Because of the critical eyes and sharp teeth within a baseball fan base, popularity, for any manager, is tough even when your team is winning.
And when that team is losing, the skipper faces a particularly edgy crowd, or perhaps those familiar with the Tigers have deduced as much from manager Brad Ausmus’ two-season tenure.
There are “Fire Ausmus” hashtags and signage on most of Tigers Nation’s favorite social-media sites. There is sports talk-radio outrage over his every move — at least when the team loses, and that has been a fairly common event during a season in which the Tigers sit in last place in the American League Central.
For a team that had won the previous four American League Central Division trophies and now stares at an empty, no-playoff October, the shock from failure is difficult to process, even if failure can empirically be tied to some ugly Tigers pitching, which once was a playoff team’s hallmark.
What the fan base in countless cases sees, however, is a manager who needs to be replaced. It is unclear if his bosses agree or disagree. But it is believed owner Mike Ilitch is ready for a new face in Detroit’s dugout in 2016.
Scouts and front-office staffers interviewed this week, all from clubs outside Detroit and all speaking on the condition of anonymity, generally consider Ausmus to be blameless for the crux of Detroit’s ills.
Neither are they sure if he and his lower-key ways are in his, or the team’s, political interests as the Tigers prepare for 2016.
The same sources, who know Ausmus and who have studied the Tigers under his watch, can see how a manager with no big league managerial experience dazzled then-general manager Dave Dombrowski and his colleagues during interviews in November 2013 following the retirement of Jim Leyland.
But this, they say, was a risky job for a newcomer when a veteran team that had been piloted by Leyland was giving way to a new captain and to new realities that included a fraying pitching staff.
The Tigers lost essential players — Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez — for long spells this season. Those exits upset lineups and rotations and helped bring about July’s fire sale that led to trades of David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria.
It makes any measure of a manager’s role in Detroit’s meltdown difficult to assess, at least with any quantifiable certainty. And that, again, is mostly because the Tigers feature some of the worst pitching in all of baseball: 27th among 30 teams in ERA, and 28th in the more telling statistic, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning).
Another fan fit
But shabby pitching hasn’t exempted Ausmus from fan ire. And last Friday’s game against the Royals was where pitching and managerial decisions collided, explosively, for a manager and for customers who wanted a different strategy, and a different result, during a combustible ninth inning at Comerica Park.
The Tigers were leading the first-place Royals, 3-1, and Justin Verlander had pitched another in his recent string of beauties: Five hits, seven strikeouts, one walk, with only another out to go for a victory.
Ausmus, though, was worried. And so likely would have been any manager. The Tigers ace was at 114 pitches, approaching a maximum workload. More ominously, the last three batters had scorched pitches, two of which became outs, the third of which had gone for a sharp single.
To the plate stepped Salvador Perez, who in his career was hitting .488 against Verlander.
Out of the dugout stepped Ausmus. And from the stands rained boos, a few decibels lower than the fan thunder that was hurled at Ausmus when reliever Alex Wilson served a slider Perez bashed for a two-run home run that tied the game 3-3.
The Tigers won 5-4 in 12 innings. But the night’s story was Ausmus and his decision to pull Verlander one batter from victory.
“I knew when I was going to get him that I was going to get booed, but that wasn’t a tough decision,” Ausmus said later. “I can’t make decisions based on whether the fans are going to like me or not. I’ve got to make decisions based on what I think is best for the team.
“There have been tough decisions when it comes to leaving in a pitcher or removing a pitcher, but that was not a tough one. To me, that was a complete no-brainer.”
Smart-aleck fans might have agreed with his last sentence. But, in fact, Ausmus had a heavy percentage chance to have been solid, even sage, with his move to give Verlander a back-pat and bring on Wilson, one of the few reliable relievers in the bullpen.
Or, to view it from a necessary opposite perspective: Had the Tigers manager allowed Verlander, with Perez’s historic numbers against him, to stay in the game when his pitch-count was heavy and three consecutive batters had mashed the ball during their at-bats, second-guessers would have fired their own artillery rounds.
Bullpen taints decisions
It speaks to a manager’s, any manager’s, challenge in pulling pleasing levers when the performers who most decide scores have been as flimsy as have been Tigers pitchers — and others — in 2015.
A year ago, the story was different. The Tigers won 90 games and their fourth consecutive Central Division flag. Ausmus, who spent 18 seasons as a big league catcher, was accepted with general approval as a successor to Leyland, who in his final years in Detroit had irked a loud corps of fans who believe managers heavily tilt games.
Ausmus’ probable first mistake was to take a job with a club that had annual bullpen problems. And rarely had that soft spot been more penal than during a three-game playoff sweep by the Orioles that featured consecutive meltdowns by Tigers relievers.
He was criticized on various fronts.
He had pulled Anibal Sanchez in Game 2 of the series after Sanchez, recovering after a stint on the disabled list and confined to relief duty, had pitched immaculately for two innings during which he threw 30 pitches. The front office, training staff and Ausmus had agreed Sanchez should throw no more than 35 as a somewhat fragile pitcher worked his way into shape.
He was pulled and his replacement, Joakim Soria, promptly allowed four runs in the eighth in a game the Orioles won 7-6.
In that same lamentable series, Ausmus had other issues, some of which might have been attributed to a rookie skipper.
He was rigid on specific inning roles for his relievers to the extent he could be. And that meant a volatile, often very good or very bad Joba Chamberlain was Ausmus’ preferred eighth-inning option.
In two games against the Orioles, Chamberlain got one out. He allowed three hits, five runs (four earned), and hit a batter.
Meanwhile, Al Alburquerque, who had been an uncommonly consistent reliever in 2014, failed to pitch in the series.
Pitching, therefore, most tends to make a manager a supposed genius who moves all the chess pieces correctly, or a buffoon whom fans can’t believe opted to bring in a risky reliever who too often in 2015 was wearing a Tigers jersey.
But it never has been a matter only of pitching, or pitching decisions, as the Tigers and their constituents assess Ausmus.
His critics generally agree a 46-year-old man with his experience at a catcher’s position that doubles as the game’s nerve center is unquestionably bright (Dartmouth grad, the skipper who brought intricate defensive shifts to the Tigers, etc.).
What customers aren’t so sure about is his command, even if they have never set foot in a big league clubhouse or dugout. Even if they have no real clue in how Ausmus leads players who, from daily evidence, regard him with sufficient respect and considerable affection.
Verlander, Cabrera, Martinez — three elder statesmen all have taken turns in recent days defending Ausmus from Comerica’s boo battalion.
“It’s not his fault,” Cabrera said during a rare, reflective conversation last week. “So why are you going to blame a guy like that? Why do people say you’ve got to fire him?”
Still, he is the manager. And even if no skipper is above reproach or mistakes, some big league appraisers interviewed wonder if Ausmus has sufficient “presence” to craft a more disciplined on-the-field product.
They see the Tigers as not only a team compromised by bad runners in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but in too many instances, by bad baserunning. The Tigers, in fact, are ranked last among all teams in a sophisticated metric (BSR) used by FanGraphs.com. The stat is a product not only of Detroit’s league-leading knack for hitting into double plays, which can’t accurately be pinned on a skipper, but also on a team’s lack of skill, or judgment, on the bases.
Ilitch holds the hammer
Right or wrong — and professionals learn the basics of baserunning early and often in their careers — a certain responsibility, at least for sloppiness, falls at the feet of Ausmus. It leaves critics to wonder if more of a fire-breather might tighten up a ship that, abetted by some ugly pitching and hitters’ blackouts, so often runs aground.
There is no evidence new general manager Al Avila believes Ausmus is an issue or that he deserves dismissal ahead of the third year of his three-year contract with the Tigers.
Avila, though, answers to Ilitch. And it was Ilitch who decided in July that his 14-year general manager, Dombrowski, had been at the helm long enough and that a bad year of baseball in Detroit demanded change.
If it meant firing the front-office architect of Detroit’s baseball revival in Detroit, the owner seemed more than ready for new blood.
It is difficult to believe Ilitch’s impatience, and his makeover, will not include a new manager for 2016. The same big league sources who spoke in confidence this week are inclined to agree. In their view it is just as likely Ausmus will do just fine in his next baseball job, with a team minus the trapdoor Detroit was to feature in 2015.
On deck: Twins
Series: Three games, tonight-Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: 7:08 tonight-Saturday, 1:08 p.m. Sunday
Probables: Tonight — RHP Mike Pelfrey (6-10, 4.16) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (1-5, 7.40); Saturday — RHP Tyler Duffey (4-1, 3.15) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (13-10, 5.21); Sunday — TBA vs. LHP Randy Wolf (0-4, 5.91)
Pelfrey: The Twins are 2-4 his last six starts, and his ERA during that stretch is 6.21. He has not pitched well on the road — 2-6, 5.85 ERA, 1.779 WHIP. After beating the Tigers in April, he’s lost the last two starts against them. The Tigers have scored 11 runs in 191/3 innings.
Boyd: He’s coming off an encouraging start against the Royals — three hits and struck out six in six innings. Two of the hits were solo home runs. He will be working with an extra day of rest. The Tigers have stretched out his final two starts to keep his innings intact without having to shut him down.