The 2015 Tigers just lost three of four to the Twins to end the first half, including a devastating 9th inning collapse on Friday that could only be described as “not technically the worst inning ever.” They are 44-44 after 88 baseball games and need to play like a 96 win team for the next 74 games in order to get to 88 wins (the number generally needed to reach the postseason). It is a tall order, but not an impossible one by any means.
We’ve talked about the looming buy/sell decision, but I think it might be useful to reflect on the baseball we’ve seen so far. What do we know about this collection of players and coaches that we didn’t know in March?
They Can’t Pitch
Not literally of course. They’ve thrown more than 12,000 pitches this year, in fact. But going into the season we had some expectation that this would be a competent staff. David Price is and continues to be an ace. Anibal Sanchez is clearly still capable of pitching at that level, but his inconsistency has been an impediment. Verlander missed a bunch of time, and wasn’t good until his most recent start. We had high hopes for Greene, which appear to be misplaced. Simon has lived up to his reputation of not being very good.
But maybe most importantly, Lobstein, Ryan, Farmer, and company didn’t deliver any depth. Not only did the main rotation show their flaws, but the flaws we suspected in the cavalry showed through. The days of the rotation leading the team are over. In 2013, they had one of the best rotations of all time. 2014 was worse, but still strong. Halfway into 2015, we know it’s over.
And then bullpen, LOL. We knew they were going to be bad, but they are extra bad and seem to be getting worse.
The Bats Are There
You can count me among the people who didn’t quite expect the offense to handle things quite so well. I expected good things from JD, but not like this. I expected a solid Cabrera, but he is at his best. Cespedes has stepped up. We knew the offense was going to be good, but it’s been very good. The run scoring (4.5 R/G) is a little below the overall production (112 wRC+) because of the double plays, but those will probably decline in the second half (They are scoring runs like a roughly 106 wRC+ team, FYI).
The Defense is a Real Thing
They got Iglesias back, added Cespedes, and Gose. They cut out Torii. Castellanos couldn’t be worse, right? After being a horrible defensive team last year, they’re about +5 runs above average going into the break (might change with final week update). That’s not an elite club, but they’re above average. Last year, they were -35 to -70 depending on who you believe (over a full year).
Iglesias is obviously tremendous. Cespedes is the Tigers best corner outfielder I’ve seen in forever. Gose gets to plenty of baseballs, although his arm does tend to mis-calibrate the direction of his throws. Castellanos isn’t going to be a good defender, but he’s no longer a statute. JD Martinez’s arm has done great work. McCann has destroyed base runners.
The defense works.
It Wasn’t Just Inexperience For Ausmus
There are two important facets of this comment. 1) Ausmus isn’t the reason the Tigers aren’t a great team. 2) Ausmus is a horrible tactical manager.
There’s a decent chance he had a tangible effect on breaking Castellanos out of his slump based on what I’ve heard and read about what he said to him before giving him a few days off recently. That might wind up having a nice impact on the team. Stuff like that matters, but we can’t really judge managers on that kind of thing because we have no information about it on the outside. Maybe Ausmus is excellent at instruction and when it comes to players’ mental well-being. But there’s no way to know. Anyone who doesn’t work for the team who pretends to know if he’s good or not is just lying to you and to themselves.
But on the other hand, he’s bad at the on-field part of the job. Some of his highlights include very bad bullpen management (although, there’s only so much you can do with brussel sprouts), calling for and supporting reckless base running, bad bunting, super weird pinch hitting decisions, and of course, his 100% rejection of ever hitting Cabrera second. Also, the dude cannot seem to get pinch running for sluggers right.
Those are just some general manifestations, but there are two fundamental problems with Ausmus as a manager that leads to these decisions. First, Ausmus thinks his thought process is better than it is. He has an answer for every question. He sits on the bench and thinks through his decisions and simply arrives at the wrong answers. That’s not a flaw in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with working on a problem and getting it wrong. The problem is that Ausmus routinely comes down on the wrong side and when he’s questioned about it, explains why he thought it was a good idea with no recognition that he might have gotten the wrong answer.
Let me use myself as an example. I thought Shane Greene was going to be pretty good this year. Clearly he is not. It’s possible that I got unlucky, but it’s probably more likely that I fell victim to a positivity bias and relied less on his minor league numbers that I would normally. For that reason, I got it wrong. I understand where my process failed and I learned from it. Ausmus has never shown a willingness to accept a mistake as his mistake. I don’t care about “accountability” in this case, but from an intellectual perspective, he never seems to believe his failures are bad process. That’s dangerous.
The other problem is that Ausmus manages the team he wishes he had rather than the one he does. He hit Gose leadoff a bunch because he wanted Gose to be a classic leadoff guy, even though Gose is not a good enough hitter for the role. He used Joba as a setup man because he wanted guys to have roles and at one time, Joba had excelled in that role. These little things add up. Ausmus is constantly betting the over on everything. It’s one thing to support your players and have their backs in public, but you can’t manage a team without understanding what your players can’t do well.
Overall, I thought the Tigers were an 86 win team. I think they still probably are about that good. Maybe a little worse, but generally they’re about that good. I expected a little less from the bats and a little more from the pitchers, but this is overall about the quality we’d see.
I think the way the organization responds to the next three weeks is going to define the next five years in Detroit. There is a real opportunity to sell some pieces and counter balance the aging contracts, but if they convince themselves they have to go for it hard, they’re going to have to continue to play the one-year-at-a-time game. It’s dangerous, but it can work. The club has a chance to stabilize their foundation, or they could simply decide to push all the chips in again and again until it all falls down.
I don’t think one is right and one is wrong. It’s clear which I would do, but the other strategy could be a path to a title and that’s the goal. Re-signing Price and Cespedes, and adding Cueto or something would make them a good team for 2016. It would probably increase the odds of a 2018 disaster, but who cares, right?
I understand why people are frustrated with the half of baseball we just watched, but I do think things will be better in the second half. There are good players on this team and the luck usually evens out. There’s still plenty of baseball left and there isn’t a lot of bottom left to fall out.