It’s time to question the Tigers’ decision-making

Brad Ausmus has not handled his starting rotation or his bench very well in 2016.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus has not handled his starting rotation or his bench very well in 2016.

I’ve never been one to complain about managers. Maybe a very good manager can add two or three victories to his team’s total over the course of a season.

However, I do think a bad manager can cost his team more games than a good one can win.

Most fans reflexively moan about the manager, ignoring the failures of the players and the things the manager can’t control. It’s human nature — fans think they could run the team better than the knucklehead in the dugout.

In most cases the decisions made by managers are pretty damn obvious anyway: when to take a pitcher out of the game, when to hit-and-run, bunt, and so on. The times when a manager doesn’t do the obvious “by the book” thing are so few that it doesn’t add up to that much of a difference over the course of a full season, It just doesn’t. But that doesn’t stop misguided fans from posting on Facebook: “This team will never win with the manager they have right now!!!” And so on. It’s a time-honored part of the game: if your team sucks, the manager must suck.

I don’t normally gripe about the manager. Other than a glaring example of overmanaging by Jim Leyland in the 2013 American League Championship Series, I have rarely if ever complained about a manager. We need look no further than recent history to see evidence that managers matter little for the most part: in his rookie season in 2014, Brad Ausmus guided the Tigers to their fourth straight division title. Had Leyland stuck around he would have done the same thing. As would have probably two dozen other capable managerial candidates. The team was good enough to win the division crown and they did. A bad manager could have gotten in the way, but any manager of even modest skill wasn’t going to mess it up.

Having said all of that as my warmup, you probably suspect where I’m going. The time has come to criticize the Tiger manager. In fact, I’ll go beyond that – Detroit’s leadership, namely general manager Al Avila, has to be seriously questioned as well.

I can’t hold my tongue any longer. My fingers are getting tired.

The starting rotation is a dumpster fire

In case you haven’t noticed, the primary problem with the 2016 Tigers is pitching. Let me convince you, because incredibly there are many fans out there in Tigerland who think the offense is the problem.

The Tigers are averaging 4.7 runs per game (through 94 games). That figure ranks ahead of the league average and is right in line with Texas and Toronto, two of the better offensive teams in the game. Detroit’s OPS (on-base plus slugging) ranks fifth in the league.

Admittedly, it’s frustrating to watch Justin Upton swing and miss. Do I want to throw the remote control at the television when James McCann comes to the plate and fails to hit the ball out of the infield? Sure I do. But so far in ’16 the Detroit offense is better than average , even if they do go into a funk for a few games here and there.

To channel the 1992 Clinton campaign: “It’s the pitching staff, stupid.”

Detroit ranks 13th out of 15 teams in the AL in earned run average. Only one team in baseball has allowed more hits than the Tigers in 2016, and only five teams in all of baseball have surrendered more extra-base hits.

The starting rotation has been abysmal. Put it this way: if the rotation was a horse we would shoot it.

So far in 2016, Detroit starters have a combined ERA of 4.62, which ranks next to last in the American League and fourth to last in baseball. That’s including Michael Fulmer, y’all.

Consider this: in 94 starts in 2016 through July 17th, Detroit starters have posted only 37 quality starts. A quality start is any outing of six innings or more with three earned runs or less allowed. Only 37. That means there have been 57 games where Detroit pitchers have failed to post a quality start.

As a result, the bullpen has been heavily taxed. Detroit starters have pitched seven innings or more in only 22 games so far this year. 16 of those have come from Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann. Put another way: in about four out of every five games the bullpen has had to pitch three innings or more. Often, it’s more. For example, Mike Pelfrey has made 18 starts and he’s only gone as far as six innings eight times. In the ten starts in which he didn’t get through six, the bullpen had to pitch 4.8 innings of relief on average.

But it’s been a team effort of futility: Anibal Sanchez has a 7.46 ERA in ten starts (entering Tuesday’s game); overmatched Matt Boyd has an ERA over 6.00 in seven starts; and Shane Greene has been even worse, making three starts with a 6.87 ERA before he earned a demotion to the bullpen.

Of all 30 major league teams, the Tigers have the most games in which their starting pitcher has allowed five earned runs or more. A far cry from a few years ago when Detroit had three Cy Young winners in their rotation.

Yet, Detroit management is content to take a sit-and-wait, patch-it-together attitude. The Tigers are on pace to have their worst pitching season in more than two decades, but Avila has made no moves to bolster a rotation that too often gets beaten like a stubborn mule in the pasture. Ausmus keeps running Pelfrey out to the mound every five days even though it’s obvious that he is not a major league pitcher. In half of his starts in ’16, Pelfrey has allowed multiple runs in the first two innings. The tall, lackluster giant puts his team in a hole nearly every time he takes the hill. While Verlander was once “Must-See JV” and Fulmer is a delight to watch now, when Pelfrey is scheduled to start a game the best thing you can do as a Tiger fan is go out in the yard and mow the lawn. Or if the grass has already been trimmed, just sit and watch it grow. You’ll be more entertained than watching the ballgame.

The team has exacerbated the problem by insisting that Fulmer be on a pitch and innings count. As a result, they’ve been using a six-man rotation, which means we’re stuck with Sanchez and Pelfrey and Boyd and whomever else they dig up from the basement to make a start. This is not a winning strategy.

Shortsighted roster decisions

It was obvious in spring training (or should have been) that Shane Greene was not a starting pitcher and of course Pelfrey stinks and they should have never signed him, but at any rate, the team should have realized the rotation was in jeopardy. They should have went outside the organization to get some other arms at that time, even if they were young unproven players or retreads. The team needed options.

But, because the team doesn’t have any options, the Tigers are forced to start Pelfrey and Sanchez. It’s nearly impossible to mount a sustained period of winning when the bulk of your starting pitchers are terrible.

The Tigers have also stubbornly clung to their philosophy of stocking their bench with versatile but untalented role players. They give these guys way too much playing time. I’m looking at you, Mike Aviles. Of course, Ausmus and Avila deserve the blame for having a player like Aviles on the team in the first place. As of this writing, Aviles has an OPS of 535, which is lower than several pitchers in the National League. Aviles is on pace for seven extra-base hits, which is made even worse by the fact that Ausmus is using him so much that he’s on pace for 240 plate appearances.

Given the decision to carry seven or eight relievers, I get why teams covet players like Aviles, who can play multiple positions. But Aviles is the worst of that ilk. He can’t hit his way out of a White Castle bag. He wouldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of a tree. He hasn’t been to third base in so long he needs a map just to round second.

Watching Mike Aviles take at-bats away from young Steven Moya, who has more talent in his left knee cap than Aviles does in his entire body, makes my stomach sick.

Moya’s not a defensive wizard, no question. But platooning him while J.D. Martinez is hurt (or demoting him to Toledo) is the dumbest roster decision this team has made in years. The kid has a great swing and will only learn big league pitching by facing big league pitching. The way the Tigers are grooming Moya is to be a platoon player, which is what he’ll become under current usage. Moya should be playing almost every day in Motown, defense be damned.

Then there’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who seems to have fallen out of favor with his manager. No one thought Salty was going to keep hitting like Mickey Mantle (as he did in the first two weeks of the campaign), but he can’t contribute at all if he doesn’t get some at-bats.

Puzzling in-game decisions

In recent weeks, Ausmus has foregone putting in a pinch-hitter when it has seemed appropriate. Saltalamacchia could have been used twice in the series against the Indians before the break, late in games when a homer or extra-base hit could have turned the game around. Instead, James McCann or Jose Iglesias were allowed to bat. You have to seize on opportunities. Time and time again, Ausmus simply waits for something to happen.

On Tuesday in a 6-2 loss to the Twins, Salty had his helmet on and a bat in his hands in the ninth. The Tigers loaded the bases to bring the tying run to the plate. But Ausmus let righthanders McCann and Iglesias hit against a righthanded reliever. Salty stood in the dugout unused. Why do you have a switch-hitting backup catcher with power on your team if you aren’t using him to hit in that situation? It’s inexcusable.

Also in Tuesday’s contest, Ausmus ran Sanchez out to start the seventh after he’d thrown 95 pitches. Predictably, Anibal got into a jam and ultimately five runs scored. Sanchez has stunk up the joint all year. A one-run, six-inning outing was a gift. But Ausmus pushed his luck and brought Sanchy out for another inning. It backfired and most fans could have told you he was out of gas.

How to fix it

The Tigers are four games out of a wild card spot as I write this rant. While that may seem like a manageable margin, there are six other teams also vying for those two spots. The league is muddled and mediocre this year.

The trade market is light and Detroit doesn’t have the prospects to attract the few impact players who would help, like Sonny Gray. The rotation needs some injection, so the Tigers should try to get some arms from the Yankees, as Bruce Markusen suggested recently.

A smarter move would be for the Tigers to find playing time for younger players who might spark them down the stretch. I’m not advocating the white towel of surrender, but I am suggesting that new blood needs to be injected into the mix. Ausmus can wait for Pelfrey to figure it out, and watch as Justin Upton struggles, OR he can do something to try to win games now. At the minimum, if Moya, and prospects Jacoby Jones and Dixon Machado get some experience at this level, we’ll see what they got. The future is not Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles. Blech.

Tiger management is letting this season slip away sitting on their hands as the starting rotation burns like a tire fire. They continue to give playing time to also-rans who should be riding buses in the minor leagues. They haven’t made even a minor move to shore up their pitching depth. The manager is making head-scratching in-game decisions. For that reason, they deserve a lot of criticism.