Detroit’s bullpen is starting to round into form. Outside of Francisco Rodriguez, no reliever has given up a run since April 29. Part of the reason for the streak — in fact, most of it — has been solid performance from the setup relievers. Part of it has also been manager Brad Ausmus. The fourth-year skipper has used his relievers interchangeably in recent days to optimize matchups and performance leading into the eighth and ninth innings. In fact, he may be managing the middle innings of his bullpen as well as he has since joining the Tigers in 2014.
Saturday and Sunday against the Oakland Athletics are excellent examples of Ausmus passing on defined roles in favor of putting his relievers in a position to succeed. On Saturday, Jordan Zimmermann danced in and out of trouble for most of his start before imploding in the sixth. After allowing a two-run homer to Yonder Alonso and a two-out single to put the tying run on, Ausmus yanked Zimmermann. Detroit’s skipper went to Hardy to gain the platoon advantage over Stephen Vogt, and Hardy was able to easily fool light-hitting pinch hitter Chad Pinder with three changeups to end the inning.
In years past, this would be the end of Hardy’s night. The Book that all managers follow declares that There Shalt Be a Seventh Inning Man. Instead, Ausmus left Hardy in to get Matt Joyce before making the switch to The Seventh Inning Man, Alex Wilson. Was this move common sense? Absolutely. Joyce is awful against lefties. That doesn’t mean Ausmus, or many other MLB managers, would necessarily be wont to make the move. The Book is a firm believer in giving relievers a fresh inning to work with. Ditching conventional thinking, however, made Wilson’s job of finishing the seventh that much easier.
On Sunday, Ausmus was once more quick to bound out of the dugout when Daniel Norris got into trouble in the fifth. Ausmus could have chosen to go to his long relievers, Anibal Sanchez or Chad Bell. After all, that is exactly what he did earlier this year in the fifth inning of a close game. This time around, he brought Greene on to face Pinder. In a reverse of the previous night’s game, Joyce pinch hit for Pinder and Greene froze him with a pair of curveballs.
Greene is a sporadic pitcher — the numbness in his right hand cripples his command and effectiveness periodically. We have seen this before. So has Ausmus. That is why he was smart to milk Greene for six outs in this game. Getting as much out of Greene on days where he is commanding the ball is the best way to maximize his sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful performance. Pulling the righty with two outs in the seventh to let Hardy face Alonso was also a good call, given Alonso’s decision to turn into a left-handed J.D. Martinez.
Sure, Ausmus still has his defined roles. Justin Wilson is the eighth-inning guy, no questions asked. That has worked out pretty well for the Tigers. K-Rod is the closer, no questions asked. That has not worked out so well for the Tigers. Behind those two defined roles, however, Ausmus is managing the bullpen as fluidly as he ever has.
This bodes well for the Tigers as they rapidly approaching a post-Rodriguez world. Ausmus probably isn’t quite ready to abolish all roles entirely, so expect to see Justin Wilson assume the closer role upon K-Rod’s fall. I’m not even sure if Ausmus is entirely ready to give up on having a set eighth-inning guy. However, he does not appear to be afraid to consider making the switch, whereas he never once considered deposing Joe Nathan in 2014.
Alex Wilson will probably see the majority of appearances in the eighth. However, the mere fact that he has used Wilson, Greene, and Hardy interchangeably in the middle innings shows Ausmus’ ability to adapt and be creative with his bullpen like he never has before.