Detroit — It’s my understanding that there will be some math.
Everyone was busy Sunday adding up the strengths and weaknesses of Brad Ausmus as the Tigers’ new manager — the brightest and best of an expansive field of candidates, according to team president Dave Dombrowski.
But we’ll have to wait and see just what the numbers say next spring. Or better yet, what Ausmus has to say about the numbers. Odds are, though, it’ll be addition by subtraction in that regard.
On the sabermetric scale, which seems to be baseball’s most volatile fault line these days, his predecessor, Jim Leyland, was an unabashed dinosaur, which certainly charmed some fans while horrifying others.
The new guy — a 44-year-old Ivy Leaguer who developed a reputation as one of the game’s smartest players over an 18-year major league career — wasn’t eager to categorize himself Sunday at his introductory press conference.
But even as he defused one question about advanced statistics and his view of their value, and later a couple more away from the dais, he answered the way some of us hoped he would: Yes, the numbers do matter.
In today’s game, you’d be a fool not to admit that. And understand why. If that’s a new-school approach in an old-school game, so be it.
“I don’t think it has to be one school or the other,” Ausmus said, which, to me, sounded like the smart way to side with the former while not offending the latter.
You don’t have to be a slave to the numbers. But you do have to respect them and consider them. And the best managers in today’s game — Joe Maddon’s only the most colorful among them, really — find a way to use them to their advantage.
The best organizations do, too, by the way. The San Francisco Giants were one of the first MLB teams to use new baseball tracking technology like Fieldf/x, while the St. Louis Cardinals have built one of baseball’s best analytics departments over the last several years. The Boston Red Sox hired Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, more than a decade ago and they finally won another World Series — twice. (And after losing their way a bit, they got back in good graces with the James gang, just in time to win another.) Dombrowski and his front-office staff certainly aren’t afraid of numbers, but it takes the guy in the manager’s office to fully utilize them to complement good scouting and personnel decisions.
“I think there’s some value to some of that,” Ausmus agreed. “I can tell you that players do not like to be inundated with numbers. They don’t want to know what percentage of fastballs a pitcher throws in a 2-1 count. It’s just not usable information.
“But I think if you can take some of that statistical information and grind it down into a usable piece of information that you can hand off to a player, yeah, that can be important.”
And I suppose it’s important to note, too, that Ausmus talked about his love for the “cerebral” side of the game more than once Sunday. He talked about it in his lengthy interview with Dombrowski last week as well.
“I told Brad, ‘I guarantee you the first day you put your lineup up, somebody’s gonna ask you why you’re playing that lineup, and you’ve got to be ready to answer those questions,’ ” Dombrowski said. “That’s just the way the game is now.”
Leyland certainly understood that. It’s just that his answers often left something to be desired. Ausmus surely will have his saber-rattling moments, too. But listening to him Sunday, I don’t expect there’ll be quite as many.
“We talked strategy,” Dombrowski said, when asked, for example, about that four-letter word that starts with “b” and rhymes with grunt.
Experience on the field
Ausmus, for what it’s worth, doesn’t sound as if he’s going to be the type of manager who’s eager to give away free outs.
“Like he said, ‘There’s times you need to bunt, but I’m just not a guy that’s gonna believe in bunting all the time,’ ” Dombrowski said. “He said, ‘If it makes sense for me to do something, I’ll do it.’ ”
And if it doesn’t, well, my sense is the answer will be rooted in something more tangible than a gut feeling or a small sample size.
There’s a lot to like about Ausmus, obviously. He doesn’t just look — or sound — the part. He acts it, even if he hasn’t done it as a big league manager in the dugout. I’ll settle for an open mind and nearly 20 years as a major league catcher, with an experienced coaching staff for support.
Ausmus, as expected, said he’d keep Gene Lamont on as his bench coach. The two have a history — “Gene’s been praising him to me for years,” Dombrowski said — and they respect each other’s abilities enough that Lamont told the Red Sox last year when he was a finalist for their managerial vacancy that he planned to ask Ausmus to be his bench coach in Boston.
I’ll also take a guy with fresh experience in the front office, which Ausmus has gotten in San Diego the last few years, and a guy who’s willing to learn. Dombrowski was genuinely impressed that Ausmus on his own decided to learn to speak Spanish — he’s not fluent yet, but he’s getting there — to better communicate with Hispanic players.
And while sabermetrics remain a foreign language to some, Ausmus doesn’t sound like one of them.
“As I told him,” Dombrowski said, “‘we can supply you with any information you want — statistics, film, anything. You tell us, once you settle in, what you want.’ So however he wants to use it, he will. But he’s a very intelligent guy. He’s smart. So he’ll use what he needs to.”
And, hopefully, ask for more.