Initial impressions all indicate that this is a year of exciting change for the Detroit Tigers. Under the leadership of first-year manager Brad Ausmus and with a lineup transformed by off-season acquisitions, the squad has morphed from a plodding bunch of bashers into a much more versatile all-around baseball club.
Ausmus’s mark was evident from the very first games. No more just sitting back and waiting for the home run. He wants the Tigers to try new things that take their game to a new level of assertiveness, challenging the opposition with more daring strategies. On offense that means being more aggressive on the bases. It was shocking to see Austin Jackson try to stretch a routine single into a double against the Royals’ strong-armed outfielder Alex Gordon, but, even though he was thrown out, Ausmus applauded the effort. Trying to force defensive mistakes is part of the new Tigers strategy. We even saw Victor Martinez alertly stealing second base when a pitch was bobbled by the catcher. The component of speed and the philosophy of smarter base running is the most obvious change on what last year was a station-to-station club.
Taking the game to the opponent also means that Ausmus is among the growing ranks of big league managers making more use of increasingly sophisticated spray charts to employ aggressive defensive shifts — sending third baseman Nick Castellanos into short right field against lefty pull hitters like Chris Davis, for instance. Clearly, this is a manager who’s progressive in his thinking and comfortable with using advanced statistics to inform his decisions.
It starts with how Ausmus fills out his lineup card. After years of daily set-in-stone lineups that reflected the rigid mindset of Jim Leyland, it’s refreshing to see Ausmus’s more flexible approach. In only the second game of the season, he made a lineup change that would have been unthinkable under Leyland: starting rookie Tyler Collins instead of Rajai Davis in left field and Alex Avila at catcher against Royals lefty Jason Vargas instead of reflexively going with as many right-handed-hitting platoon players as possible. It’s not a secret that Vargas is “backwards”: throughout his career he’s been consistently better against right-handed batters than against lefty swingers. But to Tiger fans, having lineups that are altered day to day based on how batters match up against the opponents’ starting pitcher seems almost revolutionary.
Ausmus is open in post-game press conferences to discussing any aspect of the day’s games — quite a contrast to Leyland’s mumbling platitudes. He has no pretense about him. He’s learning on the job, open to new ideas, not set in his ways. Surely he’ll make his share of rookie mistakes, but at least he’s willing to think outside the box.
How many ways can you say “breath of fresh air”?
Successful managers and teams think freshly about each new situation in each new game. Yes, there are consistent ways to approach offensive and defensive problems, but you must be able to adapt and keep in mind that each game and each situation within a game is distinct. What works one time doesn’t necessary work in every instance. Strategy has to be sound, but it also has to be flexible.
So far, there are many promising signs that are evidence he team is responding to this new approach. Austin Jackson looks a lot more comfortable batting fifth instead of leadoff, Ian Kinsler seems to love being on his new team, Castellanos is settling in (despite making his own rookie mistakes such as running through a coach’s stop sign at third base), Victor Martinez excels hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and playing occasional first base and catcher, and Rajai Davis is a pitcher’s nightmare (if he can only get on base).
Much remains uncertain. Shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine are huge question marks, but both are trying to make the most of their opportunities to salvage their stalled careers. The bullpen remains the team’s potential Achilles heel and looked pretty shaky during the first week, from Joe Nathan on down. This year’s Torii Hunter does not resemble a former Gold Glover.
This Tiger team needs some time to really jell. But it’s great to witness a fresh start, innovative thinking, and new life. Though the solid core of this club remains unchanged, last off-season’s moves were more than just tinkering. The Tigers have finally moved into the 21st century, and it’s about time.