There are thee things every man thinks they can do better than any other man:
— Build a fire
— Make love to a woman
— Manage a baseball team
Go build a fire and cuddle up with a lady, because managing the Detroit Tigers has not been easy this season and you almost certainly don’t know how to do it better than the current job holder.
The Tigers are favored to win their fourth straight division title, and they should be based on their roster. But this weekend they fell out of a playoff spot, and with seven weeks left in the season, they are going to have to scratch and claw to earn a postseason berth.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but don’t blame Brad Ausmus.
When Ausmus was named to replace Jim Leyland last fall, almost everyone applauded the decision. Now, with the Tigers having lost their grip on the AL Central, the naysayers have come out of the woodwork. Predictably, their fingers are pointing at the rookie manager, but they’re wrong.
There are three reasons the Tigers have been up and down all season:
— The team play has been inconsistent
— The bullpen has not performed well
None of those three things are the fault of their manager. The variation in offensive performance by Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Rajai Davis, Alex Avila etc. cannot be controlled by a manager. It’s not Ausmus’s fault that Jackson was a streaky hitter. It’s not the manager’s fault that Cabrera has not been hitting the ball as hard this season, or that Hunter and Davis have disappeared offensively for weeks at a time. Those are issues the players have to change and no amount of coaching or managing makes a lemon into lemonade. Fans may think that hitting coaches and the manager can magically fix players who are struggling, but they can’t really unless there’s something mechanical. As Yogi Berra once said, “This isn’t football, we can’t just draw up a trick play.”
Injuries have been an issue since before Ausmus even managed his first game. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera each had offseason surgery, and though they both reassured us that they were “100%,” they weren’t. Cabrera is either still feeling the lingering effects of playing the last two months of the 2013 season with a serious injury or he’s losing some of his power (most like the former). JV did what all proud athletes do: he tried to push aside a sore arm and act as if he was fine. tried to fight through. Athletes who have been as successful as Verlander often feel invincible, they can’t fathom that their bodies could fail them. Verlander is not a 5.00 ERA pitcher, and when he performed that way for the first half the season we should have known something was nagging at him.
Other injuries have sapped the Detroit lineup, like the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias and outfielder Andy Dirks. The fragile Anibal Sanchez, who usually misses 3-4 starts every year with something, has also been sidelined twice (so far). Hard-throwing reliever Bruce Rondon was also lost for the season to have Tommy John surgery. These injuries are beyond the manager’s control, and the number of injuries and the impact they have had on the team performance in 2014 is larger than the last three seasons that Jim Leyland had to deal with.
Lastly, the bullpen has been abysmal. That’s not a news flash, right? But it’s hardly something we can pin on Ausmus. The Tigers signed Joe Nathan to solve their closer problem, but the veteran has blown six saves and barely pitched well at all for any stretch of time. He looks like a guy who Father Time has caught up with. Blame GM Dave Dombrowski on that one if you want, but the manager can only play who he has. And Ausmus has had to rely on Joakim Soria (hurt after the trade from texas in what seems like karma for our stealing Ian Kinsler from the Rangers for Prince Fielder) who pitched poorly in his brief appearances, and Phil Coke and the rest of the mediocre bullpen regulars. Only Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, and Blaine Hardy have been effective in the bullpen for the Bengals in ’14.
Now that we’ve looked at what Ausmus can’t control, let’s look at what he can be accounted for:
- The lineup
- In-game decisions on defense and offense
- Handling the pitching staff
Lineups are overrated, though most fans think they make a big difference on the offense, they really don’t. So, while it is frustrating to see Rajai Davis — who has an on-base percentage about the same as Don Kelly’s — leading off just because he’s fast, it doesn’t make that big of a difference over the course of a full season. Ausmus constructs his lineup pretty much the same way his predecessor did, there’s nothing unusual about it.
The Tigers have four bench players, one of them a catcher, so they don’t have much flexibility here. It’s not like Ausmus can send up a pinch-hitter extraordinaire (where have you gone, Gates Brown?) in a tight spot. Basically, modern baseball rosters are so heavy with pitchers that managers have little room to make an impact with substitutions. I get the feeling that Ausmus feels a little constrained by this. Even though he retired from playing just recently, when Ausmus was in his prime teams had 1-2 more position players on the roster and that made a difference in the maneuverability from the manager’s chair.
Ausmus has installed a more aggressive use of defensive shifts this season (a positive change), and Detroit’s ability to combat the running game can be at least partially attributed to Brad, who was a great catcher. He’s pushed the offensive running game a tad too much for my taste, but the Tigers have been successful on steal attempts at a better than 2-1 ratio to being thrown out, which is fine. Ausmus does use the sacrifice bunt a little more than Leyland did, and in many cases the sac bunt is a silly move, but baseball managers love it, and fans love it (it makes them think the team is “manufacturing runs” and for some reason fans love to feel like the team is being unselfish). But all teams and managers do this, so we can’t fault Ausmus for going along with the standard practice of the day.
Similarly, Ausmus’s use of his bullpen mirrors the standard practice prevalent in modern baseball. Yes, he stubbornly clings to the notion that his closer must close the game and that his best relievers (Joba, AlAl, and Hardy) must be used within the confines of their defined roles. I’d love to see him buck that asinine trend, but I can’t really fault him for using his relief corps the same way Leyland and every other manager since Tony LaRussa has. If the bullpen as a whole had pitched better so far this year, it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s easy to scream at the manager when you see the Closer You Love to Boo come in, but we’ve been doing that in Detroit since Papa Grande was dancing on the mound and we still won. This year we’re not winning enough, but it’s not the rookie manager’s doing.
On the eve of his first game as a big league manager, Ausmus said “We have the personnel to win a World Championship.” He was right, but if the players perform erratically or if they’re injured, he can’t do a thing about it. One could argue that Detroit has outperformed considering where they could be with the adversity they’ve faced.
Blame Dombrowski for the Doug Fister trade, or for signing Nathan, or for trading Jackson (if that’s your beef), but Brad Ausmus isn’t having a bad first year. He arrived at a time when this team is going through a funky season. They can still right the ship and sail their way to the playoffs again (and I think they will), and if they do then we can scrutinize the manager, because in the postseason when each game, and often every inning and pitch and pitching change can make or break you, that’s when a manager deserves to be second-guessed.