Tigers fans have given manager Brad Ausmus a healthy dose of grief over the past few weeks. From puzzling bullpen management to questionable defensive replacements to bizarre pinch-hitting decisions, many fans believe that Ausmus is not the right man for the job in Detroit. However, this weekend's series showed that the grass is definitely not greener on the other side. For all the complaints Tigers fans have about Ausmus, Royals fans deserve to file 10 times as many about their skipper, Ned Yost.
As fans, we tend to overestimate a manager's impact on a big league team. While a great manager can alter the course of a team's season via clubhouse management — something we like to credit Jim Leyland for in 2006 —there are very few instances where his in-game tactics make the difference on the scoreboard. It's possible that one of those instances occurred on Saturday, when Yost's tinkering put the Royals in a bad position.
First, there were the bunts. Nori Aoki, who was a blistering 13 for 16 in his four games prior to Saturday, laid down a pair of sacrifice bunts in his first two plate appearances. Aoki bunted leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar from second to third with no outs in the first inning, then sacrificed to move Escobar and Jarrod Dyson up a base in the bottom of the third. In both instances, Aoki was the first out of the inning. Max Scherzer retired Josh Willingham and Alex Gordon without allowing a run to score in both instances, with three of the four plate appearances ending in strikeouts.
Conventional baseball wisdom suggests that bunting the runner (or runners) ahead with no outs is a good idea, because a base hit isn't needed in order to score a run. With runners on second and third after a sacrifice, a single likely scores two runs. However, the numbers suggest otherwise. Both sacrifice bunts described above lowered the Royals' total run expectancy by giving away an out. With runners on first and second with no outs, teams have scored an average of 1.43 runs in the inning. With one out and runners on second and third? Just 1.29 runs. The same decrease happens with a single runner on base, as the run expectancy decreased from 1.06 runs to 0.90.
Part of the scorn for the sacrifice bunts leads back to Yost's original lineup construction. In an effort to split up left and right-handed hitters in his lineup, Yost placed Josh Willingham in the No. 3 spot, ahead of AL MVP candidate Alex Gordon, who is a career .359/.479/.692 hitter of Scherzer to boot. While Willingham's numbers with the Royals have been decent, he is also striking out in 28 percent of his place appearances in 2014. Meanwhile, Aoki has a strikeout rate of just 9.1 percent, while Gordon's is at 19.3 percent. Yes, Gordon struck out in both plate appearances in question, but the numbers suggest that he would have had a better chance of putting the ball in play and scoring either run had he come to the plate with one out (instead of two).
Then, there is the ninth inning. While Ausmus did not win himself any fans by using Joe Nathan in a one run game, Yost trumped any scorn that Ausmus would have received by using Raul Ibanez as a pinch hitter for Willingham. Ibanez is hitting .167/.260/.286 this season, a 59 wRC+. Andrew Romine and Bryan Holaday are the only Tigers regulars with a lower wRC+ this season. Ibanez grounded out weakly to first, ending the game. If pinch hitting for your No. 3 hitter in a key spot isn't baffling enough, consider that Billy Butler was still available off the bench. Butler has not been his usual self in 2014, but is still hitting .264/.317/.372 with a 93 wRC+. He also has a long history of tormenting the Tigers, and is 6 for 14 off Nathan in his career.
Now, compare this to what Brad Ausmus did. Ausmus used the left-handed Tyler Collins as a pinch hitter twice during the weekend, once for Holaday and once for Romine. Collins came through on Saturday with a two-out single off James Shields, breaking a 1-1 tie. He was overmatched yesterday, whiffing on some high-90s heat from Kelvin Herrera to end a threat in the sixth inning. It's difficult to predict when a pinch hitter will come through, but putting the best player possible in a key situation is what a manager should do during these situations. Collins, a low average hitter who has demonstrated a keen eye and decent power in the minor leagues, was a better player to send to the plate against Shields than Holaday on Saturday. He was also a better option than Romine on Sunday, though I don't know if anyone on the Tigers' bench was going to catch up with Herrera's fastball. Contrast this with Yost, who passed over a better hitter in Butler for the "veteran savvy" of Ibzanez, and you see why Ausmus deserves more praise than he has gotten in recent weeks.
Overall, the players are the ones that decide who wins and loses over the course of a 162 game season. The Tigers are in first place because they have Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and several other talented ballplayers. A manager's in-game decision making can make the difference in a handful of games per year, though, and the Tigers were fortunate that Ausmus pushed the right buttons — or avoided pushing the wrong ones, at least — in this weekend's series win.