Joakim Soria and Not Repeating Mistakes

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I’m not typically one to lecture about the “lessons” of individual games or series, but the 2013 postseason should have taught major league managers one important thing: Don’t lose with your best guys on the sidelines. We can debate “roles” all we want and argue that Joe Nathan shouldn’t be serving as the team’s “closer,” but that’s a second order conversation. I don’t really care about roles as much as I care about how often your get your pitchers into games.

In the National League Wild Card game last year, Dusty Baker didn’t use Aroldis Chapman. I’m not just saying he didn’t use him when I would have used him. He literally didn’t pitch. There wasn’t a save situation and Baker let him wait in the bullpen just in case it happened. It didn’t and the Reds lost with their most deadly reliever doing nothing.

In the division series, Fredi Gonzalez let a lesser reliever pitch in the 8th inning with the season on the line while Craig Kimbrel stood in the bullpen, ready to roll. Uribe homered and Kimbrel never got the chance to save the Braves season.

In the NLCS, Don Mattingly let Kenley Jansen wait in the pen until the 12th inning of a game because he was waiting for a save chance that never came.

In the World Series, while on the ropes in the deciding game, Mike Matheny let Trevor Rosenthal wait in the bullpen until things were out of reach.

All four teams lost, obviously, with their best guy doing nothing or coming in after it was too late for it to matter. Brad Ausmus looks like a manager who will follow this tradition. He can’t. He absolutely can’t. It will end the Tigers season and if it means we have to strap him to a chair and play the 2013 playoffs on a loop for the next week, then we should do it.

We all know the problem. Brad Ausmus has a really good reliever in his bullpen, Joakim Soria, whom he doesn’t want to use in big moments. Ausmus has settled on Chamberlain and Nathan as his high leverage, 8th and 9th inning relievers and he isn’t budging. If it’s a save situation in the 8th, Joba gets the ball. Save situation in the 9th? Nathan. It’s automatic as long as one of them isn’t overworked. I derisively call Ausmus “flowchart” for this reason. He has a predetermined path for the final innings from which he will not budge no matter how many harrowing rides he takes.

This would be easier to forgive if Chamberlain and Nathan were rock solid. If you believe that knowing “your inning” matters, then perhaps you could make a case for this behavior. I don’t, but I’ll leave that point uncontested. If you believe in roles, you still have to assign them properly. I don’t mind that Ausmus wants to tell his pitchers which inning they are likely to pitch during, I mind that he seems unwilling to adjust his strategy when the stakes get higher.

Joakim Soria is his best reliever. The Tigers paid a king’s ransom to get him and he’s pitching in the 7th inning of games and often while behind. Neither of those things bother me inherently. I’m fine using relievers at the moment you feel they are needed, but I’m not fine with what happened on Saturday. What happened on Saturday was a joke and it cannot happen again.

During the highest leverage moments of the highest leverage game of the 2014 season, Brad Ausmus left Soria in the pen. Scherzer got through 7 with Soria warming up. Then Joba got the 8th inning and allowed a run with Soria warming. Then Soria sat down and Nathan got up. Nathan got in trouble, so Soria got back up again before Nathan escaped. By the end, Soria was squatting on the bullpen mound just waiting for the call. He was so loose, he didn’t even bother throwing anymore. He was ready. His manager wasn’t.

We can debate the “role” all we want, but Ausmus knew he was going to need two relievers when Scherzer exited that game and for some reason, he decided that Soria wasn’t going to be one of them. With the game on the line, potentially the season, he went with Joba and Joe. It worked, because the Royals aren’t great hitters, but it just barely worked.

That won’t happen against the Orioles or the Angels or the Nats. They will eat the Tigers bullpen alive in those situations. You can’t lose with your best guy on the bench.

It’s one thing if he wants to use Soria in the 8th and Nathan in the 9th because he wants them to plan for the inning (that’s silly, but I’ll allow it here), but he absolutely, 100% cannot fail to use his best reliever. Use him early, use him late, whatever. But you have to use him. You have to. That’s why he’s on the team. Could you imagine not using your best pinch hitter in the 6th inning with the bases loaded just because you might need him later? Can you imagine not using him at all just because you have another pinch hitter you like to use?

And what’s really worrying me is Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez, assuming he goes to the bullpen and not the rotation, immediately becomes the Tigers best reliever. It’s not even close. I’m terrified that Ausmus is going to use him in long relief rather than in high leverage moments. We’ve seen this before. Leyland made this mistake in 2012. Others have made it too. Sanchez is a top flight starter, if you ask him to throw one or two innings, he becomes one of the best dozen relievers in baseball. You don’t save him for a four inning stint, you use him and you use him as much as he can handle in the biggest spots.

In a perfect world, Ausmus would use his best guys in the biggest moments and he’d play the platoon matchups perfectly and not worry about innings as much as he worried about outs, but I just want one simple thing from him with respect to the bullpen: Use your best relievers.

That’s it. Just make sure that if you use relief pitchers in a game that you use Soria and Sanchez if they are available. Nathan and Joba and Coke can pitch too, but you should never use them in a game in which your best pair doesn’t pitch, unless it’s a blowout.

What happened Saturday can’t happen again. I understand that during the regular season, you have to manage differently or you’ll burn your relievers out. But this weekend was basically a postseason series and Ausmus didn’t display good judgement. I’ve certainly been one of his harshest critics, but I don’t think I’ve been unfair. He’s made some repeated mistakes and they’re mistakes that amplify in the postseason.

With the season on the line, he has to make sure he’s not getting beat with his best on the bench. You can get away with it on occasion, but it always catches up with you in the end. The playoffs are a crapshoot, as they say, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fire the right bullets at the right time and tip the scales in your favor.

Ausmus is running out of time to learn the lesson learned by many eleven months ago, in the dugouts in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Boston while the Reds, Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals watched their seasons slip away.

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2 responses

  1. I hope Dombrowski prints this posting out in big font and tapes it to Ausmus’ locker door. Inside and outside.

    As much as Ausmus is getting criticized, shouldn’t Lamont be getting some heat too? Almost hired by the Red Sox, shouldn’t Lamont (assuming he knows better) be teaching Ausmus this stuff?

    During the Royals series, I got the feeling that the team is essentially running itself–meaning, anyone replacement-level or below in Ausmus’ shoes would pretty much be getting the same results.

  2. Don’t blame me, I wanted to keep Benoit.

    Yeah, having Soria warming up while his designated guys are out there kind of gives away that Ausmus has lost confidence in them, but can’t bring himself to actually turn the roles over. I only very reluctantly criticize managers*, but that’s not good**. He really needs to give Soria and Sanchez late innings work THIS WEEK before the playoffs hit and it looks like panicking. They certainly appear to be the best talent available right now. Joba seems like he’s run out of gas and turns out Nathan never had any to begin with. Brad just needs to make the call.

    *Nathan’s year is the kind that makes a manager’s job impossible. It’s those blasted good stretches: he’ll figure things out for a while and we want to believe projections and experience, then KABOOM. Partly through his own doing, partly through bad timing and luck, Ausmus is now firmly in damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he doesn’t territory. If he doesn’t make a change, he seems unwilling to make tough decisions that might rock the boat. If he does, it still might not work. Soria’s been uneven in Detroit and Sanchez has never been in the bullpen. I still agree it’s best to try, but let’s not pretend we’ve got Chapman or Kimbrel stashed back there. If we did, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    **Also not good: Ned Yost’s bunting. Simply unbelievable. If I was a KC fan, my stance on managerial criticism would likely be different.

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