Is Ausmus the Problem for the Bullpen?

The Tigers are a good team with flaws playing in a division they should be able to handle. Their biggest weakness is their relief corps and if the Tigers are going to contend in October, things need to get better. A lot of that is a matter of acquiring better pitchers, but some of it is how they’re deployed. Could the Tigers improve if manager Brad Ausmus used his weapons properly?

This is always such a challenging question to answer for two reasons. The first is that no manager is actually going to use his relievers to their maximum efficiency because the culture of the sport fights against it. Arbitration, and to a lesser extent free agency, pays pitchers for pitching the ninth inning with a one to three run lead. There’s no logic to it at all, but that’s the incentive structure in place and it’s been around long enough that players have grown up accepting this as right way.

So we can’t blame Ausmus for using his bullpen imperfectly because by our standards, no one does that. But we can compare Ausmus’ bullpen usage to what is typical. The second problem arises when you consider the hand Ausmus was dealt. He doesn’t have a good group of relievers and he spent an entire month using them in blowout after blowout simply because he had to.

It’s challenging to quantify a manager’s bullpen usage because you have to account for so many moving parts. If your best reliever needs a day off, they need a day off. If you only have one good lefty, you only have one good lefty. You can only make the best possible choice given the circumstances and it’s hard to objectively determine the circumstances with incomplete information.

This means that any evaluation comes with a grain of salt. Ausmus isn’t necessarily a bad tactician, but he certainly has room to grow.

Ausmus essentially has five full time relievers and a rotating unit filling the last two spots. One indication of effectiveness is how well Ausmus is lining up Phil Coke and Ian Krol to pitch to lefties. Krol has faced lefties in half of his plate appearances (entering Monday) and Coke has done so 44 percent of the time. Both are higher than the basic league average 42 percent platoon advantage rate, but the extreme platoon guys should be north of 55 or 60 percent.

Granted, some of those at bats against righties, for Coke especially, came when the games were out of reach, but when you have left-handed relievers who specialize in getting out left-handed batters, you need to set them up to avoid righties. For example, Coke holds lefties to a .301 wOBA and gets tagged for a .398 wOBA by righties. His FIP against lefties is 2.53, but it’s 5.51 against righties. That’s a massive difference and Krol’s splits are so much worse that I’m actually not sure if we’re allowed to print them.

To his credit, Ausmus has used Coke in low leverage spots more often than not, but Krol has pitched a fair amount in close games with the lead. Ausmus, for a good portion of the season, saw Krol as the left-handed setup man, which simply isn’t a reflection of reality. He just isn’t that good.

The Tigers have two pretty impressive lefty neutralizers, but they are using them too frequently against righties. Granted, Ausmus doesn’t have great options across the board, so you have to cut him some slack, but this is one area in which he could improve. He has three lefties in his bullpen so there is no reason why he should be running a league average platoon rate.

Another way to evaluate Ausmus’ management is to consider the average leverage in which each pitcher enters the game.

PitcherAverage Leverage Entering the Game

This is a pretty typical distribution with the team’s “closer” entering in high leverage situations more often than any other reliever. The problem, as I’m sure you’ll note, is that Nathan has struggled this season while Chamberlain and Alburquerque have been better right-handed options.

More importantly, perhaps, is that Ausmus clearly manages to the score and the save rule. Joe Nathan has made 38 appearances and 31 have come with the Tigers ahead, with 36 of those appearances coming with no one on base. Ausmus has clearly decided that Nathan is his best reliever, but he doesn’t use him with men on base and he doesn’t use him for more than three outs. He has an extremely rigid role.

If you want to pull your hair out, Chamberlain has made 43 appearances and 38 have come with the bases empty and he’s only been asked to get more than three outs twice. He pitches much more often with the lead than in tie games or with the Tigers trailing.

This fits in with the typical usage patterns of most managers, but it’s extremely detrimental to a team with a limited number of useful relief options like the Tigers. Think about it this way, the Tigers have two great lefty assassins. They have Chamberlain who seems to be having a career renaissance. They have Alburquerque who is a strikeout artist. Then they have Nathan who has a great track record but very little to show for it this year.

What this team should be doing is making sure their lefties face lefties and then fitting their right-handers around those lefties. They aren’t doing that. Not even a little. Ausmus will mix and match with the lead until the 8th inning and then it’s Chamberlain and Nathan. If they’re losing and then bullpen is somewhat rested, they go to their lesser arms in the late innings.

I don’t know how much of Ausmus’ decision making is a lack of options and how much is a reflection of his true preferences, but he thinks about the game in nine, one inning segments. He should be thinking about the game in terms of 27 outs. You don’t need someone to pitch the 8th inning. That’s not a real job description.

If your starting pitcher goes 6 1/3 innings, you shouldn’t be thinking about getting through the 7th so that you can go to Joba and Nathan, you should be planning for the next eight outs. Ausmus doesn’t do that and it costs him in the platoon advantage. The platoon advantage only saves you a fraction of a run on average, but if you give it away enough it can really add up, especially when your relievers have huge splits.

Ausmus also treats a one run lead much differently than a one run deficit, even though the game is equally in jeopardy in both cases.

This is Ausmus’ first season. He’s a smart guy, so I’m optimistic that with a better crop of relievers, he’d make it work better. There are too many moving parts to estimate it perfectly, but some of his comments and choices have been suspect.

In the end, however, the Tigers are going to sink or swim based on the guys they have in the pen, not the order in which they pitch. Certainly, a manager can affect the outcome of the game by bringing in the wrong reliever at the wrong time with regularity, but if you have five or six good relievers, it’s pretty hard to screw it up.

This is a personnel problem more than it’s a management problem, but that doesn’t mean Ausmus couldn’t be doing things much better.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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