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Mailbag: Finding the positives in Brad Ausmus’ return

Fans don’t like it, but the Tigers’ skipper is back for a fourth year. Let’s embrace it a little.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Outside of a short honeymoon period immediately after he was hired, Brad Ausmus has been the ire of the Detroit Tigers’ fanbase for the past three seasons. His early-season bullpen management in 2014 did him no favors, and by the time he brought in Joba Chamberlain in [insert game here, I’ve blocked it out by this point] of the 2014 ALDS, most fans were done with him as the team’s skipper. We at BYB were similarly peeved, though never formally called for his firing.

But here we are two years later, and Ausmus is still around. He will be back in 2017 after the team picked up his contract option, and fans are pissed once again. We’ll get into my opinion on the matter in a bit, but I think a lot of fans have come to accept this fate by now. Ausmus and most of his staff get another year to return the Tigers to the playoffs, but one imagines they will be on thin ice.

The good news? I think he has gotten a little better as a manager.

This may sound blasphemous to some, but I’m happy that Brad Ausmus is returning for another season. Firing a manager after a competitive season like 2016 is a reactionary move, and I don’t think you can lay the Tigers’ biggest issues at Ausmus’ feet. Some fans don’t like the “There’s nobody better out there” argument, but I think it’s a valid one in this case. Other than a few retreads and a somewhat mysterious case in Bud Black*, the Tigers would be looking at another rookie manager were they to move on from Ausmus.

More importantly, I’m encouraged by the improvements Ausmus made as an in-game tactician in 2016. Fans howled when Ausmus stuck with Joba Chamberlain for long stretches of 2014 and 2015, but failed to give him his due when he went from Mark Lowe to Justin Wilson to Alex Wilson to Bruce Rondon in the setup role this season. He juggled the lineup effectively as well, and was not afraid to “demote” Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez when they were struggling. Sure, Cameron Maybin’s emergence was a bit fortunate, but it was clear the other two were not comfortable hitting that high in the order. Ausmus also showed a more aggressive mentality with his starters as the season wore on, and the final rotation spot became a true meritocracy by season’s end.

He’s not perfect, sure. Ausmus was not a hindrance in 2016, though, and deserved another season at the helm.

*That Black has been passed over for at least two managerial jobs now — circumstances in Washington were weird, sure, but he’s still unemployed — is a bit damning. Maybe there’s something there saber-heads don’t know.

I think it’s premature to evaluate a six-year contract after one season — remember how psyched we were about Anibal Sanchez after 2013? — but I’d lean towards calling Justin Upton’s deal a success so far. Sure, he sucked eggs for the first six weeks of the season, but managed an .850 OPS from May 15 onward. There were ebbs and flows along the way, such as a .382 OPS for three weeks in August, but overall, he was another hot week or two away from a career-average season. His .775 OPS was just 15 points shy of what he managed in San Diego last season, and he tied a career-high with 31 home runs. Feel free to buy low on Upton in your fantasy league next year.

As for any percentage of blame for missing the playoffs, I can’t go any higher than 10 percent. Many fans will chide him for all the strikeouts — he finished with a 28.6 percent strikeout rate, his highest since 2008 — and defensive metrics were not kind to him. However, he nearly carried this team to the postseason with a 196 wRC+ in September and October. He finished third on the team (among position players) with 2.0 rWAR, and was behind only Miguel Cabrera and Cameron Maybin with +2.52 WPA. Upton could have been better, but poor performances from players like Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey were a bigger reason why the Tigers are sitting at home right now.

The short answer is yes. The Chicago Cubs won 103 games this season with Miguel Montero and David Ross hitting .213 and .229, respectively. Sure, Wilson Contreras and his .845 OPS were involved — he started 41 games behind the plate for Chicago this year — but this is just one example from 2016 of a team having an incredible season despite a relative lack of offensive production from its catcher spot. Example No. 2: the 2016 Indians ranked dead last in baseball with a 46 wRC+ from their catchers and they’re in the ALCS.

I wanted a bit of historical context, though. The Tigers have been blessed with many great catchers throughout their history. Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane scored the winning run in the 1935 World Series. Bill Freehan put up Hall of Fame numbers in the offensively-starved 1960s. Lance Parrish launched 212 homers in 10 seasons with the Tigers in the 1980s. Ivan Rodriguez helped usher in the current golden era.

Don’t let this run of great-hitting catchers fool you, though. Offensive production from the catcher position has fluctuated a bit around the league, but has generally followed the offensive trends of its era. MLB catchers managed a .682 OPS in 1973 (the year the DH rule was adopted in the American League), and a .702 OPS in 2016. It may seem like catchers’ offensive numbers have declined with the advent of pitch framing statistics and the like, but the overall stats indicate no such trend.

This answer was a little bit easier when there were four teams in the AL playoff picture. Now that we’re down to two, the answer is obvious: the Toronto Blue Jays. As the managing editor of a Tigers website, I cannot recommend rooting for the Cleveland Indians in any fashion, especially after the way they thrashed Detroit this regular season. However, older Tigers fans will remember their team’s heated battles with the Blue Jays in the 1980s, including a 1987 AL East race that came down to the final weekend of the season. I share no such vitriol for the Jays — I was 10 years old when the divisions were re-aligned to their current format — so Toronto is my go-to team in the ALCS.

One fun aspect of this series will be how many former Tigers are involved. The Indians have Rajai Davis and Andrew Miller on their side, while the Blue Jays can trot out Ezequiel Carrera, Devon Travis, Jason Grilli, and the currently injured Joaquin Benoit.