Let’s be clear; firing Brad Ausmus would have been the easy way out for new general manager Al Avila. Not only did Avila not hire him, but the struggles on the field had produced disappointing results, which fans blamed on the embattled manager. As the new man in charge, many assumed, this writer included, that Avila would want a fresh start with a new manager in 2016, even if Ausmus wasn’t culpable for a lot of the failures.
In many ways, Avila’s decision to keep Ausmus was more difficult than it would have been to fire him. Financials aside (Ausmus has a year left on his deal, which is highly unlikely to have been a barrier), most GM’s want to put their own stamp on the club, and holding managers and coaches accountable for losses is the easy way to appease the public, when it’s not possible to fire an entire team.
Many fans believe Ausmus deserved to be fired. They frequently criticized in-game moves that didn’t work, which of course is a pastime as old as the game itself. They believed he poorly deployed his bullpen, not putting his pitchers in the best position to succeed. They would occasionally criticize his lineups, and blamed him for the over-aggressive running on the basepaths that would result in outs too frequently. And the occasional miscue or brain lapse like David Price and Ausmus miscommunicating on whether or not he was still in the game, or Anthony Gose forgetting how many outs there were.
There are some valid criticisms in the above. You can clearly see in certain situations how a matchup Ausmus chose put the club at a disadvantage, and Ausmus’s focus on being aggressive on the bases without question to the club running into some outs, a problem when you only have a few players on the roster capable of executing the aggressive strategy on the bases.
But, in aggregate, with the Tigers flaws (and there are many), the Tigers have performed about as well as you’d expect. The Tigers currently sit at 72-82, ten games under .500. According to Baseball Prospectus’s 3rd order win percentage, which accounts for a team’s equivalent runs scored based on its underlying performance, and then accounts for opponents faced, the Tigers sit at… 72-82. In other words, based on the way the Tigers talent has produced, they’ve won exactly as many games as one would expect. If you look at other adjusted standings, you’d find the Tigers have even out-performed in the win column compared to their actual performance in games.
The reality is that many of the team’s faults were well beyond the control of Ausmus. Victor Martinez got hurt in the off-season, and never got on track. Miguel Cabrera has again battled injuries, including missing six weeks in the middle of the year. Justin Verlander missed the first two months of the season. An embattled bullpen lost its closer after just one game. Anibal Sanchez missed time once again with fatigue and soreness. If you were going to make a who’s who list of the most important Tigers entering the season, the top of the list would have been comprised almost entirely of that group (along with Price, who was traded at the deadline), and the club had to make do without them for long stretches.
And that’s even accounting for the fact that the bullpen was once again a disaster. The group currently sits collectively at 27th in baseball in ERA, has been negative in WAR once again this year (-0.2 wins). It’s been a sore spot for the Tigers for many years now, and unlike recent years past, the Tigers didn’t have a rotation to cover up for it. The rotation’s ERA sits at 27th as well, and their FIP ranked the same.
The easy way to summarize the 2015 Tigers under the lead of Ausmus is that he probably wasn’t at fault for the team’s struggles… but he also didn’t do much to optimize the team’s ability to win with its limited resources.
Which goes back to a core tenet I like to employ when assessing a manager’s job performance, which I’ve learned from a great number of excellent minds, smarter and more knowledgeable about the game than I am. 80% of what a manager does is never seen by the fans. It happens in the clubhouse, it happens in the batting cages, it happens in one on one player meetings. And those are things that even those that have access to those areas aren’t fully capable of assessing, and has to default to the front office leadership in knowing how to assess.
That’s on Avila, and in his review, he clearly believes based on his decision yesterday, that Ausmus is more than capable and deserves the chance to lead a hopefully-less-flawed team in 2016. It’ll be on Avila to ensure he fixes those flaws… and then on Ausmus to deliver.
Avila has now staked his claim that he doesn’t think the failures of 2015 lay at the feet of the manager. It’s a bold decision, and the first important one of Avila’s tenure. There will be many more big decisions of course, but we now know that Avila is ready to make his own decisions, in the face of disagreement of fans, and convince his boss and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch that he knows what’s best.