Throughout his tenure in Detroit, Tigers fans have been quick to criticize manager Brad Ausmus. While we fans cannot speak to Ausmus’ leadership qualities in the clubhouse — by far the most important aspect of a manager’s performance, in my opinion — his in-game decision-making has been extremely frustrating. Bad bullpen management, questionable lineup decisions, you name it. He hasn’t been dealt the greatest hand in top-heavy rosters with little depth, but he also hasn’t made the most of it.
He got one right on Monday, and it’s important for Tigers fans to recognize this. Sure, fans (including us!) mocked him when Ausmus decided to use Francisco Rodriguez for a four-out save in the exact same situation he passed on two weeks ago. But it’s more important for the Tigers that, regardless of what was said to the media, Ausmus pulled the 180 and learned from his mistake. There’s no guarantee that Rodriguez would have gotten the big out in Toronto, but he did in Boston and helped clinch one of the Tigers’ biggest wins of the season.
The Tigers need more of this, though. As of Tuesday morning, they are four games back in the AL Wild Card race and 5 1/2 games behind in the division. They have to not only catch the current wild card leaders (Boston and Toronto), but leapfrog the surging Astros and fend off the pesky Yankees and Mariners. FanGraphs sets the Tigers’ playoff odds at 24 percent, and Baseball Prospectus has them at just 16.7 percent.
With the team reportedly willing to sit on their hands at the trade deadline, they need to squeeze every win they can get out of this middling pitching staff. The only way to do that is to use their top bullpen arms as efficiently as possible, and manage like there is no tomorrow.
Luckily, Ausmus has already been more efficient with his bullpen than in recent years. Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, Shane Greene, and Alex Wilson all have an average Leverage Index (gmLI) score above 1.0 (average) when they enter a game this season, meaning they are being used in higher leverage situations. Only a handful of MLB relievers have an average Leverage Index higher than Rodriguez’s team-leading 1.66, while Greene and Justin Wilson rank among the top 75 relievers in baseball.
Ah, but there’s another name here: Bruce Rondon. The flamethrowing righty has been used in high leverage situations just as frequently as Wilson and Greene, but hasn’t provided the same value. In fact, Rondon is the only Tigers reliever with an average Leverage Index above 1.0 but a negative RE24. His -0.44 WPA is third-worst among Tigers relievers, ahead of only Drew VerHagen and Mark Lowe (minimum 10 IP).
*Note: Most of Mark Lowe's high leverage appearances came in the early part of the season. In the last 30 days, his average Leverage Index is 0.06.
This is a far cry from 2015, when Ausmus used pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Tom Gorzelanny, and Neftali Feliz ahead of more effective relievers like Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. Wilson is still being shut out a bit — based on the numbers in front of us, he should be getting Rondon’s innings — but in general, the Tigers’ best relievers are getting the most high leverage chances.
They just need more of this. Greene hasn’t worked multiple innings in an outing since June 7, and Alex Wilson has only pitched 6 2/3 innings this month. Rodriguez’s workload has picked up lately, but he went a full week between outings earlier this month. Even Kyle Ryan, one of the Tigers’ better relievers per RE24, could stand to get more innings.
There are other factors at play here, to be sure. We fans don’t know which pitchers are available or not on any given day. The Tigers track warmup pitches along with those thrown in a game, as every throw has a cumulative effect on a pitcher’s workload. Players may not pitch for a few days because they are sore, or are not feeling well, or any number of reasons we are not privy to.
But if the Tigers can afford it, they need to use their best arms as often as possible in the later innings. Reach for four, five, or even six outs with Greene, Wilson, and Rodriguez. Pull a starter earlier than usual if he’s running into trouble. Every win means more now, and each opportunity to grab one should be treated like gold. Wins like Monday’s aren’t pretty, but they still count, and could be the difference between a playoff spot and spending another October at home.