By: Will Burchfield
The moment the Tigers’ season came to an end yesterday, the very second they were eliminated from playoff contention, Brad Ausmus came under fire.
As if he was responsible for the players’ failure.
The 2016 Tigers missed the playoffs for a number of reasons. A rash of injuries. A spate of underperformances. A fickle offense. A faulty bullpen. The list goes on – the Cleveland Indians, anyone?? – but it should not and does not include Ausmus.
To call for the skipper to be fired is to ignore everything else that went wrong with this team.
Regarding the injuries: at various points this season, and for long chunks of time, the Tigers were without their center fielder, their right fielder, their shortstop, their third baseman and their second-best starting pitcher. Ausmus had a fully healthy starting lineup at his disposal just 11 games out of 161. Yes, every team in baseball dealt with injuries, but few were hit as hard as that.
Ausmus, to his credit, never used it as an excuse. In fact, his most common response to questions about the team’s injury woes went something like this: “I’m not whining about it.” And that resilient tone trickled down to his players and took root in the clubhouse. Good on him.
Regarding the underperformances: Detroit’s two biggest offseason acquisitions were nowhere to be found for months at a time. And one only showed up when the other went missing. Jordan Zimmermann (5 years, $110 million) was terrific through April and May, when Justin Upton was downright awful. And when Upton (6 years, $132.75 million) turned it around in August and September, Zimmermann – if he was healthy – couldn’t keep the ball in the yard.
Ausmus was blamed for keeping Upton in the lineup early in the season when the left fielder was swinging a fly-swatter at the plate. But he was right to let Upton find his bearings in a new environment, and the skipper chose an apt time to bench him when Upton’s struggles resurfaced later in the year. After being sat down for three games in mid-August, Upton closed out the season on one of the best offensive runs of his career.
Ausmus was also questioned for turning to Zimmermann down the stretch. The righty was bombed in his first two outings after returning from the disabled list, hardly appearing at full strength, and he failed to deliver in take-three in Detroit’s final series of the year. But what other choice did Ausmus have? At least Zimmermann had a track record to suggest he was up for the task.
Regarding the streaky offense: Tigers hitters were either scalding hot this season or woefully cold. Forget about the in-between. Consider this: despite finishing in the top ten in runs per game, Detroit scored 1 run or less on 30 – yes, 30 – occasions. Not surprisingly, the team struggled to establish momentum all season long, undoing every surge with a predictable skid.
Ausmus fiddled with the batting order and gave guys rest. He allowed players extra time in the cage, and he told them to stay away from it. The same goes for the video room. The skipper tried just about every trick in the book to jolt the offense out of its many slumbers, with varying degrees of success. In all likelihood, Ausmus had little effect on things either way. But let’s all acknowledge one thing together: he wasn’t the one swinging the bats.
Regarding the faulty bullpen: Tigers relievers finished 13th in the A.L. in both ERA and batting average against. The ‘pen was full of unknowns, from Shane Greene to Bruce Rondon. Heck, even Francisco Rodriguez, their mostly reliable closer, had his share of meltdowns. It is telling that the Tigers’ most consistent reliever this season was Mark Lowe, only because he was dreadful from start to finish.
In no area did Ausmus receive more criticism this year than his bullpen management. But look what he was working with. Most MLB managers, at the very least, have a closer and an established set-up man at their disposal. Ausmus never had the latter because no one was good enough to claim that role. So take issue with his bullpen strategy if you must, but remember that he was often choosing between kerosene and dynamite in flammable situations.
For everything working against the Tigers this season, they finished 11 games over .500 and remained in playoff contention to the bitter end. Their ability to overcome adversity was impressive. Most of it was probably due to luck – Detroit finished 26-17 in one-run games – while a smaller portion of it may have been a product of the team’s resolve. Who really knows.
But guess what? The Tigers’ tangible results – positive or negative – were hardly a result of Ausmus’ in-game tactics. To credit or blame a manager for the outcome of a season is to overstate his impact. From innings one through nine, he is mostly an observer, putting out his best lineup and hoping that it comes through. The Tigers’ best lineup this season, which was constantly in flux, didn’t win enough games. And that’s not Ausmus’ fault.
Ausmus shouldn’t be fired because the Tigers missed the playoffs. Nor should he be retained because they came close. If it’s foolish to suggest he killed their chances, so is it naïve to think he “kept the team in it.” He doesn’t have that kind of influence on a game-by-game basis. No manager does.
Nevertheless, it makes sense to keep Ausmus around. He’s been here three seasons and the Tigers have performed well enough under his watch – 250 wins, 234 losses – to suggest he is as capable a manager as most of his peers. That is: his effect is minimal. More importantly, he knows these players better than anyone and has a keen feel for how they interact. And if there is one area in which a manager can make a significant difference it is in the way he meshes personalities and brings a team together.
“I think the best managers, quite frankly, know how to navigate a clubhouse. They understand what the players’ mindsets are,” Ausmus said before the season began.
In that vein, he was up to the task. The Tigers were a unified team throughout their up-and-down season, maintaining a positive outlook no matter the circumstances. The players supported each other. They stood behind their manager. There were no reports of clubhouse discontent. That counts for something, especially in an age where gargantuan salaries and outsized egos frequently lead to locker-room unrest. The Tigers are long on high-paid stars, but personal desires never seemed to get in the way of larger team goals. Ausmus deserves some credit for that.
“From my point of view, if he’s our manager then that’s who our manager is,” Ian Kinsler said over the weekend. “There’s no sense in second-guessing it or thinking if someone else could be better. The grass isn’t always greener. We’ve got the guy that’s been here for three years. Obviously, he was new to the job three years ago and somebody that knows the team and the players and it’s not my position to second-guess that. If he’s our manager, then that’s who’s going to lead this team.”
It’s reasonable to assign blame in the wake of a disappointment. And the Tigers 2016 season qualifies as such, as they failed to meet their goal of making the playoffs. But that’s not Ausmus’ fault, just as it wouldn’t have been his doing had the team’s fate been reversed. That’s the nature of his job.
What does fall on Ausmus’ shoulders is molding a team out of a 25-man roster. He did that this season, which is why he deserves to be here next season as well.