Henning: Ausmus is only as good as players he manages
Lots of debating the past 24 hours. And not only on a stage and at a table with Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.
Brad Ausmus and the ever-spicy subject of Tigers manager has stirred up fans who, in plenty of cases, have loudly cried for a change in skippers if they are to maintain interest in, or purchase of, Tigers tickets for 2016.
I get it.
And I don’t get it.
On one hand, yes, a team’s manager is its flagship personality. And if that person is low-key, not prone to fiery quotations or responses, it can leave customers believing there’s an energy deficit with a team even if it’s minor details such as pitching and defense and hitting that have everything to do with a baseball team’s status and win-loss record.
That’s the part I don’t get. When a team’s pitching was no better in 2016 than 20th among 30 big-league teams (up from 28 in 2015), there isn’t much another manager can do, except in the minds of critics who fantasize that a new skipper will somehow make moves that through sheer alchemy turn a mediocre or worse cast into something by which you can be a serious playoff team.
Change for change sake
That’s where this Ausmus debate turns purely nuts.
Ah, but the get-rid-of-Ausmus-gang argues: The Tigers for sheer business purposes need to change managers when he has the favorability baggage of liver and onions and the Tigers need to boost business after slipping to just under 2.5 million in 2016.
But it’s not about a manager, except at the outset. And the outset doesn’t last long in Motown or in any big-league city where an embrace for the new skipper extends as far asthe roster makes life and victories a fairly regular feature.
That wasn’t in the cards for the Tigers in 2016. Nor is it in 2017. Not unless the team’s personnel changes significantly, particularly on the pitching side. The Ausmus vigilantes don’t want to hear this, but, no, a team’s success, as well as its popularity or unpopularity, isn’t based in any large measure around the manager.
It’s all about players.
Players. Players. Players.
What did fans and customers like about the 2016 Tigers? What excited them?
It was, in fact, new blood. On-the-field blood.
Michael Fulmer. Cameron Maybin. Matt Boyd to a smaller extent. Daniel Norris to a greater extent, at least late in the season, when Norris was finally healthy and threw some brilliant baseball. Nick Castellanos, who finally caught fire at age 24, was another guy they liked, really liked.
Justin Verlander they trusted and appreciated fully. Miguel Cabrera they found, per usual, to be fairly astounding. Ian Kinsler they prized.
But what excited them, what often made them want to catch a ballgame, was excitement that only players — fresh and skilled players — can deliver.
Another point. Say the Tigers sidestep all of the above realities, which they didn’t or Ausmus would be a goner rather than returning in 2017, and they change underwear because the same people who wanted Jim Leyland banished after two or three years are now pledging dis-allegiance to the Tigers unless there’s a new skipper brought aboard.
It invites a fairly necessary question: Who is the new manager? And why is he supposed to have answers neither Leyland (later in his tenure, after the customers had been beset with fatigue) nor Ausmus had?
Well, uh, we aren’t sure.
Ah, take that back. Yes … Bud Black!
Right. Beyond the fact people have a thing for his name they can’t really say why Black would be a guaranteed improvement, especially when Ausmus delves as fully into “analytics” as Black ever has or will. Neither could other big-league teams that interviewed Black last offseason, such as the Nationals, convince themselves Black would be any better than a much-maligned option like Dusty Baker.
The Nationals, by the way, are prepping for a division series and look like a decent bet to square off with the Cubs for a World Series ticket. Not sure Black would have improved matters. Or that Baker cost the Nationals a game. Which gets us back to such issues as pitching and hitting, etc., even if they aren’t terribly vogue with the fire-the-manager crowd.
The fact is, managers make mistakes (hi, Buck Showalter), and Ausmus has made his share, beginning with a rookie year when a bad playoffs run in which he got too wired to his then-sacred roles hurt him badly with some smart critics.
But that grievance since has been helium-inflated to a ridiculous point. Especially when that 2014 team was going nowhere anyway, and it most certainly wasn’t, all because the bullpen was lousy apart from Ausmus’ decision to somehow not use Al Alburquerque.
Other indictments exist, of course. And they are precisely the same litany of complaints you will hear from fans of any — any — manager when the team’s personnel isn’t World Series-caliber and teams play 162 games that offer second-guessers a smorgasbord of delights. Correction: Fans will still bark even when a World Series comes their way, as they did with Leyland.
People wonder nonetheless about the Tigers’ all-but-official decision to bring back Ausmus.
Isn’t this potential self-immolation for general manager Al Avila, who has decided, sanely and reasonably in this view, that Ausmus makes as much sense at least as bringing in a new guy?
It’s not about a manager. It simply isn’t. Yes, they have influence. Yes, they are necessary. No, they aren’t the difference between winning and losing, between making the playoffs as a legitimate October threat, or not.
It comes down to the degree of talent you have on the field. And that is now Avila’s job, to build a roster that was beginning to deteriorate as Dave Dombrowski was freed to take on a gold-mine job at Boston (young talent everywhere) and Avila was handed the keys to a car with a nice body (payroll talent) but a weakening engine (pitching) and with too many miles on the odometer (Victor Martinez and several others).
Avila won’t be measured by his managerial choices, because they’ll be as good as his, yes, roster.
And if anyone thinks this roster is going to be transformed in one or two years, following a heyday that two years ago was on the downslope, then fans need to focus on another sport, say pro football, where a team known as the Lions has shown the wisdom of changing coaches and ignoring roster realities, with nothing to gain the past 59 years.