Assessing Brad Ausmus, Baseball Manager

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

If this blog was part of the criminal justice system, I probably wouldn’t get picked for Brad Ausmus’ jury trial. You might think that’s because of my vocal criticism of his first year, but it’s actually because demographically, he and I are too similar. If you drew Venn Diagrams of handsome*, Jewish, former catchers, he and I would be standing right next to each other.

*-What? My wife and mother think I’m handsome. Shut up, there’s no need for name calling.

I point that out because I want to make it clear that I went into the 2014 season with high hopes for Ausmus and I really wanted him to succeed. After his introduction last winter, I spoke very highly of him in several separate posts, praising him for the way he seemed to embrace modern thinking while crushing it up and hiding it in the proverbial pudding. He brought Jeff Jones back. He brought in Matt Martin to be the defensive coordinator. He talked about the need to bring in modern analysis, but with a presentation style that made it easier for players to understand.

Check. Check. Check.

There was a lot of optimism on my part, which I remind you of because I want to point out that I am 1) only sometimes right and 2) not out to get him. I was buying what he was selling, and it started out nicely. The team performed well early, and while everything was clicking, he was taking a hands-off approach that kept the clubhouse loose and the bunts to a minimum. After a month or so, I thought we had found our man.

But things started to turn for Ausmus as we careened toward summer. The team stumbled, culminating in his poorly executed, and inappropriate joke about beating his wife to handle the poor play on the field. It was a stupid moment, and to his credit, as soon as it came out of his mouth, he knew it and did everything a person should do in a situation like that. But for our purposes here, Paul Wezner from TigsTown made the relevant point. Paul pointed out how the “joke” fiasco was an indication that Ausmus was coming undone a bit. The normally deadpan, buttoned down boss was cracking.

His team was facing adversity. A baseball team that’s rolling doesn’t need a manager. One that’s struggling does. How he handled the remaining months would tell the tale, and I don’t think he handled himself very well at all.

But let’s step back for a moment. Let me make a few additional things clear. Actually measuring and assessing a manager from the outside is extremely difficult. I’m not going to be able to put a definitive number on anything. If I had to guess, I’d say Ausmus’ managing cost the team about five wins during the season relative to the average manager. It’s a rough estimation, I admit, but we just don’t have the information to know which pitchers he used because he wanted to and which he used because one of his guys needed a day off. We don’t know who had the flu and whose wrist was kind of sore.

There’s missing information, and this is a site that likes to deal in facts. We’re not going to be able to do that perfectly here and we’re all just going to have to be okay with it. There’s something worth saying, even if there’s a limitation on how confident we can be.

I should also mention that it’s possible for a person to become a better manager over time. I think Ausmus was bad in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he’s doomed to live at that level forever. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But it’s possible to improve and it’s possible that the transaction cost of replacing a manager is high enough to give him another year.

So if you get to the end of this discussion and want to comment or post on Twitter, remember I said all of those things. I didn’t have it out for him, managing is hard to measure, and I think people can get better. Put all of that in a box to the left side of your screen and hold onto it because it’s about to get combative.

Since I’m already 700 words in and haven’t said anything, I’m going to critique Ausmus by telling you the story of his first season through the lens of five players.

1. Joakim Soria

The problem isn’t that Joe Nathan sucked. Maybe we should have seen a decline coming, but no one was out there predicting that Joe Nathan would be horrible. There’s nothing Brad Ausmus or Earl Weaver could have done to avoid that disaster. But Ausmus responded to the Nathan crisis in a way that demonstrated his flaws.

When a player struggles, plenty of managers make a point to show support in order to maintain their confidence. It’s a classic leadership move. But as Nathan continued to struggle and the Tigers continued to lose close games because Nathan had nothing in the tank, Ausmus refused to go to anyone else as the closer because Nathan was a “proven closer” and he didn’t have another one of those.

This is an obvious strike against Ausmus, but lots of managers do stuff like this and a rookie manager might not want to push the limits of bullpen usage for fear of calling attention to himself. But then this weird thing happened and the Tigers traded Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel for Joakim Soria. Ausmus finally had another proven closer to use in place of Nathan!

Naturally, he called on Soria to be the relief ace and all was right!

Nope. He hardly ever used Soria and on multiple occasions he demonstrated that he only wanted to use Soria in the 7th inning, saving Joba and Nathan for 8/9, and continued to manage to the save stat for Joe Nathan. Now perhaps Ausmus knew that Soria wasn’t in position to pitch well, but it would be an awfully big shock if the Tigers traded for a pitcher, dealing two of their best prospects, for a pitcher who they didn’t think was very good.

What probably happened was that Ausmus didn’t know Soria and he decided he was comfortable with his 8/9 guys even though he just got handed a better pitcher. Unwillingness to adapt will kill you in a game like this.

2. Anibal Sanchez

There was no excuse for the way Ausmus played his Anibal Sanchez card in October. You might want to defend him and say that Sanchez was pushed to his limit at 35 pitches, but you’d be wrong, because it was Ausmus who refused to use Sanchez in the final weeks of the regular season to stretch him out for just such an appearance.

It’s one thing to be worried about Sanchez’s arm, it’s another thing to have failed to prepare for such an obvious situation. Sanchez was his best arm in the pen, and it was obvious from the day we heard he’d be back in September. Ausmus kicked this one by failing to think ahead and failing a test of imagination.

3. James McCann

This drove me crazy. I won’t hold back. Ausmus wouldn’t use McCann in September because McCann didn’t know the pitching staff and it wouldn’t be fair to put him in a big game with an unfamiliar pitcher. This is another thing that sounds kind of reasonable at first, but when you think about it, it’s plain silly.

Ausmus knows more about catching than I do. I’ll admit as much. But McCann was his best bet against left-handed pitching and he wouldn’t use him out of fear that McCann wouldn’t be able to properly manage the pitching staff. Which is weird, because McCann has a fine reputation as a receiver and it’s his job to go to meetings and game plan how they’re going to attack hitters.

Ausmus also had the option of calling pitches from the bench, or having Avila or Holaday do the same. McCann was more than capable of doing his job, and even if he wasn’t, Ausmus’ concern was about his game calling, and that’s something you can easily work around. There was just no logic to it at all.

4. Nick Castellanos

This is the easiest one to forgive, but I wanted to bring it up anyway. During the season, when asked about Castellanos’ defense, Ausmus made a comment to the effect of “Nick might not have great range, but he’s making the plays he gets to.”

Except that’s factually wrong. Castellanos made a ton of misplays on balls hit right at him. I’ve been pretty clear on the fact that I do think Nick can get better at third, but as a point of fact, he was lousy in 2014.

I don’t mind a manager throwing some cover for his guy. That’s a manager thing to do. But when he chose to give an answer, he gave an incorrect assessment of his player. He was just wrong about Castellanos’ ability to make plays on balls hit near him.

This ones a little fuzzy, but in the context of the rest of evidence against him, this stands out to me. I can forgive the bunting and the bullpen roles, but you have to know your players and their abilities or you’re going nowhere.

5. Ezequiel Carrera

This is the big one. The story of Brad Ausmus’ 2014 season was Carrera and it wasn’t pretty. You can’t blame Ausmus for Carrera’s spot on the roster. Dombrowski builds the club and Ausmus got dealt Carrera. That’s just a thing you live with.

But let’s turn around and evaluate how Carrera was used by his manager. For one, he hit in the top two spots in the order seven times despite being very bad at hitting. He was also used as a pinch hitter six more times, which…well, same.

But it came down to a single moment. We can sum up Brad Ausmus as a manager with the game that happened on September 2. The Tigers won 4-2 against the Indians, which sounds great, but it was one of those games where the team just happened to win despite their manager’s best efforts.

The Tigers trailed 2-1 entering the 8th inning. Bryan Shaw was on the mound for the Indians and Suarez was due up. Given the situation, pinch hitting with a lefty made sense. Ausmus had Tyler Collins and he had Steven Moya as lefty pinch hit options. If you’re thinking about a guy who can spray it around, Collins. If you want the bomb, Moya. Easy enough, right?

No. Apparently not because Ausmus went with Carrera!

His explanation was that he wanted someone who could steal a base if he got on base. Which makes your head explode every time you hear it because 1) Carrera can’t get on base and 2) He could have pinch run for anyone who reached base.

But listen, mistakes happen and sometimes you just say something to answer a question if you don’t believe it. And you almost want to forgive him until Miguel Cabrera singles during the next inning and Ausmus uses Moya to pinch run!

Think about that. He had two choices. One where he needed a hitter and one where he needed a runner. He had two players, Carrera and Moya. He somehow managed to decide that Moya belonged in the running situation and Carrera and the hitting one!

If not for that glorious human being, JD Martinez, the Tigers would have lost this game, in large part due to the craziest thing I’ve seen a manager do in quite some time.

It’s one thing to use Carrera too much because you think he’s a good defender (he’s not), but it’s another to use him as a pinch hitter when you have a pinch running need coming in the next inning that you know you’re going to need (Cabrera was lumbering badly at the time).

*****

So here’s the bottom line. After all the hype, Ausmus loves bullpen roles and he loves bunting. He over-managed and didn’t have good answers for questions. It was a bad showing, but when it really came down to it, what eats me up was that he didn’t know his players and he didn’t plan ahead.

Ausmus never seemed to be prepared for his first move to fail and he was frequently caught without a reliever warming up while another was melting down. He put bad hitters into big spots and didn’t really figure out who his good pitchers or defenders were at any point.

Managing is tough and evaluating them is a challenge, but everything I saw from Ausmus in 2014 indicated that he was in way over his head and seemed too stubborn to change. Hopefully that’s not the case.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two things Ausmus did in 2014 that I liked. First, he didn’t announce which relievers were available before the game. That’s good strategy and he stuck to it to keep the other manager from getting an edge. Second, even though he used his bench poorly, he did use it. He didn’t save players for emergencies, he put them in the game if he thought they could help.

So as pitchers and catchers report, the Tigers have plenty of things to resolve. The manager isn’t the most important issue, but it’s the issue that should be the easiest to fix. The Tigers brass needs to get into his ear and resolve some of the bigger gaps in his decision making.

The Tigers like sluggers and hard throwing relievers. Ausmus can’t fix the roster, but he’s got to be smart enough to identify the good relievers and the bad hitters he has in his care. You can’t win the World Series with the Bad News Bears, but that’s not an excuse to put the worse player at shortstop. Ausmus probably wasn’t the reason the Tigers exited after three ALDS games, but he didn’t help them exceed their abilities. And there’s no point in sticking with a manager just because he didn’t ruin the team. The bar should be higher for a team with a $170 million payroll. If Ausmus doesn’t show progress, there’s no reason for him to stay.

I doubt it will happen, but if he doesn’t demonstrate improvements by the All-Star Break, he shouldn’t be at the helm when the pennant chase comes. Would the Tigers do that? Unlikely, but this is a job that would attract a lot of talent and the team shouldn’t settle.

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8 responses

  1. I’m with you on everything but the Nick Castellanos thing. Like you said, he was probably just covering for his player. I think making any judgments on how Ausmus values Nick as a player based on this statement is taking it too far. If Ausmus actually believed Nick was good defensively then he would have stopped putting in defensive subs for him at the end of the game.

  2. Good article by the way!

  3. Great article! Let’s assume that (1) Ausmus does not show any improvement by the All Star break, and (2) the Tigers fire him. Whom could the Tigers hire who is really better? Who is on the short list of replacements who are (a) really better, and (b) realistically/actually available?

  4. I hope your article gets read by the Tigers front office, as well as elsewhere. One minor thing I might add to your very reasonable article is that it seemed to me that in the media Ausmus never took the blame or apologized for anything, most notably for all of the TOOTBLANs –and if everyone in the Tigers staff had a green light, then he should have apologized for that. (It’s no excuse if other coaches were calling the running game.) A manager needs to admit mistakes (Madden is a pro at this).

    I do hope Ausmus succeeds this year!

  5. The absolute refusal to use Al Alburquerque in any high leverage situation in the playoffs was at least as infuriating as many of the items listed above.

  6. I just read this twice. Great article. You summed up my thoughts on Ausmus exactly. You picked one of several very bad decisions that demonstrate he’s over his head. My lasting memory of the year was him foolishly trotting Joba out, yet again, to a standing ovation from the Baltimore crowd. Then after the move predictably destroys any chance the Tigers might have of getting back in the series, he says it’s easy to critique the call in hindsight. I about fell out of my chair. WE WERE ALL CALLING IT A SHIT MOVE BEFORE HE EVEN THREW ONE PITCH, AND LIKEWISE AT THAT SAME MOMENT THE BALTIMORE FANS WERE THRILLED. That’s a stubborn fool for you.

  7. Patrick OKennedy | Reply

    I totally agree on how Ausmus used, or didn’t use Soria, and would add that he stuck with Joba in the eighth inning far too long. I also totally agree on Sanchez, the best pitcher in that bullpen, who was left to rot.

    I have to point out, though, that the Tigers lost four games when Nathan entered in a save situation. By comparison with the number of games lost by the closer, that’s not bad. There was some good luck in there, as he blew seven save opps, but the total damage for the season was four games.

    I also agree on Carrera, and would add the over use of Rajai Davis vs right handed pitchers, and the failure to use a defensive replacement for Torii Hunter. I would also add hitting Don Kelly sixth, and using Kelly when Tyler Collins was available. I’m skeptical that Collins will get a fair shot to make the team this spring, after the lack of confidence that Ausmus showed in him last year.

    On the bunting front, the Tigers attempted 40 bunts for the season, the league average was 47. He’s better than Leyland in that regard.

    I also get the sense that Ausmus played his first year in very low risk mode, but going along with every piece of advice that his boss gave him. The latest edict is that Rondon will pitch the seventh inning. That can’t possibly be Brad’s decision, since he’s never seen him pitch. But, it seems, the decision has been made, and it wasn’t his decision. Funny enough, Joba should get first crack at that role, but he somehow isn’t the pitcher that he was at the end of the year when Ausmus won’t admit that he shouldn’t have continued to use him in the eighth.

  8. […] become abundantly clear that the Ivy League Mimbo Imbecile hadn’t learned anything from his disastrous rookie season on the […]

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