Toward the end of this past week we began hearing rumors that the Tigers had decided to fire manager Brad Ausmus at the end of the season. The conversation has largely centered around whether the rumor is correct and the rather ugly optics of forcing Ausmus to manage the last few weeks of the season when he knows he’s about to get fired. I want to discuss how it applies to the White Sox.
Brad Ausmus did not have any managerial experience when he was hired by Detroit. His resume entirely consisted of being a former player — much like Robin Ventura. Unlike Ventura, Ausmus had been pegged as a future manager rather prominently at the end of his playing career. Sure, a lot of that has to do with him being a long-tenured no-bat-great-fielding catcher — a classic managerial profile — but it was in stark contrast with Ventura’s, “I had never considered managing” posture.
Ausmus inherited a ready-made World Series contender in his debut in 2014 and sure enough the expensive, veteran Tigers won their fourth AL Central in a row as expected. 2015, as we are all aware, has not gone so well. As some — myself included — had predicted, age began catching up with Detroit’s core. After years of trading prospects and sacrificing first round picks in a very legitimate World Series push, the Tigers had almost zero internal depth and had basically punched themselves out.
I admit, I don’t follow Ausmus’ in-game management all that much. He has generally had set-it-and-forget-it lineups and a bullpen devoid of talent, so it’s not like he had a ton of choices to make. I have not heard of any tension in the Tigers’ clubhouse, nor have I seen any problematic quotes from Ausmus. I don’t recall Tigers Twitter going bonkers over excessive bunting or getting caught stealing. For all that I think it’s facile to excuse everything a manager does by saying, “Well it’s the players’ fault” — as you will see below — I fail to see what Ausmus did wrong here.
Perhaps the Tigers simply want to be able to tell whomever they hire to replace Dave Dombrowski as permanent GM that they can pick their manager. Seems like a good enough reason, but if that’s the only reason that’s hardly the type of thing that necessitates rumors and internal meetings and gossip such that a leak would occur.
Regardless, all of this is fascinating to me as it would be a jarring setback for the new wave of managers of which Ventura is a member — former players with zero managerial experience. Ausmus is another, alongside recently terminated Mike Redmond and Mike Matheny in St. Louis. Like I said — Ventura is a bit of an outlier even in that group not being a former plus-defense catcher. Walt Weiss is another recent addition in this crew (not a catcher!) but Colorado is not exactly a model franchise, nor should their decision making be emulated.
Regardless, it would seem that Detroit has decided to dump Ausmus in half the time it has taken the White Sox, even if Chicago parts ways with Ventura this offseason.
I have been a rather vocal critic of Ventura. It’s been an odd and painful transition going from Huge Fan of Robin Ventura the Player to Miserable Critic of Robin Ventura the Manager, but here we are.
Up front, I want to say that Ventura is not without his positive traits. To his credit, the players seem to love playing for him. Despite the fact that 2015 has turned into a grim death march of disappointment and embarrassment, the players are still smiling and coming up with fun celebrations. That’s great, and the longer I work a demanding job the more I understand the emphasis placed on a happy work environment. Ventura is constantly calm and poised, no matter what happens on the field.
That said, Ventura has seemed massively overmatched by the challenges of managing since he began. This proved a disaster in 2012 as his in-game tactics, I believe, cost the White Sox enough close games down the stretch to lose them a playoff berth. Robin’s primary defense since that season has been, “Well, he hasn’t had anything to work with.”
I am inclined to agree that pretty much nothing Robin could have done in 2013-2015 would have changed the rosters he had into playoff contenders. That said, that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do damage. In July and August of 2013, with the outcome of the season already clear, that didn’t stop Ventura from leaning so hard on Nate Jones and Addison Reed that the former was injured the next season and Addison Reed has never quite been effective ever since.
In addition, Ventura has proven to lack any intuitive sense of strategy and needs to be burned several times before he learns if he ever learns at all. Despite having a top notch pitching staff and playing in the American League, the White Sox are 12th in the majors in IBBs — third in the AL.* In 2014, Ventura ordered the sixth most IBBs in the majors (third in the AL again).
*Remember: IBBs are infinitely more defensible in the National League where pitchers hit badly enough that it often makes sense to walk the guy ahead of them.
Robin has also struggled with figuring out when to issue replay challenges and in constructing lineups. I appreciate that he doesn’t have a lot of functional bats, but it has been demonstrated that you should hit your best bat second in the order. This isn’t very complicated — you want your best hitters to hit more often. Sometimes Ventura seems to understand this — randomly, and fitfully putting Abreu second from time to time. Other times he doesn’t, running the sub-.600 OPS of Tyler Saladino in second, with no discernible basis for doing so.
Then there are the intangible things that all, in some way or another, fall at Ventura’s feet. Despite being a largely veteran team that has increasingly attempted to stock its lineup with speed, the White Sox have been an atrocious base running team this season. They’ve also been prone to long losing streaks and completely crumble whenever the opportunity arises to save their season. See, e.g., the week after the trade deadline.
They have also shown a proclivity to allow a divisional opponent (or two) to completely dominate them for a given season. I suppose that’s an old organizational trait but at least when it came to the Twins of the early 2000s that could be chalked up to an inherent stylistic matchup problem (e.g. Twins had tons of contact hitters who played good defense in a really gimmicky park which played well against a White Sox team that deployed bad defenses and relied on strikeout pitchers). In 2013, the Indians went 17-2 against the White Sox.
This year, the team has gone 6-12 (with a -44 run differential!) against the Twins, but now no longer have any obvious reason to explain it. Flip that around and it’s the White Sox who are one game out of the Wild Card, not the Twins.
In Jonah Keri’s excellent Up, Up, and Away, I was struck by his lengthy descriptions of how Jerry Manuel was instrumental in player development. It’s hard to prove causation with things like that, but the White Sox did excel in producing impact bats internally while Manuel as at the helm.
Ventura’s tenure has been similar to Guillen’s in the sense that White Sox position players almost uniformly underperform. Sure, it’s unsurprising when old, strikeout prone players like Adam Dunn or Adam LaRoche crater, or when marginal talents like Emilio Bonifacio or Tyler Saladino are complete zeros with the bat. But the fact remains that the offense has been so bad for so long that Baseball Reference now thinks that U.S. Cellular Field is a pitcher’s park of a magnitude rivaling PetCo or SafeCo. Mind you, this isn’t all on Ventura, but it’s yet another aspect of his job where you could possibly find an intangible in his favor, and instead find yet another element utterly lacking.
At this point, the only thing we can see that Ventura does well is keep the players happy. If that doesn’t translate to performance, I think that diminishes the value you can attribute to that. Besides, it’s not like we have to accept that this is a zero sum game. It is possible to find someone who keeps people happy AND has a positive impact on performance AND is a decent tactical manager. It’s also hard to find those if you seek out inexperienced managers without a credible interview process, such as the “search” the White Sox employed after the 2011 season.
Manager is one of the easiest places to make changes to your personnel, certainly from a financial and contractual perspective. Ventura hasn’t been given a ton of talent, but he hasn’t demonstrated any ability to get the most out of it. If you can improve something about your team, you should do it. There are good managerial candidates out there, and the White Sox should actually make a sincere effort to hire one.
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