Brad Ausmus is hard to label. Many see him as an old-school manager — and, based on some of his beliefs and actions, that’s perfectly understandable. On the other hand, he’s Ivy League-educated and well versed on most analytic concepts. From a knowledge standpoint, the manager of the Detroit Tigers is far from a troglodyte.
This interview doesn’t add much clarity to Ausmus’s identity. For one thing, it’s narrow in scope. While other subjects are touched upon, closer usage and pitch-framing comprise the bulk of the conversation.
Of note: this material actually comes from three separate conversations. The first two were in group settings with Detroit beat writers (with my questions eliciting most of these responses) on back-to-back days. I then had a shorter, one-on-one conversation with Ausmus to fill in a few blanks. Because of the manner in which these quotes were obtained, some have been resequenced for continuity.
Ausmus on analytics (intro): “Analytics are ubiquitous. I think the dangerous mistake people make — some member of the media make — is believing that they can’t be flawed, because they’re based on numbers. That’s absolutely false. Numbers do not always tell us the whole story. And there are certain things in baseball, because it’s played by humans, that numbers will never be able to put a value on.”
On leverage and closer mentality: “A lot of people in the analytics world think you should bring in your best pitcher in the biggest point of the game. Well, excuse my French, but who the (bleep) knows when the biggest point in the game is until the game is over? You don’t know. It may be the sixth. It may be the ninth. The problem is, if it’s the sixth and you use your closer, and all of a sudden you have a one-run lead in the ninth, who is going to close? You don’t have that guy anymore, because you burned him.
“Anyone who says you have to bring your closer in early, or in the biggest point in the game, has a crystal ball. That argument goes out the window for me. I don’t mind second-guessing, but second-guessing the biggest point of the game after the game? It’s easy to tell then. It’s not easy to tell in the seventh inning.
“If you’ve got another guy who is a closer, you’re fine [bringing your closer into a high-leverage situation early and not having him pitch the ninth inning]. But if you don’t have another guy who is a closer… closing a game in the ninth inning is not the same as pitching the eighth inning, or the seventh inning.
“Could you walk across this table? What about if I put it a thousand feet in the air? Could you walk across it then? That’s the difference between pitching the sixth and pitching the ninth. Anyone who says that pitching the ninth is the same as pitching any other inning is out of their mind. They don’t get baseball. They don’t understand the adrenaline that’s involved; they don’t understand that the 27th out is the hardest one to get. It’s not the same. That’s why proven closers get so much money. It’s a very difficult thing to do on a daily basis.
“[If] you’re making the assumption that whoever is second best, to your best pitcher, is going to finish out the ninth without a problem… that’s a false assumption. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that my closer has a better shot at closing out the ninth than my second-best pitcher.”
On identifying future closers: “You look at the stuff and try to project, but I think the truth is, you don’t really know if someone can close until they close. Again, it’s different. It’s much more stressful. It’s the most high-leverage situation you can pitch in, the most high-leverage role you can pitch in.
“It’s difficult to predict how people will react to having the entire weight of the game put on their shoulders on an every-two-night basis, or every-three-night basis. The hardest part about being a closer is knowing that if you fail, and your team loses, you have to be able to come back the next day. If you pitch the eighth inning and give up the lead, you still have a chance to get the lead back. The ninth inning, especially on the road, it’s over. There’s a psychological… you need a psychological strength to deal with that.”
On year-to-year reliever volatility and projection: “Again, I think it comes down to the stuff. You think someone should be able to replicate what he did based on stuff. But there are other things that go into it. How does he interact with teammates? What is his work ethic? What’s his body type? Is he prone to injury? What’s his arm action?
“Generally, Joe Average Reliever is tough to predict. The elite are a little easier to predict — their track records [make them] a little easier to predict — or maybe I should say they’re a little less difficult to predict.”
On pitch-framing: “When pitch-framing came out, I was a special assistant in San Diego. I said, ‘Look into the pitchers that are involved.’ It turned out there was no correlation in terms of reputation. When they looked at it, empirically, there didn’t seem to be a connection between the pitcher’s longevity in the game, or his reputation in the game, and strikes being called. I would have thought there would be. Maybe it’s changed. I don’t know. But I thought a guy like [Roger] Clemens would get calls over a rookie.
“I think people got excited about pitch-framing numbers [too] quickly. They wanted it to be… I think it may have been prematurely overvalued. I think if we can actually use the numbers — know they’re not flawed — they are valuable, because pitching is such a big part of the game, and one pitch can change a game. But I don’t think we knew what we really had.
“Framing is something where you have to have thousands of pitches for it to have any value. James McCann has improved over his first three years. Alex Avila has been kind of up and down with his framing. So I don’t know if there is any application to our pitching staff, and our catchers, with those numbers.”
On pitcher quality and framing: “If you have good pitchers, you’re probably going to have good results, regardless of the catchers’ framing. It can have an impact, for sure, but Chris Sale is going to be good whether there’s a catcher back there or a piece of wood.
“Numbers are very valuable, but sometimes they get way overinflated in today’s sports-media market. Most teams use a lot of numbers to put their team together, but once you have them, there’s not much you can do with them.
“You have catchers who are ‘good receivers’ and get strikes called, or maybe you have ones who don’t. But what are you going to do about it? You can maybe work on things and try to make them better at it, but that’s about it. If you have outfielders who can’t run balls down in the outfield, the only way you can change that is to get guys who can run the ball down in the outfield. You can try positioning differently, but I don’t think that would make a vast difference.”
On analytics (coda): “I was texting back and forth with [director of baseball operations] Sam Menzin earlier today. I was checking a bunch of different things. I’ve always told him, ‘Do some free-thinking; think outside the box.’
“We’re open to anything if it has some basis, some merit. You might as well use the information you have. What’s changed so much in the game is the amount of information. You have to be able to decipher it and make it usable.”
“When you’re making decisions, and you’re using analytics — you’re using numbers — you’re playing the odds. I did it as a catcher. I played odds when I was calling pitches for pitchers. You’re playing the odds and trying to get the best results for that particular pitch, for that particular game, and over a six-month season. As a manager, a decision in a given game may not work, but if you’re playing the odds, just like you would in blackjack, you’re going to win in the long haul. In that sense, a manager is like a gambler. That’s how I look at decision-making and analytics.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.