Baseball is a game of great ironies. One such irony occurred today when the Tigers announced they were parting ways with manager Brad Ausmus. Regular readers of this site and particularly my Twitter feed know that I’ve been one of Ausmus’ harshest critics. I don’t mourn Ausmus’ firing because Ausmus wasn’t a good manager, but I do find it ironic, and maybe even a little bit unfortunate that he’s taking the fall for this.
The Tigers are 62-91 this year, heading for a rebuild, and Ausmus’ contract is up. It’s hard to imagine any manager surviving those circumstances. The Tigers won the division in his first season despite his mistakes, but have had two losing seasons in the three years since. After a decade of prominence the organization is going to shift direction and Ausmus isn’t going to be part of that.
Someone had to take the fall, and given that the general manager has been on the job for only two years, it was always going to be the manager who went first. So Brad Ausmus took the fall, even though this wasn’t his doing.
Certainly, Ausmus has made mistakes this year and in each of his seasons, but the best manager in the league couldn’t have stopped this. Ausmus managed himself out games, but every manager goofs a few times per season and missing the playoffs in 2015, 2016, and 2017 was not Ausmus’ doing. You can’t manage your way out of scoring 4.6 runs per game and allowing 5.5.
Ausmus, however, made all sorts of mistakes during his tenure in Detroit. He left his starters in too long. He relied too much on bullpen roles and was a slave to the save statistic. He preached a reckless brand of base running. He didn’t use his bench and reserves well. He made weird lineup choices. And above all, he frequently seemed at a loss when something happened that he didn’t expect.
I won’t take the time to re-litigate all of his mistakes. I’ve chronicled them extensively and tweeted about them probably too much. Ausmus was a very bad manager from a tactical standpoint. He seemed to have the respect of his players and didn’t do anything that created a clubhouse mutiny. It’s impossible to know how well he performed behind closed doors, but the parts of his job we could observe didn’t cast him in a good light.
That’s okay. Not everyone is cut out for managing, and the ones who are don’t always get it right on their first try. Ausmus sounded like he would be open to modernity when he was hired, but those of us who had those hopes probably should have spent more time listening to his words rather than trying to read between the lines. Ausmus told us he wasn’t a sabermetrician. I thought that was a ploy, but it was the simple truth. He managed like an old school guy, which is exactly what he is.
At some point, bad managing turns into bad general managing. Ausmus showed himself to be a flawed manager and the Tigers, through two different regimes, chose not to replace him until now. When Avila took over, he had the perfect chance to replace Ausmus, but stuck with him for reasons I still don’t fully understand. My theory is that Avila didn’t want the organization to experience too much change at once, but we probably won’t ever know.
But over the last couple months, as things have gone south in South Detroit, the crowd has directed a lot of ire at Ausmus, which I don’t think he entirely deserves. Yes, Ausmus was a bad manager, but he wasn’t responsible for the thing that’s got everyone upset. Ausmus should have been fired after 2014 and 2015 and 2016, but firing him now is just an admission that everything is changing. It’s too late to save the 2017 season, and replacing him won’t undo what is already done. I’m pleased that the Tigers are going to (hopefully) go get a better manager, but I am a little disappointed that Ausmus is going down for something he didn’t really cause.
This is how the business works, I understand. When a team plays like crap for this long, the manager gets fired. And Ausmus deserved to be fired, just for something else. It’s ironic is what it is.
I had higher hopes for 2017, but this isn’t something that should have caught us off guard. The Tigers were a decent team that played poorly. And decent teams that play poorly rarely get a chance to redeem themselves. And managers for decent teams with big payrolls that play poorly get fired.
It would be better if you got fired for being a bad manager than for managing a bad team, but that’s not the way the world works. As I’ve said many times, the city’s motto lights the way. We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes. I mean, hopefully.
Twelve years ago I watched Jason Johnson get shelled in Cleveland on the Fourth of July. Scott Elarton threw a complete game. Our tickets were good for the second game of the doubleheader, but had only planned to go to one game and my father was eager to get back on the road. He did not grasp the importance of staying. It’s hard to blame him, as this was before everything, but it will always hang over me. We had tickets to Justin Verlander’s MLB debut but instead listened to the game on I-80. I was 15.
In the intervening years, the Tigers have been to the playoffs five times, the World Series twice, sported eight winning records, three MVPs, and two Cy Youngs. I graduated high school, met my wife, graduated college and graduate school. I’ve lived in three states and written for more than a half dozen publications. I’ve voted in three presidential elections and said goodbye to childhood pets. In the dozen years since I didn’t get to watch Verlander’s debut in person most everything has changed. Nearly every important moment in my life has happened between his debut and his final outing in the Old English D.
It’s probably worth recounting Verlander’s career in Detroit in a detached and analytic fashion. He’s been a near-Hall of Famer and has as many signature moments as any other pitcher of his era. But I’m not quite there yet. Where he fits in Tigers history is a question for later.
What’s important now is where he fits in our history. The history of what I now think we can safely call the Verlander Era. Ilitch bought the team in ’92 so that’s no good. Dombrowski was there from 2002-2015. Leyland from 2006-2013. Cabrera from 2008 to forever. Magglio and Pudge were gone much too early.
But Verlander covers the era perfectly, from the first season of the renaissance to the deadline when they decided it was really all over. The Tigers were Verlander and Verlander was the Tigers.
Tonight, the Tigers brought the Verlander era to a close by trading him to Houston, reportedly one minute before midnight after the deal had nearly fallen through.
For Verlander, the Tigers got Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers. Perez is a good pitching prospect, but he’s a couple years away. I’ve seen scouting folks put him in the #3 category with a rival source saying he sees him as a #2 or #3. Cameron has had growing pains but could be the center fielder of the future. His bat is far from a sure thing, but there’s room to dream there. Rogers is reportedly an excellent defensive catcher, but is he going to hit like a backup or a starter? These are questions we can answer going foreword because we have all the time in the world. The club is heading for a rebuild and the prospects will have time to sort themselves out.
The main question to ask analytically is whether trading Verlander tonight made sense relative to trading him this winter. It’s a tough call because the Astros were anxious to add a starter for October, potentially leading them to drive up the price. But on the other hand more teams would be in on Verlander this winter, potentially driving it up more. There’s no way to know, and with the Tigers only chipping in about $16 million, it seems unlikely they were going to get a much better return than they got tonight. Verlander is still a good pitcher but with such a large contract you weren’t going to get the world. The Tigers seemed to do well give the circumstances.
I think it hasn’t really sunk in and it won’t until I see Verlander suit up for another team and take the mound in the postseason. It’s going to be jarring. It was a joy to watch Verlander pitch for my favorite team all these years and I am glad he’s going to get a chance to win the ring he didn’t win here in Detroit. I hope I’m not asked to choose between cheering for him or Scherzer in the World Series.
I’ll probably have more to say but for now I’ll crib from my piece earlier this year about the decision to rebuild:
One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”
Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.