Henning: Pitching, not Ausmus, will decide Tigers’ fate

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Brad Ausmus

An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Tigers' record in 1989.

Lakeland, Fla. — Sparky Anderson’s Tigers in 1984 won the World Series and finished their 162-game calendar with a record Motown’s baseball world yet cheers: 104-58.

Five years later, Anderson and the Tigers practically flipped numbers, going 59-103.

Why did Anderson enjoy such majesty in 1984? And if the manager had such indispensable influence on that dream season in Detroit, as fans like to think, why did he fall apart like an old jalopy in ’89? What didn’t he do five years later that at least would have blunted a baseball season so awful?

Or, perhaps, we can answer those questions because of the way most managers — and teams — should be measured in a given season.

By their pitching.

Those lustrous ’84 Tigers were sixth in all of baseball in ERA (3.49). They were tied for first in the more revealing WHIP category, where the Tigers were in a dead heat with the Pirates at 1.26.

Now, to 1989, not that many care to revisit it.

The Tigers were — surprise —last in pitching among big-league teams with a 4.54 ERA. Their WHIP was a ghastly and distant-last 1.52.

This tour of Tigers baseball’s catacombs is offered as perspective on one of Detroit’s annually most endearing pastimes: deciding whether the manager is any good. Again this year, as the Tigers get ready for Opening Day against the White Sox at their newly named haven, Guaranteed Rate Park, there is chatter about the Tigers’ current skipper, Brad Ausmus, and his managerial life expectancy as he heads into a fourth season.

History lesson

But back for a moment to some history.

Ten years ago — 11 to be more precise — Jim Leyland was Detroit’s baseball darling as he arrived and the Tigers headed for their best overall decade of baseball ever.

But it was interesting, or amusing, or bemusing, or maybe a bit silly, that in ensuing years Detroit’s fans became less and less endeared to him, became more and more impatient and even perturbed with him, or simply believed — in an enormous amount of cases — that Leyland was to blame for the Tigers not winning another championship.

Wojo: Tigers aim for one last shot at the top

Back to that pitching yardstick. Take as a sampling Leyland’s best and worst years: 2006, when the Tigers finished 95-67 and were first in ERA and fifth in WHIP, and 2008, when the Tigers were 74-88 and nosedived to 27th in ERA and in WHIP.

Was it managerial skill or malfeasance that determined Leyland’s best and worst years, all of two summers apart? Is it ever due to the manager — in terms of having truly competitive championship teams? And if it is a matter mainly of pitching — as numbers tend to confirm — why are fans so inclined to see Ausmus, or any manager, as integrally tied to the Tigers’ win-loss records?

Again. Consider those all-important stats from Detroit’s past two baseball seasons, each with Ausmus in command: The Tigers were 28th in pitching among 30 big-league teams in 2015 and won 74 games. Last year, they climbed to 20th in pitching and won 87 games.

This is why any barstool — or patio, or living-room, or office-cubicle — dialogue about Ausmus’ qualifications to manage the Tigers seems rather empty, rather prone to rhetoric, when no one can seem to say what person, for whatever reason other than subjective attractions, would be an improvement in the Tigers dugout. Unless, perhaps, that person is a shutdown pitcher.

Critics, of course, ask a proper question.

If the manager is of no serious influence, can’t anyone manage?

Well, no. You still need a smart and seasoned baseball person in control. You must ride with someone who can handle all facets of the game, from player relationships, to deployment, to changing pitchers late in a game (helpful hint: make sure you’re flush with good pitchers).

People are entitled to chew on any of the above, and they can make good cases.

But what matters, truly, during the course of 162 games is that you have players who can out-perform competitors. Managers are in charge of communication and preparation. They’re ultimately responsible for deciding rotation sequences, bullpen selection, how their teams are directed in the field, on the basepaths, etc.

But then it comes down to players. Always to players. And primary among those players are pitchers.

Ausmus is on a one-year contract with the Tigers after his initial three-year deal expired last autumn. The 12-month arrangement, his boss Al Avila likes to say, keeps life comfortable for all parties. Either side can decide at the end of a baseball season that it’s time to move on.

Sounds reasonable — unless, perhaps, you’re Ausmus, whose idea of comfort probably consists of knowing you’re going to be paid for the next two or more years.

What the GM conveniently leaves out is that the longer a manager works with a particular club, the more likely reality — that is, a dismissal — creeps into the picture. And that’s especially true if a team is as playoff-marginal, perhaps, as the Tigers are in 2017.

Sometimes, you simply must change skippers. The audience wants a change. The front office is restless. The idea that a fresh face will create vitality and renewed interest becomes part of a simple business decision.

Given the realities of professional sports, there is nothing altogether wrong or unjust about such moves.

If, that is, they’re at least offered and appreciated in honest context.

Where this argument runs off the rails is when people believe, based on nothing more than whim or imagination, that a new skipper is seriously going to affect a team’s win-loss column, at least compared with the guys on said team’s roster.

It isn’t happening. Except in the fanciful minds of those who find blaming the manager too convenient, too irresistible, too enticing of a one-stop shopping trip, as they ponder ways to repair a big-league team.

Let’s get real

Firing Ausmus would be easy. In fact, the front office could have made a reasonably popular call there either of the past two years. Money was no barrier, not when Ausmus probably makes just over $1 million a year.

But, as much as an axing would have been cheered by some, accepted by others, and been captivating for all wondering who the new guy might be, the front office concluded, fairly easily, that whacking Ausmus would have gone down at best, as change for change’s sake. At worst, it would have been dumb when players respect him and when those same players understand games are won by on-field personnel, not by a guy in the dugout.

Ausmus was asked about all of this Saturday as the Tigers wrapped up their Florida boot camp and got ready for a flight to Chicago.

He said it would be more accurate to say that “how the bullpen does” is a better barometer than overall pitching for how a manager is graded, at least by fans.

Ausmus said that when it comes to pitching changes, “when the right guy doesn’t get people out, it’s the wrong move, and if the wrong guy gets the out, it’s the right move.”

He is, of course, correct. How many second-guesses are promptly snuffed when a bullpen maneuver that looked terrible from the sofa-cushion seat ends up in an out? You won’t find many fans revisiting the Complaint Department if relievers do their job, no matter how angered they might have been over the skipper’s choices.

But how many of those quibbles are remembered, on a 162-game season’s mounting list of fan grievances, when the skipper’s decision failed to kill a rally or stifle an inning?

Either way, was it the manager’s selection that truly mattered? Or, back to basics here, were results more directly affected by the pitcher and whether he fulfilled his prescribed mission?

Understand, not everyone is going to see it this way. Ask the folks who came to sour on Leyland. Ask those who haven’t appreciated Ausmus’ decisions, or style, or whatever.

They see the manager as being either responsible, or irresponsible, in explaining a good many defeats. Their criticisms are rather like voters who decide incumbents are to blame for dissatisfactions with government. They need to be ousted, that particular camp tends to argue, with great regularity. Politicians, coaches, managers – whoever is in charge and accountable for their disappointment. All should be tossed.

And so, here we go again. The Tigers might or might not prosper in 2017. Whatever their fate might be, their manager will be viewed, to varying extents, as either helpful or complicit.

If things don’t work out, and Avila perhaps decides to go a different route in 2018, there would be only one recommendation for the new Tigers skipper, whoever he might be.

When you show up for that introductory press conference, choose to be accompanied not only by your spouse, but by a couple of shutdown relievers you brought along with you.

Tigers vs. White Sox

What: Season-opening game

When: Monday, 4:10 p.m.

Where: Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

TV / radio: FSD / 97.1 FM

Pitching matchup: Justin Verlander vs. Jose Quintana @Lynn_Henning