Following the Angels’ promotion of Brad Ausmus to be the second club manager in nineteen years was an uproar of highly intelligent, experienced armchair managers professing their distaste for the hire. While a sufficient sample size of games needs to be played before one may learn whether a manager is capable/successful or not, historical precedent of a manager may point to future managerial tendencies. To gain further insight into Ausmus’s decision-making history (the Tigers manager from 2014-’17), I have asked several contributors from our sister site Bless You Boys to assist, to which they have graciously agreed.
How would you describe Ausmus’s tenure in Detroit?
Ashley: The beginning of the end. Ausmus was in a super difficult position because he was the man at the helm as the Tigers went from a repeat playoff team to a dwindling powerhouse, to a team that needed a full rebuild. That’s not all on him, but he is the guy whose face was at the forefront of the team going from the best they’d been in ages, to being totally unrecognizable only three years later. That’s rough, no wonder he took a break from managing.
Rob: Along those lines, I’d say Ausmus was the captain of a sinking ship. The Tigers (and specifically, then-general manager Dave Dombrowski) did everything they could to keep the team competitive, but with an aging core, barren farm system, and iffy depth, the team was always going to reach a point where they needed to fully tear down and rebuild. Ausmus’ relationship with the fans was always rocky at best -- he was basically the exact opposite of Jim Leyland, which didn’t sit well after all of the success Leyland had -- so public opinion of him is probably a bit more negative than his actual skill as a manager.
Brandon: A manager will never escape an outsized chunk of the blame when a hopeful contender withers away like the Tigers did. He looked over-matched in his rookie year, particularly in managing the pitching staff. Plenty of fans were ready to move on after his first season, and frustration with Ausmus only got worse from there. Unfortunately, as it turned out the 2014 season was probably the Tigers last realistic shot at a deep postseason run.
The three remaining years, the Tigers’ roster faded enough that it’s difficult to gauge whether his decision-making improved. He just never again had the pitching depth, athleticism, and versatility to do much more than write out the lineup card. The team seemed to come out hot in April every year and then just fall on their face in May and June. That pattern was a constant throughout the Ausmus years. In the end, relationships between Ausmus and a few veteran players seemed to break down, and people were shocked that the Tigers brought him back for an ugly final act in 2017.
Did he have any obstacles in his way that prevented him from performing better?
Rob: This is one of the biggest debates Tigers fans have had about Ausmus’ tenure in Detroit. Were the team’s failures a result of his inability to squeeze more production out of his players (especially when it came to bullpen management) or should we lay the blame at the feet of the front office execs that handed Ausmus a flawed team in the first place? Personally, I blame the construction of the team more than Ausmus himself, especially when it came to the 2014 club that was swept out of the ALDS. That team had maybe one functional reliever in that series, and Joakim Soria had just come off the disabled list a couple weeks prior to the postseason. They also had to rely on a very green Hernan Perez (pre-breakout version) to pinch-hit in a crucial situation. Earlier that year, the team reached the point where they had to start trading players from the major league roster to upgrade in certain spots; they essentially robbed Peter (center fielder Austin Jackson and a cost-controlled Drew Smyly) to pay Paul when they acquired David Price. Ausmus was also handed Mike Pelfrey and Mike Aviles as two of the team’s major additions prior to the 2016 season, and he still nearly took them to the playoffs.
Ashley: The Tigers roster, which had been so consistent about their playoff trips prior to Ausmus’s arrival, were still good when he came on in 2014, but they were at the end of their window, regardless of who was managing. That said, he did a pretty good job with the somewhat broken-down version of what the Tigers had been from 2011-2013. I think people had an expectation that the Tigers were still that same epic squad, but I don’t think they were, and while I believe that some minor tweaks might have gotten the Tigers into the 2016 postseason, it wouldn’t have gotten them much further than the Wild Card or ALDS, they just didn’t have the stuff.
Brandon: The 2014 season is the exception, because he was not good in his rookie season and pulled the same wrong levers over and over again all season long. However, it would’ve taken a lot of creativity to piece together a postseason run, because there were faulty levers all throughout the bullpen. Hiring a rookie manager, handing him old Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain as his main relievers, and then asking for a World Series title, proved a pretty bad formula for success. Ausmus was in a position where using his deep reservoir of starting pitching more aggressively in the postseason may have been the only path to a World Series. Unfortunately, neither manager, nor the front office, was anywhere near the cutting edge on that front.
From 2015 on, the Tigers as an organization were hanging on by a thread even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello were gone, and they were reduced to madness like trading six years of Eugenio Suarez for a season of Alfredo Simon to try to shore up the pitching staff. The roster construction was poor, the farm system had no help to offer, and they just never again had a pitching staff that could compete. None of that falls on Ausmus.
Conversely, did he have any advantages that he didn’t take advantage of?
Rob: This may not have been entirely his fault (see above answer), but he had the AL Central’s largest payroll for each of his four seasons and was only able to turn in one playoff appearance. The 2014 Tigers crashed out of the postseason early in large part thanks to a lackluster offense and shallow bench, but also Ausmus’ questionable bullpen management.
Ashley: I mean, I say that they’re a team on the decline, but how do you have a pitching rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez (when he was still good and before he was good again), and the Tampa Bay trade combo of Drew Smyly and David Price and only get to the ALDS? I grant you it was not peak Verlander, but it still boggles my mind that they weren’t able to do more with that squad.
Brandon: My first thought is that at times I wish he would’ve gone into catch for us from time to time. I’m kidding of course, mostly. Those strengths Ausmus had as a player just didn’t really seem to translate into a whole lot of coaching success. One of the minor frustrations of his tenure was the inability of a former great defensive catcher, game-caller and receiver to improve Tigers catcher James McCann’s abilities behind the plate. Similarly, he wasn’t able to do much to help the pitching staff either, and his feel for when to go to the bullpen, and who to use, ranged from awful to average at best.
He’s a very hands-on manager, and maybe the thing you’ll notice first is that he’s still really active in working with his players, and will often catch side sessions to try to help his pitchers sort out issues. He had individual successes, but overall those stories were few and far between. The Tigers’ roster was generally slow and lacking in versatility, so the usual vows to improve team fundamentals, play more aggressive baseball both defensively and on the bases, all were repeated each spring with little to show for it in terms of improvements on the field.
How would you describe the working relationship between Ausmus and the front office, as more and more managers found themselves as analytical figureheads?
Rob: The Tigers were still mostly in the dark ages at the time, so there wasn’t the symbiotic relationship between manager and front office that we are now seeing in the modern game. That said, Ausmus and the front office never clashed. If anything, the Tigers were surprisingly loyal to him after he failed to win a playoff game in his first three years, and gave him the chance to turn things around in 2017 in the final year of his contract. Detroit’s front office seemed to take a very hands-off approach (relative to other clubs) when it came to determining how players should be deployed.
Ashley: I think Rob nailed it here. The club seemed to give Ausmus a really long tether, and he was certainly given plenty of opportunity to prove himself. Whether or not there was more going on behind the scenes that limited him in ways we can’t know, is impossible to say.
Brandon: Yeah, a key obstacle was the fact that the Tigers were one of the least progressive, least data-driven teams in the game when Ausmus arrived. There wasn’t even a semi-legitimate analytics department up and running until his final season. Yet, the point of hiring Ausmus seemed at the time to be his ability to assist in building a more data-centric decision-making process. None of our hopes for a more progressive collaboration between front office, manager and players were ever fulfilled.
While it took a while to figure it out, because Ausmus was sold on his smarts and his youth, those expectations were never realistic to begin with. The Tigers were, and still are, a very traditional organization, and most of the talk about getting on board the data revolution proved to be just talk in the end. So in the end, the relationship seemed to be one in which Ausmus was largely left to his own devices as in the traditional model of front office/managerial working partnerships. As Rob pointed out, the Tigers may not have given him a lot of support, but he did get four years at the job despite howls from the fanbase the final two seasons.
The area where we sensed some disconnect between Ausmus and the front office as time went on, was in handling players. There were times where Al Avila and company seemed to overrule a disciplinary decision. By 2017, there were problems with both Francisco Rodriguez and Victor Martinez, who each took issue with being replaced in their roles. Neither was performing, and the decisions Ausmus wanted to make were reasonable, but there were signs that he wasn’t getting a lot of backing from the front office, and the players knew it. As those relationships with the veterans unraveled, the team just seemed to lose any spark, and the season was a complete breakdown at every level.
How would you describe Ausmus as an individual?
Rob: I think Ausmus has the demeanor to be a very good manager one day. He was put in a very tough position in Detroit, and was just a couple of wins from two playoff appearances in his first three years with an aging, top-heavy roster. He was extremely level-headed throughout his entire tenure -- which actually seemed to irk fans the longer it went on, but I imagine this is a positive for a big league clubhouse -- and treated his players with the utmost respect in front of the media. He seemed to stick his foot in his mouth at times with microphones in front of him, but never in a way that was embarrassing or detrimental to the organization’s goals.
Ashley: Ausmus had the bad luck of following in the footsteps of one of the most beloved managers in Detroit since Sparky Anderson, with Jim Leyland. Leyland was one of those guys whose personality radiated from the bench (and is one of the top-ten most ejected managers of all time). I think people were a little let down by Ausmus’s more staid demeanor and it made it hard for fans to really latch onto him. I think people were inclined to poke fun at him for being a “Dartmouth guy” and assumed he was being a lot more intellectual about things rather than going with a classic baseball gut and wisdom move, but I don’t know if that was the case. He is certainly more reserved on the surface than some of the more old-school managers, but I think given the right situation he will do really well. Anyone looking for a real sparkplug is going to be pretty disappointed though.
Brandon: Success breeds fan approval, but it never helped Ausmus that his personality can be pretty dry and sarcastic at times. Tigers fans also like to consider themselves super blue-collar types, and his Ivy League education quickly became an object of scorn as the teams got progressively worse during his four years here. He exacerbated perceptions with a lot of smug, defensive answers to the beat writers as the years went on. None of that would have stood out had the Tigers been successful, however. It just all fit into the narrative.
He’s a very composed, even low-key person for the most part, and that seems like a good trait for a person trying to shepherd millionaires through a long baseball season. Of course, the key criticism by the end of his run was that he just didn’t have the big personality people associate with a successful leader of baseball players. Personally I think that’s a lot of baloney. He has the steadiness, intelligence and curiosity to learn from his mistakes in Detroit and go as far as the Angels’ front office and roster allows him to.
A special thanks to Rob, Ashley, and Brandon for taking the time to share their observations with us and making this possible.