The world is changing rapidly. As I write this, I am on an airplane somewhere over Ohio. The Tigers are leading Baltimore 5 to 1 in the bottom of the fifth. I know this because I am watching the game live on my laptop. What was science fiction has become commonplace.
The Tigers are changing too. We expected a more athletic team that would bunt and steal, playing small ball to avoid shutouts and win more close games. They have won
two three games by one run, but I find the manager to be the most significant change so far.
The Tigers were behind the curve on defensive innovation, but no longer. Brad Ausmus is employing the extreme shift against some left-handed hitters such as Chris Davis. Jim Leyland had started to shift on occasion, but we will now see more advanced defensive alignments. There are more subtle changes too. On Friday, Andrew Romine made a good play on a ground ball in the hole at short. I suspect it was due to Matt Martin having him positioned well, and that the play would not have been made last year. Finding these extra outs will help on the margin as it appears the athleticism of the defense has actually regressed, which few thought possible sans Prince Fielder.
Ausmus' bullpen moves have made sense, even though the results have caused heartburn. Leyland did use Smyly for long appearances out of the pen early last season before going away from that effective approach, and Ausmus followed suit on Friday. On opening day, Joe Nathan pitched the ninth inning of a tie game. Sabermetricians have long advocated using the most effective relief pitcher in non-save situations. Joba Chamberlain struggled in spring training, and was first used with a big lead on Friday. I can imagine Leyland using him on opening day, and responding after losing the game that the team will need him to perform if they are going to be successful.
The Tigers were often victimized by bad calls, but with replays we are not subjected to Leyland melting down on the field. It is refreshing to see the team leader calmly asking for a replay, or stalling to learn whether he should ask for a second opinion. Even when the challenge of Romine's allegedly dropped ball failed on Friday, Ausmus rationally addressed the issue after the game. At some point this season the team may need Ausmus to light a fire under them, and Leyland did add entertainment value, but overall this is more positive change.
I was about to point out that Ausmus is not overusing Don Kelly, and then Kelly started today's game. But even here there is improvement. Don Kelly started games in the first, second, and third spots in the lineup last year. Ausmus batted him 8th. The lineups make sense. Jim Leyland would rest a starter and inevitably the sub would be in the starter's spot in the lineup. I do not know if he was afraid that the starters would become confused if moved to other spots in the lineup, he was lazy, or just a creature of habit. Perhaps a Pirate once batted out of order when moved to an atypical spot, and Leyland swore that would never happen again.
Overall these changes are making the Tigers less stressful to watch. The manager is not chewing out the umpires and I am ranting at my television less. But as the Tigers come close to blowing a six run lead in the ninth inning, I am struggling to avoid screaming at the monitor.