What did we learn from the Detroit Tigers early exit from the 2014 playoffs?
Nothing. Which is what’s so disappointing about this season and this team.
The Detroit bullpen was terrible – we already knew that.
The manager was going to rely on his bullpen despite the obvious fact that they were unreliable – we already knew that.
Finally, The Tigers had nobody on the bench who was a threat as a pinch-hitter – we already knew that.
But it could have been different, and I think I know the reason why it wasn’t: the Detroit Tigers brain trust suffered from a lack of imagination and a stubborn refusal to face the facts.
This iteration of the Tigers is the most talented team in the current run of four straight division titles. They have the best pure hitter in baseball, the best switch-hitter in baseball who just had his finest season at the plate, and they have the last three Cy Young Award winners for gosh sakes. This is a team that should have won their division by about 10 games and coasted into the playoffs. But instead they had a bizarre, uninspired up and (mostly) down season where they had to kick it in gear in the last two weeks just to stave off the Kansas City Royals.
There are lots of reason the 2014 Tigers were uninspiring and uneven. There was the terrible post-injury season of Justin Verlander, the sudden aging of Torii Hunter, the lack of production from the shortstop position and the lackluster performance of rookie Nick Castellanos. Alex Avila is a phantom of his former All-Star self, a guy chewing up at-bats and innings barely able to hit 2-3 balls hard a week if he’s lucky while trying and failing to stay healthy behind the plate between concussions. He’s tough but not effective at the plate even when he’s healthy. An injury to Anibal Sanchex didn’t help and when Drew Smyly was dealt in the trade that netted David Price, it hurt the pitching depth. Add the abysmal defense (which we expect and accept as long as the offense churns some runs) and the Tigers had a recipe for what they served up — a frustrating performance that left them grasping for what they should have had a firm grip on — AL Central supremacy.
But the greatest disappointment was the bullpen…again. The bullpen was a disaster almost the entire season, from Game 1 to Game 162, except for a few weeks in July when both Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain were pitching well. Otherwise, the pen was dreadful and everyone knew it, including Brad Ausmus and most certainly Dave Dombrowski. But they didn’t shore it up.
The facts were staring Dombrowski in the face during the offseason and he decided to go get Nathan and Chamberlain. The facts were staring Ausmus in the face in April and in May and in August and again in September — the backend of the bullpen was weak. But Dombrowski and Ausmus stubbornly refused to face the facts and they never took bold action to fix it.
Look — it was obvious to me and to every other Tigers’ fan that the 8th and 9th inning were problems — so it wasn’t a secret. Some of us (including me) suggested the team look at converting one of their starters into a reliever. In fact, Verlander probably could have benefited from a move to the pen. He has two very good pitches and he’s a competitor. He would have looked at it as a challenge and he would have looked at it as something to do to help the team win a ring. And that’s what’s most irritating about this early exit from the playoffs — the Tigers are built to win NOW. But their leadership didn’t act that way. A bold move to put Verlander or Sanchez in the pen earlier in the season, say in August, could have set the team up to be ready for the postseason. Instead, in the AL Division Series against the Orioles, Ausmus just did what he’d done all season and it didn’t work. It went terribly wrong.
It was pretty obvious to me that Chamberlain was exhausted down the stretch and he’d lost a lot on his pitches. Nathan has been unreliable all year and I wouldn’t trust him with anything less than a two-run lead. But Ausmus and Dombrowski never seemed to want to admit that they had a problem. They had chances to work it out, to do something bold, to be imaginative. Instead they stubbornly held on to an unreliable philosophy and they refused to try anything different. As a result, the Tigers are done.
I don’t think Ausmus should be fired. He just managed this team like 99% of the managers in baseball would. He followed a formula that almost every team subscribes to because they lack imagination and guts: the theory that relievers have to pitch certain innings and only those innings. Ausmus managed the way Leyland would have, and the way Tito Francona would have, and if they had brought in Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa he would have managed the same way.
That’s where this all started — LaRussa — he started the formulaic method of bullpen usage and he ushered in the 7-man bullpens we’re stuck with now. He’s to blame for this ridiculous strategy that every manager has adopted and every team is now clinging to. LaRussa is Leyland’s buddy and mentor, and Ausmus is, like a vice-president filling out his predecessor’s term, simply following along. I don’t think Ausmus has the chops to go out and do his own thing, and I don’t think Dombrowski wants him to. It’s easier to be safe and lose by following the crowd than to be bold and try something different. But the Tigers ended up being like a bison following a stampeding herd.
The Tigers could have tried something else with their bullpen this season and should have. Hell, anything else would have been better than what they did against Baltimore. The team has been around for 114 seasons and they’ve won exactly four World Series titles. It’s hard to win championships, and when you have a team that’s good enough to win one, you MUST go for it. But the brain trust didn’t sense that urgency. They just kept following the herd of bison, and we all know where that herd ends up: at the bottom of a canyon.