Henning: Ausmus focuses on team, task, not noise

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — He sat in a black-leather swivel chair, behind a brown wooden desk, in a new office so fresh its white walls are still bare. Brad Ausmus wore a navy blue hooded sweatshirt bearing three words etched across the front: Train To Reign.

A man four seasons into his job as Tigers skipper was asked Thursday morning what he had learned through his first three summers steering Detroit’s baseball team.

“You learn to not listen to a lot of things being said and happening around you,” he answered, a half-hour before he, his coaches, and Tigers pitchers and catchers hit Tigertown’s practice fields on the third day of spring training. “You continue to care less and less about what people think and more and more about what’s happening with your players and your team.”

He remains a contentious figure in a town and within a game that guts, filets, and debones its baseball managers if they don’t win. And sometimes when they do, as Jim Leyland will testify.

Leyland was Ausmus’ predecessor, and one of the better-kept secrets about his decision to retire after the 2013 season was that Leyland had grown exhausted by fan and media carping.

The newest Tigers skipper was asked Thursday if things “being said” were mostly media talk. No, it was clatter in general, Ausmus explained, which implied that fan sniping, on social media, on talk radio, maybe at the ballpark, was part of the strafing baseball skippers tend to get, and in excess when it’s a town as baseball-enflamed as Detroit.

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This is not an issue that will go away. Ausmus is a ballclub’s face. It is status, or maybe vulnerability, that comes with the job. The Tigers have been a playoff team once in the past three seasons. They have not won a playoff game since 2013. There are critics galore who insist a ballclub’s record, its failures, be placed at the feet of a manager.

There is a Tigers front office that believes somewhat differently. The men there — general manager Al Avila, his partner David Chadd and Tigers scouts — have had their assorted issues with Ausmus, for sure. Every general manager has his criticisms, as Dave Dombrowski had regularly with Leyland.

But the decision to keep Ausmus on the job was based on realities specific to big-league baseball. There are 162 regular-season games. There are, minimally, 1,400-plus innings ahead, with three or four pitching changes per game, with substitutions galore. No manager will ever make moves every GM or every fan would make at a given time. Not one.

Factor in other realities, as the Tigers have, and Ausmus has stuck.

His players, who know a bit of baseball, respect him. They would not hold a smidgen of esteem for a skipper if he were screwing up ballgames.

Ausmus, contrary to some of his critics’ charges, is heavy on analytics, as the front office is, having tripled its staff since Avila took charge 18 months ago. Ausmus played 18 seasons in the big leagues and understands the game on a level fairly unique to baseball catchers. He is a Dartmouth graduate with a way-above-average IQ.

The Tigers see this, as well.

They know of another reality important to consider as Ausmus steps into his fourth season as Tigers skipper. They could replace him, inexpensively, at any time. Salary has never been disclosed, but an educated guess is that Ausmus makes about $1.5 million per year. That’s bench-player pay. The Tigers could oust him in a heartbeat on economics, alone.

But that leads to another, essential question, the Tigers also have weighed in full. Just who would bring to this ballclub better direction?

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Critics always have in their hip pocket a couple of names. But what, other than subjective ideas that a certain person would be better, promises any improvement?

You can make all of these points minus absolution when Ausmus’ years in Detroit are X-rayed. He got way too role-happy in his rookie year and watched the bullpen blow up during a three-game playoff sweep against the Orioles. It’s doubtful, in this view, that much would have changed even if he had made all the moves a consensus of critics preferred. Tigers relievers were simply too fragile.

But the snipers had their points. And you can bet a manager learned from it.

You can criticize his lineups and batting orders. But get in line with 29 other clubs and their fans who have the same issues — when the team loses.

You can say he used Mike Aviles too many times in 2016 before Aviles mercifully was dismissed. But, again, listen to a skipper’s testimony and you concede this is not an open-and-shut case.

The Tigers won 86 games a year ago. The Pythagorean formula, a Bill James measure that takes into account runs scored and runs allowed and spits out a probable win-loss record, had the Tigers winning 83 games. The year before, 2015, James’ gauge had the Tigers winning 69 games. They won 74.

Note, also, where Tigers pitching has been the past two seasons: 28th (2015) and 20th (2016) among 30 teams. When baseball is predicated on pitching the numbers hardly support notions Ausmus is making a mess of things.

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He was asked Thursday how much he believed a manager could influence games over a season’s course.

“I think it’s a lot smaller than some think,” he said. “I would imagine single digits.”

But, he was asked, tongue in cheek, didn’t he realize managers only lose games?

“When you win, you’re supposed to win,” he said, playing along. “When you lose, it’s your fault.

“It’s like an umpire.”

How he manages in 2017 is anyone’s guess, all because this team’s performance is, at the moment, particularly difficult to project. And that, surprise, is because no one can be sure how the pitching stacks up.

There is your determinant, like it or not. When the Tigers were storming the American League Central for so many of the past 11 years, they had some of the best pitching in baseball.

It should also be noted plenty of fans during that stretch weren’t terribly keen on the skipper, who for most of that time was Leyland.

Welcome to 2017. And to somewhere in the vicinity of 75 defeats that will — check with the critics — be delivered to a large extent by a man named Ausmus.