Although it did not happen precisely as I predicted, the Tigers scored enough runs off new Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz to allow rejuvenated starter Justin Verlander to depart after the sixth inning with a 2-1 Detroit lead. The offense added insurance runs in the seventh and eighth, but, with Justin Wilson on to take care of the power portion of the Boston batting order in the bottom of the eighth, the situation quickly became dicey:
Those skyrocketing green leverage index bars right before the red ones are what pop up when you load the bases before you get any outs. Not good if you’re on defense. Wilson secured the first out by way of a strikeout, but the next batter singled, driving in a run and narrowing Detroit’s lead to two, with the bases loaded and only one out. That will earn you your first red leverage index bar of the night.
Wilson always looks a bit fidgety on the mound, and with the home crowd mockingly chanting his name like they would that of a visiting hockey goalie who appeared to be cracking under pressure, Wilson mustered his second strikeout of the inning. The reliever appeared, if not relieved, then not unhappy when manager Brad Ausmus came out to fetch him, surrendering the ball without protest. The team’s closer, Francisco Rodriguez, would be coming in to attempt a four-out save.
Not three weeks ago, a nearly identical situation presented itself to Ausmus and the Tigers. They were on the road in Toronto– another team they’re chasing in the AL Wild Card race– that night, and Verlander left in the sixth inning with Detroit up one. That favorable margin held through the top of the eighth inning, and Wilson was back out to handle the bottom of the eighth. He quickly got himself in trouble, putting two men on base. The next two batters made outs, but Wilson walked the third, leaving himself with bases loaded, two outs, and the slimmest of leads to protect. Last night, Ausmus went to his surest option, Rodriguez, in that spot, but on that night in Toronto, he turned to Alex Wilson, a decidedly less sure option, who immediately proved as such by surrendering the lead for good.
Some immediately wondered why Ausmus turned to Alex Wilson in what, as illustrated above, was the highest leverage moment of the game (7.88 LI), rather than Francisco Rodriguez, who is the team’s nominal closer. K-Rod was very well-rested and has been performing very well in recent weeks. To all but the most rigid of old-school managers, this seemed like a fairly obvious move. Ausmus addressed the subject in his post-game media conference:
Asked if he considered using Rodriguez for the final out in the eighth, Ausmus said: “I thought about it. I didn’t want to do that again.”
“I think I did it once,” Ausmus said. “I’d prefer not to use K-Rod for four outs.”
Ausmus said it wasn’t due to Rodriguez saying anything after the four-out effort in June.
“Just for me, personal preference,” Ausmus said. “If he was 25 maybe. But I’d rather not do it too often.”
There’s a book to be written on bullpen strategy, and I don’t intend to approach that territory here. Instead, it’s enough to review Ausmus’ statements and try to take him at his word. Doing so reveals the faulty internal logic of Ausmus’ position, which emanates from his apparent, unstated, and incorrect assumption that, if he brought Rodriguez in for the third out of the eighth, he would have to leave him in to secure all three outs in the ninth. If the coaches were worried about Rodriguez’s workload, they could have limited his assignment to the narrow task of closing out the eighth inning and used Alex Wilson in the ninth. Assuming Rodriguez preserved the one-run lead and the Tigers’ 7-8-9 batters failed to add to it, the ninth still would be a challenge, but Wilson would have the benefit of facing Toronto’s bottom three hitters with three empty bases at his disposal. (If Ausmus was worried about Wilson’s ability to get all three outs in the ninth, he also could’ve sent Rodriguez back out to give Wilson a head start.)
When the circumstance presented itself again last night, however, Ausmus appeared to have changed his mind. He called on Rodriguez to secure four outs, which the veteran did by retiring the only four batters he faced, allowing no runs in the process.
Ausmus’ decision was a welcome one, but it left me wondering what changed to cause him to deviate from his seemingly firm stance against asking K-Rod to complete four-out saves. The manager again addressed the subject in his post-game media conference:
Ausmus, who has used his 34-year-old closer in such a situation only once previously this season (in a win over the Los Angeles Angels on June 1), cited a multitude of reasons that prompted him to relent.
“The stars have to align a little bit. First of all, it has to be a game I feel like we really need to win — a must-win, stop a slide, whatever it is. But secondly, it’s got to kind of line up,” Ausmus explained. “Tonight, if [reliever] Justin Wilson doesn’t get [Red Sox outfielder Brock] Holt out, I end up going to Alex Wilson against [Red Sox outfielder Mookie] Betts. I don’t want to ask K-Rod to get a five-out save. So I mean, some things have to align as well.”
In terms of satisfying the first requirement, Ausmus says he thought it was imperative.
“We’re coming off a day yesterday where we had two walkoffs against us. We hadn’t swung the bat great the last few days,” Ausmus said. “We got some hits, managed to score runs [tonight] and I just felt we needed to nail this one down.”
This explanation doesn’t exactly stand up either, since it’s not clear last night’s game was any more or less important than the one in Toronto, and if Justin Wilson didn’t get the second out (Brock Holt) but Alex Wilson did, it still likely would’ve made sense to bring in Rodriguez at that point. (The sabermetrically inclined also may be interested to note that the LI for Rodriguez’s entrance last night— 6.05– actually was lower than it was the moment he should’ve entered the Toronto game, though both were the highest-leverage moments of their respective games.)
On the rare occasions they do reverse strategic course, managers rarely admit that they’ve even done so, much less explain why. When the decision is the right one, though, those admissions and explanations tend to be a bit less important. At the very least, it leaves us to wonder whether Ausmus’ thinking on the subject actually has evolved or he simply wanted to avoid a second negative critique in these digital pages.
Catching Fire: Tigers offered another opportunity tonight against Pomeranz – 7/25
Catching Fire: Brad Ausmus is not saying, he’s just saying – 7/8
Catching Fire: Ian Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of the MLB All Star Game – 7/6
Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs – 6/21
Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf – 6/16
Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short? – 6/15
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity – 5/17
Catching Fire: Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time – 5/3
Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two? – 5/2
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