What Went Wrong For The Tigers

It’s not a stretch to say that heading into the ALDS, the biggest concern in Detroit was about the bullpen — specifically how first-year manager Brad Ausmus had chosen to deploy it late in the season. Baltimore ended up sweeping the Tigers in three games, and the bullpen was directly involved in two of Detroit’s losses. At least one Ausmus decision — lifting Anibal Sanchez for Joba Chamberlain in Game 2 — was enough to get the manager torched by analysts and fans. There were some unhappy, as well, about Ausmus’ decision to bring in Chamberlain in Game 1 and with his choice to pinch-hit Hernan Perez for Andrew Romine in the ninth inning in Game 3 (as though that were really a thing that mattered at all).

Ausmus’ inexperience was perceived as a weakness. He made unpopular decisions that went poorly, and now his team is headed home. Guess we know where to place the blame, right? This is some quality #narrative, of course. It’s not necessarily wrong, entirely, because Ausmus certainly made some choices that didn’t require second-guessing, since they’d been first-guessed in the moment. It’s just a little too simplistic, a little too convenient.

If we’ve learned anything about managers this postseason, it’s that nothing they do impacts a game as much as everyone thinks it does. Ned Yost was crushed for taking out James Shields for Yordano Ventura in the wild card game, yet his team won. Don Mattingly gambled in leaving in the best pitcher in the world one day, then taking out the best No. 2 starter in baseball the next day. Both times, it blew up in his face. Matt Williams took out Jordan Zimmermann for Drew Storen, a move that really had a very small impact on the expectation of the Nationals winning Game 2 of the NLDS, and it backfired. Buck Showalter intentionally put the winning run on base last night, a very unusual move, and it worked.

Even when we’re absolutely sure there’s a right move — which there often isn’t — it doesn’t always work out. It’s baseball. Sanchez might very well have fallen apart had he stayed in Game 2; to act as though he would have continued getting outs indefinitely is foolish. Showalter is hailed as a genius for what’s he done with this Orioles club, but he didn’t push the right button so much as he made a decision and was fortunate enough to have his players back it up. Storen didn’t do the same for Williams. J.P. Howell didn’t for Mattingly. Chamberlain didn’t do the same for Ausmus. The Royals, luckily for Yost, rescued their manager.

Certainly, there’s no praise for Ausmus on this end coming out of the ALDS. It’s just when you look at why the Tigers lost this series, it’s not entirely because of the manager. It’s because this was a team with flaws, some of the same ones that had haunted them all season.

If you want to know why the Tigers botched what might have been their last best chance with this core, it’s really not so complicated. Max Scherzer didn’t pitch well, and Justin Verlander was only decent. They made silly mistakes on the bases, namely Miguel Cabrera and Don Kelly. The offense, overall, didn’t provide much. The defense is rarely a plus, and the bullpen has been a problem for years.

During the regular season, the Tigers had baseball’s best offense, at least if you go by wRC+. If you filter out pitchers to avoid penalizing National League teams, they still had the No. 3 offense in baseball, tied with the Angels for the best in the American League. Along with Cabrera — even a somewhat diminished Cabrera is still a great hitter — the much-discussed breakout of J.D. Martinez and resurgence of Victor Martinez played a big part in that. Alex Avila was a league-average hitter, which isn’t always easy to find behind the plate. Ian Kinsler added value. Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson and Rajai Davis were all average or better hitters in the outfield. Shortstop was a season-long issue, and Nick Castellanos didn’t impress on either side of the ball as a rookie. Still, this was a good, deep lineup, with any concerns about Prince Fielder’s departure seeming so long ago.

Now, here’s the Tigers team line in the ALDS: .218/.269/.416. In three games, they scored 10 runs. The Cardinals and Orioles have each had eight-run innings this October. Nearly all of the offense came from Cabrera, J.D. and Victor Martinez. Kinsler, Hunter and everyone else added nothing. That’s partially a credit to the Baltimore pitching — namely Bud Norris, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton — but also because the productive Tigers offense didn’t show up.

Just a few paragraphs above, I said that the Tigers flaws weren’t new. This would appear to violate that: Their offense had been good. It’s fair to say that trading Jackson in the David Price deal hurt a bit, because that got more playing time for Davis, who faded badly down the stretch. But there had also been a problem with the Tiger offense all year — the performance in big spots. In high-leverage situations, that wRC+ fell to 15th.

That’s pretty much what our Clutch stat tries to measure — how a player (and team) does in big spots as compared to context-neutral performance. The Tigers didn’t do well there this season:

Rk Team Clutch
1 White Sox 4.38
2 Giants 3.79
3 Royals 3.78
4 Orioles 1.88
5 Twins 1.54
26 Dodgers -3.25
27 Tigers -3.34
28 Rangers -3.41
29 Rays -3.76
30 Blue Jays -4.15

That’s a fascinating chart. The Orioles and Royals are about to meet in the ALCS. They’ve long been seen as decent teams playing over their heads, thanks to hits in the right spots. For the Tigers, with runners on in the ALDS — when they could even get them, because again, .269 OBP — they hit just .235/.297/.412. They hit five homers, but four came with the bases empty. For whatever reason, they had trouble getting the big hit all year. That was an issue in the playoffs, too.

If you’re wondering if I feel ridiculous quoting a slash line over three games, the short answer is yes. You can thank Bud Selig for having best-of-five series deciding seasons, I suppose, because there’s small samples and then there’s this. In a three-game stretch in early May, Detroit scored 26 runs against the Royals. In a three-game stretch later that week, they scored five runs against the Astros and Twins. Trying to put any particular meaning in three games is generally an exercise in futility, yet we have to try because it’s the playoffs.

You can get away with an indifferent offense if you pitch and play defense like Kansas City. Needless to say, that’s not the Tigers brand of baseball. They’ve had a bottom-three DRS in each of the past two years, and a bottom-six three years running. Moving Cabrera off third and Fielder off the team was supposed to help, but Castellanos has been poorly-reviewed on defense, and Hunter has been one of baseball’s worst outfielders. Part of what went so badly in that eight-run eighth-inning in Game 1 was that it included two errors, one by Davis and one by Romine. Chamberlain and Joakim Soria were awful that inning, but they also didn’t get much help.

Really, though, there never should have been an expectation that the bullpen was going to be useful. As I wrote about over at ESPN before the playoffs started, including this chart about the Detroit relief crew:

2014 ERA FIP K% BB% Shutdowns Meltdowns
First half 4.26 (26th) 3.79 (21st) 21.1 (20th) 8.1 (8th) 56 (29th) 31 (3rd)
Second half 4.33 (25th) 4.47 (29th) 17.5 (29th) 11.8 (30th) 43 (25th) 32 (26th)

There wasn’t a lot to like in the first half, and anything that looked decent headed the wrong direction. The Detroit bullpen was one of only three to have a negative RA9-WAR, and beating out the Rockies and Astros isn’t really much to be proud of. Only one reliever, Al Alburquerque, was worth even 1.0 RA9-WAR. If you prefer regular FIP-WAR, even he was only 0.2. Remember this wasn’t a good bullpen last year, and that was with Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly and a solid finish from Bruce Rondon.

They tried to fix that with Ian Krol (poor performance, demoted, didn’t merit a September recall), Evan Reed (poor performance, off-field trouble), Joe Nathan (inability to throw strikes or miss bats), Chamberlain (great first half, awful second half) and Rondon, who blew out his arm in the spring. When it didn’t work, they went out and paid heavily for Soria, who missed time with an oblique issue and rarely looked great when he could pitch. This was a lousy collection last year, with Jim Leyland in charge. It was only moderately better in 2012 when they were relying on Octavio Dotel and Jose Valverde.

That’s a lot of misshapen puzzle pieces to try to fit together, and when Soria and Chamberlain were given the opportunity in the ALDS, they both failed miserably. (Nathan pitched one scoreless inning in Game 3.)

This team lost, because the players on the field didn’t perform — and yeah, because their manager wasn’t much of a strength, either. Again, the point here is not to absolve Ausmus of everything. Watching Game 2 live, knowing how bad Chamberlain had been for months (and the night before, last year, and the year before, and the majority of the past five years other than a span of two months or so earlier this season) it certainly seemed questionable to take out Sanchez. Ausmus gambled, and he lost, though we don’t know what the outcome would have been had he gone the other way. (You imagine the other relievers would have had to be called upon at some point.)

It’s fair to wonder if this was the last best chance for the core of this recent run of Tigers dominance. Scherzer, Victor Martinez and Hunter are all free agents. It’s anyone’s guess as to what Verlander can provide, and he and Cabrera are due $50 million between them in 2015, plus $10 million for Nathan. The bullpen is a mess. It’s time to start wondering if Avila, who suffered another concussion in Game 3, can still play catcher in the big leagues. Castellanos may not be a third baseman. They may need to fill two outfield spots, and that’s if J.D. Martinez can replicate his great season.

Ausmus may not be the man to lead them, either. That’s fair to wonder. There’s just a lot of issues that went way beyond the manager, and any accounting of this ALDS that doesn’t offer Baltimore a ton of credit shortchanges them. That won’t be comfort for Tigers fans this winter, though, after a fourth-straight division title ended in the 30th year since they last won it all.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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8 years ago

did AA even pitch one time??

8 years ago
Reply to  worstfan_NA

In the ALDS? No.

8 years ago
Reply to  worstfan_NA

Really surprise he didn’t come in for Sanchez. Soria and Joba were a hot mess just a few hours earlier, I’m not sure why Ausmus thought they’d be better now. If he thought Sanchez was tiring, he should have gone to AA.