Brad Ausmus had an interesting rookie season as an MLB manager. He had plenty of things go wrong but he had enough talent at his disposal to win the AL Central. He experienced plenty of unexpected things and hopefully learned the ropes. A recent question he answered showed a glimpse into how Ausmus views fan criticism. Does he take it seriously? Let's see:
Anthony Fenech (Detroit Free Press): What, if anything, would you have done differently with the bullpen?
Brad Ausmus: The thing is, especially with bullpen use in baseball, it's the result that gets questioned. If the result is a positive result, it doesn't get questioned at all. And really, people that understand the game would question the move, bullpen or otherwise, as the move is being made, not after the result of the move. So would I do anything different? I'm sure I could look over the course of the season and say yeah, I would have done something different when it involves the bullpen, but overall I would say, generally speaking, there wouldn't be a ton of things I would do differently.
Let's stipulate that the Tigers relief situation never firmed up this year. It started early with the Bruce Rondon injury and the questions piled up from there. There may well have been no really good solutions for Ausmus to implement in 2014 to save his bullpen from getting skewered. But it's the opinion of his critics that I think many serious fans should lightly loathe. The part that I resent in the above quote is the blanket thrust over the majority of observers that criticism gets based mostly on results and not process. I don't believe that at all.
Certainly, in some quarters, this mindset exists. Talk radio is filled with ranting loons who babble in mindless fashion and treat each loss as the end of the world. There are also casual fans who will treat any game in "win: good, loss: bad" fashion and not analyze a thing beyond there. That's 100 percent fine.
As a baseball fan and a person who puts thoughts to print, it's imperative to always keep in mind that we don't know a lot of things. We often exist in a black and white world of right and wrong and perhaps too often try to impose that upon the club we follow.
We have limitations. We aren't in that clubhouse with knowledge and appreciation of the daily challenges faced by teams as they piece together a baseball season. We don't always know when a guy has a twinge in his elbow or has a sick stomach from eating bad clams. There could be a low-key feud going on between factions that we'll never know about. Some things are kept in-house and they should be.
That's all pretty obvious, I believe. We aren't breaking new ground with those ideas. But keeping the knowledge possessed by others in mind is a two-way street.
Baseball, while beautifully complex in innumerable ways, is also a game even an outsider sitting in Iowa can follow closely and develop informed opinions that won't get you committed to an institution. It's a game after all, not quite the combination of scientific and social experimentation that some in baseball might have you believe.
Managing a team doesn't take some special sorcery either. Brad Ausmus recently did an interview with Anthony Fenech at the Detroit Free Press. It was a piece with good questions by Fenech that tried to explore the challenges faced by Ausmus in his rookie season. Ausmus answered a few of them and he side-stepped a few others with vanilla nothing-ness.
That's also to be expected. Managers get very good telling us something while revealing nothing. There's probably a training seminar they take on getting hired or they just watch the interview prep scene from Bull Durham a lot.
The question quoted above did elicit an answer that I found a little troublesome. If not clueless. If not close to infuriating. As one can imagine, it was about the bullpen.
Here's the thing, Ausmus has plenty of folks following his every move who are processing the information in real-time. He should have a lackey intern in the front office print off some discussions on the BYB board once in a while that take place during the game. You can get a sense of it. These fans do have thoughts on the processes Ausmus implements and they do foresee a bad result looming before it happens and, sometimes, well before he obviously did.
Maybe this is a cheap shot at Ausmus, but the stadium full of fans who were cheering at Oriole Park when the Detroit skipper brought in Joba Chamberlain to protect a 8th inning three-run lead in Game 2 of the ALDS were doing that cheering in anticipation of the result. Not after the result.
The cheering only got more intense once Delmon Young was clearing the bases and stamping the result on Ausmus' forehead.
Judging by his answer to Fenech, Ausmus needs to know when it comes to bullpen management there are plenty of observers who are looking for change. They aren't waiting around for the latest results. They have looked at the numbers and they have looked at multiple years worth of results to form ideas. These people are now looking to you to make your mark in this area.
What did they see this year? They saw a passive approach to problem solving. Again, Ausmus was hamstrung in many ways. No question. But his chosen path appeared to be "same old same old". Ausmus was going to keep the "comfort level" high in his bullpen and try to let pitchers carve out roles and stay there. The driving need to create "comfort" is the Holy Grail of bullpen management all too often.
This is perfectly fine much of the time. If you're running out Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland in order on a nightly basis, you're golden. Even if you have Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde we saw seasons where that can coalesce adequately on the way to a division title.
But Ausmus didn't have that. He had a messy challenge and he chose to take the easy way out. He kept running out the same guys in the same spots. Almost stubborn and defiant when asked about possible changes. In fact, he saw a continual stream of mostly bad "results" and his natural response seemed to be maintaining the status quo.
The end of the answer given is also a little troubling. Did he learn nothing that he can share? Will he really run your bullpen the same way next year only hoping to have better pitchers to implement the "push button/paint by numbers" approach. If so, that seems to have been a learning opportunity lost.
This could have been the year to try something different. To see if you could scratch and claw to get a little more from the crew assembled in the bullpen. Fight harder for better match ups. Use your best performing relievers at any given point of the season in more unconventional spots. None of this was tried very often on the surface.
It wasn't just bullpen management where Ausmus was getting judged on results. Resistance to pinch hitting for Alex Avila against lefty relievers in late inning situations was another blind spot toward gaining a tactical advantage.
Pinch hitting for Rick Porcello in Arizona was another game where his processes were in question as the game was happening. The game frittering away was a bad result, but the criticism didn't begin after the 27th out. Porcello was at 77 pitches through seven innings. The bullpen had been gassed the previous few days. The Tigers had just rallied to take the lead. But Ausmus wanted to put the hammer down. So he sent Rajai Davis up to face a right-handed reliever with the bases loaded and two-out. Davis didn't come through and the bullpen went about blowing the game in short order. Ausmus' plan is probably defensible on certain levels in the game. But one feels that anyone who was offering a different plan may have been dismissed as just another crank who was mad about losing.
The Tigers won the division for a 4th straight year. Any criticism of Ausmus needs to get rinsed with that fact. But the AL Central was won again in an era when two survivors of the one-game wildcard playoff can make the World Series. This is rendering a division title a little less glossy.
Brad Ausmus isn't a genius for winning the AL Central. He's also not a complete fool for using his bullpen in sub-optimal fashion. But in the end, he needs to keep in mind that criticism is coming from all angles in his job. That will never change. It's up to him to figure out who is criticizing his process thoughtfully and who is simply banging on his head for a bad result. It's not as cut and dried as he made it sound. When there is criticism blowing in his direction, I don't think its fair of him to blow it off as purely reactionary pablum. Sometimes he's wrong and he should be inquisitive enough to consider alternatives and admit sometimes his ways might need adjusting.
Maybe it was a throw-away answer in a throw-away interview. It just might have revealed a little too much about his views on the fans, and it wasn't pretty.