Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila may yet surprise us and choose to keep manager Brad Ausmus at the helm as the franchise embarks on a rebuilding project. But it feels like the end is here. After four years of frustration and disappointment, it’s time to make a change.
Avila continued to be naturally circumspect in his recent comments to the Detroit News. He was asked whether the Tigers would bring Ausmus back in 2018. “There’s a lot of different possibilities. I can’t say that’s out of the question. Really, we could.” That’s not much of an endorsement, but we’ve also seen the “Ausmus is about to be fired” show before.
Then again, Brad Ausmus sounds rather fatalistic himself. At the very least, it sounds like the decision has already been made.
Brad Ausmus made a joke about next year's manager just now. Asked if he felt his fate has been determined. He said he thinks so— Katie Strang (@KatieJStrang) September 20, 2017
Asked if he believes his fate as Tigers manager has already been decided, Ausmus said, "I would imagine. I mean, Al's known me for 4 years."— Jason Beck (@beckjason) September 20, 2017
After all, what can Ausmus hang his hat on after four seasons in Detroit?
The Tigers’ failure in recent years to get back to the postseason has a lot of different elements to it, but few can be laid at a manager’s feet. We’ll get to the 2014 season in a moment, but since 2015, the Tigers have been undone by their pitching again and again. Little had to do with Ausmus’ bullpen management, whatever one thinks of it. The Tigers have simply lacked the quality arms and enough depth in decent ones, to compete effectively.
In 2014, reeling from their loss to the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS, the Tigers turned to a rookie to manage a high-powered, veteran club. There was a lot to like in that decision. There was also some real risk.
Ausmus had a good reputation as a smart baseball man throughout the game. More important, perhaps, was the fact that General Manager Dave Dombrowski, a pretty conservative individual in his own right, made that decision. By that point, Diamond Dave could do no wrong—coughs, bullpen—and it was easy to feel good about the move. After all, the team appeared unstoppable, un-screw-up-able, with three straight division titles and a World Series appearance to their credit.
The idea of a young, upbeat manager with a modern style was pretty appealing. An elite defensive catcher in his playing days, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that he was a good choice to handle a pitching staff and improve young catchers defensive skills. To teach the game at the highest level, where it’s all about refinement. That he might be far more interested in applying a more statistically savvy and creative approach than Jim Leyland was. The problem, is that Ausmus hasn’t turned out to be that guy.
Over four seasons, the Tigers’ manager has proven himself conservative and reserved to a fault. He’s been burned repeatedly by sticking with veteran players hoping for a turnaround. Though this is largely a function of the rosters he’s had, his teams haven’t run the bases aggressively or well. Nor have they, as a group, played sound fundamental baseball. By and large, he’s had little success improving any of his younger players appreciably.
In short, Ausmus has shown himself as a guy who moves incrementally, putting players in their roles, their lineup positions, and rarely deviating until forced too. Some managers meddle too much. Ausmus generally leaves his players to decide matters. That isn’t an inherently bad trait. Steadiness is generally a virtue in a manager. But it leaves one wondering what Ausmus brings to the table.
Ausmus himself has at times diminished the importance of using advanced statistics, implying that there is little a manager can do with any of it. While it’s true that much of the purpose of advanced statistics has to do with building teams, as opposed to managing them, Ausmus’ perspective isn’t particularly reassuring. Most of the successful managers in the game today pay at least lip service to the utility of incorporating advanced statistic into their decision making process. If managing is mostly about feel, as he implies, than where is there evidence that Ausmus has it?
A characteristic of every Ausmus team has been a quick start out of spring training, and then a substantial funk once the grind of the season kicks in. Two nine-game losing streaks in May in each of the past two seasons don’t speak well to Ausmus’ feel for keeping his teams focused, upbeat and motivated.
For his part, Ausmus recently referenced a play back in April of this season in comments to the Detroit Free Press, as one he’d like to have back, believing the season may have gone in a different direction.
“I would like to see how our season went if (Jose Iglesias) doesn’t trip turning the double play in Tampa. I’d like to see how our season went if that one play was different.”
The play in question came on April 19. The Tigers ended up losing the game to the Tampa Bay Rays, and followed with four more consecutive losses, beginning their slide into mediocrity. Speaking for myself, it’s a bit disconcerting to hear a manager suggest that a game in April changed his team’s entire season. The implication there is that they lost their mojo during that stretch of games, and could never get it back.
Good manager have good players, and successful teams inherently have a good manager, regardless of their process. That’s just how it works. There are axioms aplenty, but the point is that the connection between these things is always going to be unclear. But there isn’t a single year in Ausmus’ time in Detroit during which he got appreciably more out of a team than their talent level would suggest.
The 2014 team was clearly the most talented of the bunch. And in that season, the rookie manager looked out of his depth. He struggled to cope with the faded veterans in his bullpen, and evinced little feel for pulling his starters. It certainly feels like he’s improved over the years, but sloppy is still the word that comes to mind when I think of an Ausmus team. Future general managers should also take note that saddling a rookie manager with a flimsy bullpen and expecting a World Series title, isn’t an optimal approach.
Ausmus just wasn’t the right guy for the Tigers when he was hired. It’s not impossible that he’s actually better suited for a rebuilding project on which he can more obviously stamp his mark. But there just aren’t any standout success stories from Ausmus tenure as the Tigers’ skipper. How can fans wait through the losing that is surely going to continue for several seasons, hoping that someday, when the Tigers’ rebuild bears fruit, Ausmus is the right man, in the right moment?
The truth, is that it’s time for a change, and that change is presumably coming. When the Tigers still had an outside shot at contention, there was some logic in staying the course. Right now, the team is years away. It’s a new day in Tigers’ baseball. It’s time for a new voice in the clubhouse.