. He’ll know when to put the hit-and-run on, and when not to.
This is a veteran team, and they need a veteran manager
This is an interesting argument, but it doesn’t hold up to analysis. There’s no proof that young teams and veteran teams need certain types of managers. Some veteran teams have had younger managers (Francona in Boston, Girardi in New York), some young teams have had veteran managers (Sparky and Leyland when they came to Detroit), some teams have had the opposite. There aren’t any patterns that prove that veteran teams need veteran managers. More likely it’s a matter of the right fit with a qualified candidate. Being qualified to manage a big league baseball team doesn’t require that you have managed 5, 10, or a dozen years previously (otherwise no new managers would ever be hired). And a veteran team won’t necessarily balk at the hand of a younger manager (see Matheny in St. Louis, the Atlanta Braves post-Bobby Cox).
I think it’s likely that many of the veterans on the team will be energized by new blood and a younger, different approach to the game. Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Justin Verlander, and Victor Martinez are professionals, and I expect them to respond favorably to Ausmus. I predict that some players on the margins (Ramon Santiago, Don Kelly, Phil Coke) won’t be as important under the new manager’s watch. I’d be surprised if this team has as much dead weight in 2014 as they’ve carried in the last few seasons of Leyland’s reign.
It’s also important to start looking forward, even though, as Dombrowski pointed out on Sunday, this team is built to “win now.” The Tigers’ roster is packed with veteran stars, and within a short time (it’s always sooner than you think), they will begin to age. By 2015, the outfield could be completely different, with Nick Castellanos on the horizon, Hunter’s contract expiring, and Austin Jackson looming as a free agent. Of the likely 2014 starting position players, only Hunter, shortstop Jose Iglesias, and banged up catcher Alex Avila are on the sunny side of 30 years old. The bullpen needs to be reshaped completely. The Tigers need to find 3-4 regular players within the next three years (at the minimum, depending on how Avila holds up and how long Martinez can be productive as a DH, which only makes it harder to play Cabrera and Prince Fielder every day). The Tigers have Verlander and Prince signed through 2019 and 2020, respectively, but otherwise, your Detroit Tigers could look radically different in 24 months (Miggy will be on the free market in November of 2015).
Ausmus isn’t only being brought in to take this team over the goal line, Dombrowski sees him as a next-generation manager who could be in Detroit’s dugout for years and years, establishing a continuity that other franchises enjoy under skippers like Ron Gardenhire (Twins for 12 years), Mike Scioscia (Angels for 14 seasons), Bruce Bochy (12 years with Padres and 7 with Giants), and Girardi in New York. Oh, and by the way, all of those guys were catchers known for their ability to handle the game from the behind the plate during their playing careers.
Still not convinced that Brad Ausmus is the right man for the job? Let’s look at what a manager really does. Managers can do two things that are very important:
1. They can set the tone for an organization and clean out dead weight
Think of Terry Francona in Cleveland, who came in this season and established a winning atmosphere, helping the Tribe to a wild card spot. Tiger fans know something about this – Jim Leyland did a similar job when he arrived in Detroit in 2006 (though he had more talent to work with than Francona currently has in Cleveland). Leyland changed the culture of the clubhouse, identified the young players who were ready to contribute, and gave them playing time over the older players who were just dead weight. This is Leyland’s greatest legacy in Motown – the organization is now expected to win, so much so that three consecutive division titles almost seem disappointing.
2. They can screw things up by over-managing games
I’m saying it right here – managers don’t win many games, folks. But they can lose games, especially if they misuse their personnel in critical situations. That’s why the use of the pitching staff is such an important part of a manager’s job. Case in point: as I pointed out this October when the Detroit skipper panicked and rifled through four relievers in six batters and cost the Tigers Game Two of the ALCS against the Red Sox. That, quite possibly cost the team a spot in the World Series (I contend it did, and that’s why Smoky had to go). But there can be games in April that are lost by managers, if they do something to mess up a crucial spot in a ballgame. The best managers minimize those mistakes and allow the players to determine the outcome of the game.
There are several other things managers do that are of lesser importance, like run spring training, set curfews, hire coaches, make out a lineup, deal with the media. I don’t mean to diminish them, but they just aren’t that important, and most of them have been done the same way for decades. Much of the success a manager has is a result of his players. Alan Trammell isn’t an idiot. He was dealt a very poor hand in Detroit and he did what anyone else would have done – he lost a lot with a Triple-A ballclub. Just as the team was getting better, he was fired. Joe Torre had a losing record before he was hired to manage the Yankees. Players make managers, managers can only mess things up.
Brad Ausmus comes to Detroit with high expectations. He won’t be intimidated – he’s playing with a full deck of aces and has the best hitter in baseball in his lineup – and he won’t shy from that challenge. I think he’ll have a long, successful career in the big leagues if he’s given a chance and he’s given a good roster of players. It might as well be in Detroit.