Ausmus not tied to old or new school of thinking
New Tigers manager sees value in sabermetrics, but doesn't believe it's the only way
DETROIT -- The question was bound to come up to Brad Ausmus, just as it will to any young first-time manager. With Ausmus, though, the question of sabermetrics posed at his introductory news conference Sunday was different.
He's a well-respected player who spent 18 years catching in the Major Leagues, but he's also a Dartmouth alumnus with studies in government. Not only is he aware of the eruption of statistics as a practical use in the game, he lived it.
So on Sunday, he was asked whether he's a sabermetrics proponent or an old-school manager. His answer says a little about why he proved so appealing to the Tigers.
"I don't think you have to do either," he began.
The Tigers spent the last eight years with a manager in Jim Leyland who seemed to have the face of an old-school skipper, even though Leyland sometimes bristled at the term. His boss, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, has been a GM since well before the days of Ultimate Zone Rating and Wins Above Replacement. He has always relied on the strength of a veteran, well-trusted scouting staff.
At the same time, the Tigers have quietly built a presence in their front office for number crunching and advanced metrics. Their director of baseball operations, Mike Smith, has been part of Dombrowski's team since Dombrowski took over in 2002, and has been supplying statistical and market analysis in everything from arbitration cases to potential player moves. The Tigers added to that capability earlier this year by hiring a statistical analyst coordinator, Sam Menzin.
When the Tigers were weighing the possibility two seasons ago of moving Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Prince Fielder at first, they were aware of the defensive metrics. It wasn't going to dictate their move, but they wanted to know how the expected difference in such factors as Defensive Runs Saved, a statistic created by Baseball Info Solutions, compared to the expected gain in runs on offense. It's the same due diligence they put into weighing Jhonny Peralta as a full-time shortstop a few years ago, or signing veteran defensive stalwart Adam Everett to be their shortstop in 2009.
Even Leyland adapted to some trends as the years went on, mainly on specialized splits on hitters and pitchers. Even if he didn't always make his moves in accordance with the trends, he was increasingly aware of them.
With Ausmus, they have a manager who has seen the rise in sabermetrics. They don't have a manager who's necessarily tied to them.
"I think there's some value to some of that," Ausmus said. "I can tell you that players do not like to be inundated with numbers. They don't want to know what a pitcher's [tendencies are], what percentage of fastballs he throws in a 2-1 count. It's just not usable information. But I think if you can take some of that statistical information and grind it down into a usable piece of information that you can hand off to a player, I think that can be important. I don't think it has to be one school or the other."
In terms of statistical information for on-field moves, usable information is the key term. And in that sense, Ausmus' response sounds a little like Leyland, and a lot like Dombrowski. The Tigers want the same access to statistics and metrics as anybody else. They'll leave it up to the individual how to use it, from the players to the manager.
"As I've told [Ausmus], in today's game, we can supply you with any information you want -- statistically, film-wise, any information you could possibly want," Dombrowski said. "You tell us what you want. We've got all those capabilities, however he uses them. He's a very intelligent guy. He's smart, so he'll use what he needs to."
That part, Dombrowski suggested, isn't that much different than in the past.
"When I first started, I remember sitting in the clubhouse and the manager's office and talking about this guy hits such and such vs. left-handed pitching, such and such vs. right-handed pitching," Dombrowski said. "But now we've got so much more. They used to chart every single game, every single ball hit. They had their own spray charts. They knew that back then. Now it's computerized.
"It's not that they didn't do it. It's a little easier to get at this time. But now we just have so many, and that's where you have to be careful."
How Ausmus uses the stats remains to be seen. Because he has never managed a season at the pro level before, there are no tendencies to hint at it. Because Ausmus has stayed out of the public eye to a degree the past few years since his retirement, there's no past publicity querying his philosophies, either.
It came up during the interview process, Dombrowski said.
"We talked strategy and all that, and I think it's important," Dombrowski said. "I think he falls in today's game where there's times you need to bunt, but I'm just not necessarily a guy that's going to believe in bunting all the time. I think he answered the question, and that's how he would relate: If it makes sense for me to do something, I'll do it."
Ausmus also talked during his news conference about his bullpen usage and how relief roles can change depending upon the opponent. That said, the Tigers are clearly going to have a set closer, whether Ausmus uses him in the same way Leyland did.
Whether Ausmus will make out a batting order based on statistical trends is another matter, and something that might not be clear until Spring Training. Ausmus' background, at least, suggests he's a fan of the process of figuring things out.
"The truth is, when I played, I always enjoyed the cerebral part of the game," Ausmus said. "It was much more difficult to hit. That was the part of the game I didn't really enjoy. And from what Dave tells me, I don't have to hit in this role."