When the Detroit Tigers first hired Brad Ausmus, I was very happy with their choice. I felt that a young, well-educated, 15-year MLB veteran would bring insights to the job that could not be found in another retread manager who manages "by the book." I was wrong. If the Tigers are to somehow make a run for the postseason -- which would require being buyers at the trade deadline -- then replacing Ausmus also needs to be given serious consideration.
Not only has Ausmus adopted an ultra-conservative, by-the-book style, but he fails to see players struggling in their roles when their failure seems obvious to even the casual observer. There is far too much statistical data in today's game -- win probability, advanced metrics, and the like -- available to help a manager to make the right choices. Nowhere have Ausmus’ strategic struggles been more apparent than his bullpen management.
We have seen it time after time: Ausmus puts a pitcher in a critical role, the pitcher struggles, and the manager neglects to make a move to stop the bleeding. Ausmus did this with Joba Chamberlain for the last two months of the 2014 season, and again for the first three months of 2015 when there were clearly better choices available. Lately, it seems that none of his bullpen moves are paying off.
In July 2014, the Tigers traded two of their best prospects to get Joakim Soria. Ausmus didn’t know what to do with him, either before or after Soria went on the disabled list. All the while, Chamberlain allowed a 4.66 ERA in a setup role in August and September. In 2015, the Tigers have two relief pitchers who have pitched above replacement level: Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson. Yet, Ausmus has used less effective relievers in more important roles, often saving Wilson for mop-up duty when the team is trailing by six runs.
Here is a chart that shows the performance of the Tigers' relief pitchers this season, and the average leverage index indicating the importance of the situations when they are used.
Unfortunately, the pitchers who have been least effective are being used in the situations where their performance affects the game the most. Meanwhile, Hardy and Wilson are being used in the least important situations. Neftali Feliz, who was just released by the Texas Rangers and claimed by Detroit, has an ALi higher than any Tigers reliever except Soria.
Bullpen management has not been Ausmus' only issue. Many fans are puzzled as to why Ausmus keeps a .300 hitter, Jose Iglesias, in the No. 9 spot of the batting order, while the Tigers' leadoff man is swinging at shadows. Granted, things have turned around since Ausmus shuffled the lineup and moved Ian Kinsler into the leadoff spot, but a hitter as valuable as Iglesias has been deserves more plate appearances.
Many people have also noticed lethargic play from some Tigers players that has not been seen in Detroit for a long time. From not running out ground balls to not charging balls hit to the outfield as runners circle the bases, there seem to be no consequences for these random acts of nonchalance.
There are holes in the Tigers’ roster, to be sure, especially on the pitching staff. That’s on the general manager, not on Ausmus. But the manager has to use the players he is given in their most productive roles. That would mean Wilson and Hardy in the late innings when the team has a lead, rather than relying upon a waiver-wire pick up like Neftali Feliz or an unproven Bruce Rondon.
The Tigers were expected to win their fifth straight division title this season. Instead, they are stuck under .500 and 10 1/2 games out of first place, barely staying afloat in the playoff picture. Since their 11-2 start to the season, the Tigers have the second-worst record in the American League, and their pitching staff has the second-worst ERA in the AL. They are grossly underperforming season expectations.
A malaise has set in over the Tigers franchise, from the manager to the players to the entire fanbase. It appears to me as though Ausmus often looks like a deer caught in the headlights, while his pitchers are imploding on the mound right in front of him.
Unfortunately, Ausmus' approach is not one of misdirection, but rather a trend. And if Detroit is to have any chance of getting back in the race, or by some miracle taking the division, the Tigers may not be able to afford to finish the season with Ausmus at the helm. What do you think?