Ausmus coaching selections put Tigers on the cutting edge

Jed Jacobsohn

With the selection of Omar Vizquel and Matt Martin as infield/first base coach and defensive coordinator, the Tigers have signaled that they're ready to deploy the most modern methods to increase win expectancy.

When the Tigers announced that they had hired Brad Ausmus to succeed Jim Leyland as the field manager for the 2014 season, one question loomed large among the mostly positive reaction to the announcement. That is, Ausmus doesn't have any managerial experience, at any level.

It made sense, then, that he immediately retained veteran bench coach and former manager Gene Lamont to be his bench coach, giving him immediate insight into the strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and nuances of each Tiger player. Lamont has coached the team for the past eight seasons along with Leyland, and has intimate knowledge of such things. Ausmus plainly stated that he'd have had Lamont as his bench coach even if he were hired to manage a different team. Lamont coached Ausmus while he was a catcher for the Houston Astros.

Next up, Ausmus decided not to mess with a good thing and retained pitching coach Jeff Jones. Ausmus had also worked with Jones while he was with the Tigers. The Detroit rotation led the world in every meaningful way and will return largely intact, so the move seemed like another no-brainer. There is the continuity from the old staff to the new.

That's where the continuity ends. Ausmus selected former Astros' third base and first base coach, Dave Clark to be the Tigers third base and outfield coach. Clark has experience managing both corners, as well as managing in the minor leagues, once being named manager of the year in the Texas League. He comes from an organization that is building upon sabermetrics probably more than any other in the game, and brings 13 seasons of major league playing experience as an outfielder.

Ausmus then named former Phillies assistant batting coach Wally Joyner to be the Tigers' hitting coach. Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro said that Joyner was "overqualified" for the assistant job in Philadelphia. He had previously served as the hitting coach and the roving hitting instructor in the San Diego Padres organization for seven seasons. That followed a playing career of 16 seasons where he hit .287 with an on base percentage of .362 and an OPS over .800. Ausmus knows Joyner from the brief time they played together in San Diego.

Another former Philadelphia coach, Mick Billmeyer, will join the Tiger staff as bullpen coach. His bio is here in Al's write up on the selection. Billmeyer has been coaching in one role or another for the past decade.

On Monday, we learned the names of the two final coaches to fill out the coaching staff of new Tiger manager Brad Ausmus. The first base, infield, and base running coach will be Omar Vizquel, winner of eleven gold gloves and holding a reputation as one of the best infielders ever in his 24 -- that's right, twenty-four -- major league seasons.

Vizquel has no managerial experience, but he has played with players half his age for much of his career. In addition to his wizardry at shortstop, Vizquel stole over 400 bases, an average of 22 per season, so he'll have plenty of experience to relay to a team that is in dire need of greater efficiency on the base paths. Not to mention that he seems like the perfect tutor for shortstop Jose Iglesias, and he hails from Venezuela -- homeland to a substantial portion of the Tiger roster.

Ausmus saved his most surprising selection for last, when he announced that Matt Martin would be the Tigers new defensive coordinator. Who? What? This isn't the NFL! A "defensive coordinator" will apparently be responsible for working with advance scouts and creating defensive alignments, including some shifts, that will give the Tiger defense the best positioning to get more outs. That is, to reduce the opponents' BABIP.

The Tiger press release outlined Martin's role as defensive coordinator

Martin will assist Brad Ausmus and his staff with all on-field arrangements as well as with the coordination of all advanced scouting information for the Tigers.

For some background on Martin, Big Al has the bio information from the organization. Very impressive is the write up by Gabe Kapler, former Tiger and long time major league outfielder, who had very nice things to say about Martin in an article that he wrote for Baseball Prospectus. If you're at all interested in this hire, Kapler's article is required reading. Kapler followed up on Twitter with this comment, which is worth repeating:


Interestingly, the Tigers are not the first team to hire a defensive coordinator, although the idea is new. The Washington Nationals, who have just hired Matt Williams as manager, will deploy a similar plan, as outlined in this article. The Nats have named Mark Weidemaier as "defensive coordination advance coach."

Washington GM Mike Rizzo explained

"His primary responsibility will be defensive alignments and taking all the advanced information from our advanced scout in the field and our two advanced video scouts with the team," Rizzo said. "He'll take that information and filter it and distribute it to the various coaches that need the information."

We are instantly reminded of the comments made by Ausmus at his introductory press conference when he was asked what role sabermetrics would play in managing, or if he favored newer methods over "old school" methods. Ausmus coyly replied

"I don't think you have to do either. I think there's some value to some of that," Ausmus said. "I can tell you that players do not like to be inundated with numbers. They don't want to know what a pitcher's [tendencies are], what percentage of fastballs he throws in a 2-1 count. It's just not usable information. But I think if you can take some of that statistical information and grind it down into a usable piece of information that you can hand off to a player, I think that can be important. I don't think it has to be one school or the other."

At the same time, Dave Dombrowski was quick to add that whatever resources or information Ausmus wanted, the organization would supply him with. Of course, players don't have to be interested in probabilities and tendencies. Those are matters for advance scouts and statisticians whose job it is to examine the probabilities and tendencies of their opponents.

Dombrowski explained how they came to add a defensive coordinator to Jason Beck at MLB.com

"Brad Ausmus had talked about how he’d like to have somebody help him with doing this," Dave Dombrowski said Monday. "We felt defensive coordinator was an appropriate title. He can help us on the field before games, but his main thing is going to be coordinating."

Ausmus explained the move this way

"It’s very important to me that the infield defense, outfield defense and pitching are on the same page," he explained. "Matt will be a big part of that coordination, in addition to assisting Omar [Vizquel] with infield, baserunning and bunting."

So, just as Ausmus has a veteran in Gene Lamont to work with him, Vizquel has Martin to help him in his new role. Martin will not be in uniform as coordinator. We now see that Ausmus fully intends to take the information that is available and use it in a way that will help the players on the field, increasing the win probability for the team in the process. He clearly sees that advanced statistical data has it's place in the game, and he'll use the information to his advantage. He'd be silly not to.

Ausmus also played the game for 18 seasons working with pitchers as the primary focus of his job that entire time. He knows what makes players tick. Having played the game as recently as three years ago, as he pointed out, might just give him an advantage that no other manager in the game has at this time. In fact between himself, Vizquel, Joyner, and Clark, the coaching quartet brings a combined 70-plus seasons of relatively recent playing experience. Just about every player on the Tiger roster could stand to benefit in some way from the personnel being added to the new coaching staff.

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