When the Tigers acquired reliever Joakim Soria from the Rangers on July 23, giving up two of their top 10 prospects to do so, it seemed obvious he should take over as Detroit’s closer. After all, he had a 2.70 ERA at the time and was 17-for-19 saving games for Texas. Nathan had a 5.89 ERA and had blown five saves in 25 chances.
Instead, manager Brad Ausmus stuck with Nathan. It worked out fine. Soria stumbled out of the gate for the Tigers and then suffered a strained oblique that cost him a month. Nathan’s ERA was much improved the rest of the way, though his WHIP actually went up a bit (Nathan had a 5.61 ERA and a 35/14 K/BB ratio in 33 2/3 innings in the first half and a 3.70 ERA and a 19/15 K/BB ratio in 24 1/3 innings in the second half).
After Soria returned, Ausmus never wavered, not even to install Soria as the eighth-inning guy over Joba Chamberlain. While most focused on Nathan’s struggles, Chamberlain had gone from posting a 2.63 ERA in the first half to a 4.97 ERA afterwards. He had a 40/12 K/BB ratio in 37 2/3 innings prior to the All-Star break and a 19/12 K/BB ratio in 25 1/3 innings afterwards. At least in the second half, the eighth inning had proven more problematic for the Tigers than the ninth.
Yet Ausmus refused to try anything different. Maybe Soria hadn’t quite returned to form following the oblique injury, but Al Alburquerque remained criminally underused. Alburquerque had a 2.51 ERA this season, lowering his career mark to 2.82. He allowed two runs over 18 2/3 innings in August and September. He held right-handers to a .190/.281/.237 line and was still plenty respectable against lefties (.245/.311/.369). Yet his last three appearances this year came in games the Tigers lost a combined 28-9. He hasn’t pitched in the ALDS.
It’s not just the eighth inning, either. On two occasions against the Orioles, Aumsus has seemed to defer to his players against his better judgment. In Game 1, he started Davis in spite of a groin injury that had him looking more like a 40-year-old catcher than a fleet-footed center fielder. There’s no way Davis should have played (Davis started again today, then exited in the fourth because of his injury). In the sixth inning today, he sent Justin Verlander back out to the mound, only to pull him after a leadoff single (that should have been caught by Davis’s replacement, Ezequiel Carrera). If Verlander was one mistake away from coming out, why send him out to make that mistake?
Brad Ausmus’s flaw has nothing to do with intelligence. He just seems overly resistant to change. He doesn’t like tweaking his lineups: Rajai Davis has bigger platoon issues than any right-handed hitter in the game; he’s a quality leadoff man against lefties, but he really shouldn’t be starting against righties at all. Ausmus hits him ninth on a full-time basis regardless. Ian Kinsler had a .270 OBP in the second half, yet remained the everyday leadoff man. Ausmus decided it made more sense to win or lose with Chamberlain in the eighth than it did to try anything different. And now the Tigers’ season appears nearly over because of it.
Last year, Tigers manager Jim Leyland installed career infielder Jhonny Peralta, returning from his 50-game PED suspension, as his left fielder with three games left to go in the regular season. When Austin Jackson, a leadoff man all season long, struggled in the postseason, Leyland suddenly dropped him in the order in the ALCS and started hitting Torii Hunter first and Miguel Cabrera second.
Ausmus, still a rookie manager, lacks that boldness at this stage of his career. Down 2-0 to the Orioles, He’ll probably go in a different direction given a lead in the eighth inning of Game 3 on Sunday, but only because he’s really been left with no other choice (Anibal Sanchez almost surely will be that eighth-inning guy unless David Price can get through the inning himself). I still imagine Ausmus will turn into a strong manager in time, but 2014 has been a learning experience for him. It’s too bad for the Tigers that they didn’t get a year with Leyland at the helm and Ausmus as a bench coach before making the transition.