The Detroit Tigers entered this season with expectations as big as their payroll. It’s currently at $196 million, the fourth-largest in the major leagues. The only teams who spent more are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox.
You know, big city teams that compete for things like the World Series.
The Tigers might have been paying like the big boys, but they weren’t playing like them.
Through Saturday, the Tigers had lost 11 of their last 12 games. And they were losing them in the worst possible ways: by blowing great pitching performances due to anemic hitting, or by blowing gigantic leads through horrendous relief pitching – the most frustrating losses to watch.
When the Tigers looked up, they were mired in fourth place, next-to-last in their division. It was only mid-May, but most pundits and fans were already calling it a lost season. They predicted their manager, Brad Ausmus, might not survive the week.
But how much blame can you really pin on a baseball manager?
Unlike other sports, in baseball coaches rarely call plays. Most decisions, like when to pull a starting pitcher, or put in a pinch hitter, should be fairly obvious.
There are now two main approaches to managing: old school, where you trust your instincts, and new school, where you trust your computer – a method made famous in Moneyball.
The problem is Ausmus doesn’t seem to be enrolled in either school.
For example, when his starting pitching is throwing a gem, he pulls after the seventh inning, then watches Detroit’s woeful relievers blow huge leads. But when his starter is getting shelled, he sticks with him, for reasons no one can discern.
Watching the Tigers lose games this way is an awesome thing to behold. And the fans love it!
But there’s more to managing than just making decisions. And Ausmus seems to be missing those tools, too.
Ausmus’ predecessor, the salty old dog Jim Leyland, had plenty of critics.
When he made all-star hitters bunt with men in scoring position, the fans booed – and should have.
But Leyland’s teams always won. Everywhere. In the minors, in the majors, in the National League, and in the American League -- at every level, in eight states, and five decades.
How’d he do it?
To be honest, I don’t know, but he seemed to have the rare ability to connect with his players, and get the most out of them. They almost always had their best seasons playing for him.
For Ausmus, it seems to be the opposite. They sign big money relief pitchers, and watch them bomb.
But nothing cures a losing streak like weak opposition, and the Tigers have been blessed with a nine-game homestand, starting with the even worse Minnesota Twins.
On Monday night, Detroit was in the process of blowing an eight-run lead, when Ausmus went out to argue a third strike call. He got so worked up, he ended up pulling off his hooded sweatshirt – the kind your kids forget at summer camp – and draped it over home plate.
It was one of the strangest protests I’ve seen – but it worked. The player he defended ending up hitting the game-winning home run.
Ausmus missed the next game, because he had to serve a one-game suspension. The Tigers won anyway, which kind of cuts both ways. But Ausmus isn’t dead yet. The rest of this homestand will likely determine if he’ll get a stay of execution.
If he does, he’d be wise to start trusting his instincts, and his players – or he soon won’t be in a position to trust either.