Al Avila Fails His First Test

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I want to share a secret about writing. Sometimes, I prepare things in advance and wait for the news to break. For example, I wrote last year’s post about the division clincher two days ahead of time and then added in the specific details the day it happened. So…here’s a paragraph I drafted literally yesterday, prepared for two weeks from Monday:

Today, the Tigers fired manager Brad Ausmus two years into the three year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season. This firing was expected. Ausmus’ poor performance as a manager made his situation tenuous as the team faltered in June and July, but when Dave Dombrowski was fired and Al Avila took over in August, it was clear that Ausmus’ days were numbered. That was readily apparent when Avila decline to give Ausmus a vote of confidence, saying simply that he would remain the manager through the end of the year. Not a ringing endorsement when your contract extends through 2016.

I don’t think I need to tell you how surprised I was by today’s news that Brad Ausmus and his entire staff will be back for 2016. I am shocked. I’m floored. I can’t believe it. If you had to pick characteristics of manager firings, new GM/underperforming team/being unpopular with the media is the trifecta. Ausmus has been a dead man walking for two months. And the governor called at the eleventh hour. What in the world?

Regular readers or “people within earshot of me during Tigers games” know that I’ve been clamoring for the end of the Ausmus Era since late in the 2014 season.  While his initial performance with the media after being hired, in conjunction with the hiring of Matt Martin and retention of Jeff Jones gave me a lot of hope for the direction Ausmus would take as manager, that eroded over the course of 2014.

Last April, he looked good because the team was rolling and he wasn’t calling bunts or doing anything particularly meddlesome. The clubhouse was relaxed and things were fine. I didn’t argue that he had shown himself to be a good manager, but he had not done anything to worry me and that’s all you can ask in month number one.

But when the Tigers ran into problems scoring runs last year at times, he started mashing all of the buttons on his keyboard like a child who doesn’t know how to ask for help. I won’t take the time to run down examples of each grievance, and I’ll get to the broad complaints momentarily, but the moment he really lost me was a late summer night in Cleveland when he used Ezequiel Carrera as a pinch hitter over Moya and Collins because “If Carrera gets on he can steal a base.” I don’t need to tell you why that’s stupid, but I will anyway. Carrera is a very bad hitter. The odds of him reaching base are lower than anyone on the team. Setting aside the fact that a stolen base was not totally necessary at the time, the logical approach would be to use a good (better) hitter to get on base and then utilize Carrera as a pinch runner.

It’s possible that Ausmus didn’t actually believe what he was saying, but given that it was entirely nonsense, it’s hard to imagine how saying that would be a good public relations move after a mind boggling failure. And Ausmus never won me back.

He is deeply flawed as a manager for many reasons, which I’ll summarize here.

He had no idea how to manage a bullpen. This manifested itself in two ways. First, he has no understanding of leverage and when it is appropriate to use his best relievers. He wanted to get pitchers into roles, rather than using pitchers when they are needed most. Now of course, many managers fail to do this to my liking, but Ausmus is particularly flawed and it showed up big time considering that he had a lot of bad relievers to work around. If you’re given bad ingredients, you have to be very talented to make them work. Ausmus is not.

Second, he didn’t really have a good understanding of which relievers were good at which things. He never wanted to use Soria (even before Soria struggled) and he insisted on Joba and Nathan even when both were pitching very poorly.

He preached/allowed horrible base running. When Ausmus first got to Detroit, there was a sense he was going to make the club more aggressive on the bases. Some of that was roster-based, but a lot of it was his tendency to push the envelope. That’s acceptable to a point, but the Tigers were really bad at it. Horrible, even. They made bone-headed play after bone-headed play, costing themselves countless outs (you could count them, actually, I was just too lazy to actually do it when writing that sentence and now I’ve taken longer to write this explanation that it would have taken me to look it up).

Now, Ausmus can’t use mind control and prevent his players from making bad decisions all the time. But at a certain point, it was his job to tell them to knock it off. Fewer steal signs? More red lights? Coaching about when to run? All of the above were needed, even if we don’t know how much was active mistakes by Ausmus or mere negligence.

He didn’t know his players. There’s really no greater flaw than putting your players in position to fail. Ausmus did this all the time. The Carrera example stands out, but he ran multiple relievers out to face bad matchups. He used Gose at leadoff constantly. He asked Alex Avila to bunt!

More concretely, he often made comments that reflected this ignorance. I understand his motivation to protect certain guys, but his descriptions of Nick Castellanos’ defensive struggles in 2014 were incorrect. He somehow thought Carrera was a good defender. He frequently spoke of a pitcher having “good stuff” on a day in which he didn’t. He brought up batter-pitcher matchup stats that were based on useless data.

I don’t require a manager to be painfully honest, but I prefer the lies, if they are lies, to show some recognition that the manager actually knows the truth.

He refused to learn and he never planned ahead properly. My biggest complaint about Ausmus over the last two years is that he doesn’t change his mind when his decisions predictably fail. He would make stupid moves, get criticized for them, and then he would defend himself by walking the media through his thought process. That’s all well and good, but he wound up giving the same explanations about the same mistakes over and over. He didn’t appear to ever stop and think that his views on the strategies could be flawed.

I get that it’s human nature to avoid acknowledging when you were wrong about something. I don’t need Ausmus to apologize for being stupid three months ago, but I would like some indication that he has internally reflected and changed his internal decision making. That never happened. He dug in his heels and kept doing it his way. Contrast that with Ned Yost’s evolution over the last year, or Clint Hurdle’s over the last five.

Which leads me to the meta-criticism of Ausmus that really should have become his downfall. He is horrible at planning ahead and it caused him to fail spectacularly. The basic flaw in everything Ausmus does is that he manages the game based on how he expects the game to play out, not based on how the events actually unfold. He gets to the 7th inning and gets Alburquerque, for example, warming in the pen because the other team had three righties due up.

The problem, however, is that if Alburquerque doesn’t get the first two guys out, it would be clear that two lefties would be up in the inning. By the time Ausmus realized it, there wouldn’t be time to get Hardy or someone loose to face them. He doesn’t plan for his first move to go wrong and so he has no backup plan.

This happens with pinch hitters too, as he holds a guy back from a good spot because it was too early in the game and he didn’t want to be without a pinch hitter for a spot he envisioned later.

The flaw here is that he traded away the present for the future. That can often make sense, but he fails to factor in the fact that the event in front of you is definitely happening and the event in the future is probabilistic. He is horrible at understanding the odds in front of him. He often thinks a player is better than they are because of some meaningless data point and he then applies that data point to a situation erroneously.

And this is particularly scary because Ausmus is a well spoken and intellectual person. And by that I mean that he has the tools of intelligence (pun accidental). He does think things through and he does explain them in clear terms. The problem is that the things he believes are incorrect. He’s a smart person with bad ideas. That’s dangerous because it prevents him from seeing the error of his ways.

And this all resulted in terrible managing. I don’t think the Tigers would have gone farther in 2014 with an average manager, and I don’t think they would have made the playoffs this year with one, but that isn’t a defense of Ausmus as the manager. He is, unequivocally, terrible at managing a major league baseball team.

People who wish to defend Ausmus will point to the flawed teams he received as explanation for his failure, and will then suggest he will succeed when given a better team in the future. Do not believe it. My opinion of Ausmus has nothing to do with the win/loss columns and everything to do with watching him manage every day for two years. Maybe he will learn to get better, but at the present moment is he very bad and the Tigers should have fired him.

It is an incorrect defense to suggest that the team would have failed no matter who was in charge. That isn’t the point at all. Ausmus should be judged based on his actions, independent of the roster he received. I don’t fault him, for example, for the poor starting pitching he had this year. He doesn’t make the roster. He used the guys he had. A  great manager probably wouldn’t have gotten much from them. But the fact that someone else wouldn’t have won 90 games does not mean that Ausmus’ performance was somehow not flawed. It was.

I won’t put too fine a point on things, but would feel confident saying he is one of the worst 5 in-game managers in the league in 2015. You could argue for 6th or whatever, but he is very bad. And he hasn’t show signs of growth or any other qualities you desire in a manager, like Leyland did with his ability to make players feel comfortable.

The idea of Ausmus was probably a wrong one, but I don’t begrudge the Tigers for trying it in the first place. People thought of him as smart and progressive, and he was known for his leadership as a player. Obviously, those things were proven wrong or failed to translate to this context. It’s hard to judge someone’s managerial skills without ever seeing them manage. But I was fooled at the time. I will fully admit that. Ausmus seemed like a positive departure from the old guard, but turned out to be its greatest advocate.

Ausmus has been a terrible manager in his two years in Detroit. Does that mean he will never have success? Of course not. But does it mean that the Tigers should have gone in another direction? Absolutely. Al Avila had his first big chance to chart his own course, and he botched it big time.

Granted, a bad manager can’t ruin a good team. If you have a 95 win team, it’s hard to manage them into the ground. But most clubs find themselves near the bubble and every single win is extremely valuable. Having a bad manager just because you value continuity or don’t want to remove him is nonsense. If an outfielder is making $1 million and isn’t performing well, you don’t just keep playing him because he’s on the roster. The same should be true for the manager.

This Avila quote is one that’s very troubling. If Avila has spent time evaluating the team and thinks he can’t find a better manager than Ausmus, I am very concerned about his judgement. Now, if Avila disagrees with my view of Ausmus as one of the five worst managers in the game, it’s entirely possible that he knows things about the team and Ausmus that I don’t. But the idea that Avila could think Ausmus is the best guy he can find to run this clubhouse is scary.

Does it mean Avila isn’t a good evaluator of his employees and has a hard time seeing Ausmus’ flaws? Does it mean he doesn’t understand the game? Does it mean Ausmus is really good at advocating for his job behind closed doors?

This line is also scary, because the Tigers absolutely fell apart when the shit hit the fan this year. Don’t get me wrong, the lack of talent was the problem, but they phoned in plenty of baseball and Ausmus was extremely testy when the media pushed him prior to the out and out collapse.

I don’t get the desire to bring Ausmus back, and I really don’t understand Avila’s argument for keeping him. Now perhaps Avila has other motivations and he’s just taking nonsense as a cover. That’s possible, so I will give Avila the benefit of the doubt and will not write him off immediately. You are the sum of your actions, not any single one.

But I’m worried. I was worried when Ilitch acted out of character in August and I’m worried now that the Tigers are talking like the only problem was Dombrowski. I absolutely do not blame Ausmus for missing the playoffs, but I do absolutely think he has cost the Tigers plenty of games this year. The Tigers are going to lose the division by 20 and they’ll miss the Wild Card by about 10. I don’t think Ausmus cost the team 20 games this year, but if he cost them six games (and I think that’s a reasonable estimate), that’s a huge negative.

If you brought in an average manager who could get those six wins back, that’s the equivalent of adding a superstar player  to your roster. And you could do this for single-digit millions of dollars instead of hundreds of millions.

I don’t want to give the impression that the manager is the only problem or that most of our focus should be on the manager, but Brad Ausmus has been a bad manager for two years and Avila had a great chance to improve the team by replacing him. He decided not to, leaving me to wonder about the competency of the new GM. I don’t know what’s happening on the inside and won’t pretend to, but based on what we can observe, I’m very much starting to worry about the direction of the franchise.

There is a long way to go before grading Avila, but he had his first test and failed. Could he wind up proving me wrong? Of course. But as someone who desperately wants the Tigers to win a championship, I’m not hopeful about the future.

Can you overcome Ausmus? Yes. Should Avila be asking the 2016 Tigers to overcome Ausmus after what we’ve seen for the last two years? No way.

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4 responses

  1. I agree with your comments entirely, and I couldn’t believe it when I heard Mario and Rod mention his rehire during a broadcast on MLB Extra Innings. My wife immediately said, not knowing any of the details of the story, ‘there must not be anyone better available’, and then ‘they must be blaming everything on Dombrowski’. One can infer much that that seems to be the official story, and she picked up on it on her own. What a story.

    There are a couple of things I might add to your lock-solid case.

    1) Avila’s ‘Conspiracy Theory’: This would involve a huge amount of foresight on Avila’s part. The rehire is a sign that Avila is punting on 2016 already. This would be the rough thinking: ‘Ausmus has his contract through that year. We’re not going to win anyway, because we have too much retooling to do. So let’s keep him, especially since a new hire would be disruptive, then not resign him, then introduce a whole new revamped competitive team in 2017′. It could be that Avila and co. love Wally Joiner or Omar Vizquel, and are planning to offer them Ausmus’ job once his contract his done, thereby allowing them another year of ‘training’ before taking the helm. This is the only conclusion I can come up with that puts Avila in a good light re: the rehire.

    2) Additional complaints: Ausmus not only can’t handle a bullpen, he can’t handle pitching period. He seems to be like one of these football coaches who was a genius defensive coordinator, then once head coach, his defenses stunk. It’s almost like he needs to have someone else make the calls, pitches, when to pull, who to put in, etc. He might be a mentor to the position players, but the way he abandons pitchers on the mound is troubling (a recent game with Lobstein comes to mind). He never comes out to calm them down, etc.–Leyland was great at that. I think the team needs a leader in the infield–Kinsler is the only one I can think of, who pauses the game when the pitcher is getting out of control, goes up to the mound and calms him down. Relatedly, Ausmus isn’t a leader, he’s not leading at all. It seems to be ‘they’re big leaguers, they know how to play the game, so let them play’ and he sits back and watches. There was a football coach here in Nebraska like that, and our teams stunk because of it–these players need guidance, like little boys in men’s bodies.

    Finally, for anyone who’s curious as to what a real manager would do or say, just listen to a Joe Madden interview on MLB Radio sometime. Whenever I hear him, I almost want to cry. ‘Why can’t we have a guy like this?’

    Sorry for taking up so much space. I had to vent. Thank you!

  2. […] injuries and everything to do with stupid moves, and his refusal to change his way of thinking: https://newenglishd.com/2015/09/26/al…is-first-test/ Reply With […]

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