Ausmus preparing to form own identity at the helm
First-time skipper ready to blend old- and new-school philosophies
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Look at Brad Ausmus' career statistics, and you'll find 102 stolen bases in his career, making him one of just a couple dozen catchers to swipe 100. Fitting, then, that he's eluding managerial stereotypes.
At just 44 years of age, three years separated from playing, with a degree from Dartmouth, a defensive coordinator on his staff, an appreciation for advance scouting and a clear idea toward the value of the extra base, Ausmus gives the initial impression of a new-school manager. He wants his team to be aggressive, places a premium on defense and is ready to employ infield shifts based on statistical tendencies among other factors.
At the same time, Ausmus sounds like an old-schooler when he preaches an appreciation for the structure of set bullpen roles. The former catcher says he considers the ninth inning different for a pitcher than any other inning in a game, still readily values the three-run homer, hesitates to inundate players with advanced metrics and isn't ready to ban home-plate collisions entirely.
"I am a little bit old-school in the sense that I don't want to turn home plate into just another tag play," Ausmus said. "This is a run. This is the difference between possibly making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. It should matter a little bit more."
Even the question of a managerial mentor doesn't define him. Asked who first told him he'd make a good manager, he had a witty answer.
"It was probably a reporter," Ausmus quipped.
In short, don't try to define him before he takes the field this coming spring. In many ways, he's a manager as unique as the situation in which he finds himself.
He's the rare first-time manager with the fortune of being around his predecessor, Jim Leyland, regularly during this week's Winter Meetings. Instead of replacing Leyland, he's succeeding him, and he gets a World Series contender and three-time defending division champion for his first managerial job.
The Tigers arguably followed recent trends in hiring him, but he doesn't necessarily follow the recent trends for how he'll handle the job.
"No question, there's going to be a learning curve," Ausmus said. "I've never done it before. I've been able to watch some pretty good managers [such] Joe Torre, Phil Garner. Especially the second half of my career, I've watched some good managers and how they've dealt with situations and personnel. So I'm hoping to go into my databanks there and recall situations and apply it myself to the Tigers."
He now has a team with the makings of a vastly different style than the one he inherited a month ago. Where Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera once manned the infield corners, Cabrera is now back at first base with Nick Castellanos at third in an improved defensive infield. Moreover, a team that was seen as plodding around the bases last season has added speed as a factor while sacrificing some power.
This is not Leyland's team, in more ways than one.
"It's a little bit different," Ausmus said of his offense. "You take Prince Fielder's bat out of there, that's a little bit of thump being removed from the lineup. But you add a little bit more of a dynamic player in [Ian] Kinsler.
"There's many ways to skin a cat. The home run is not the only way to score runs in baseball. You can do it through the 'small ball,' you can do it through home runs, you can do it through a combination. It's a little different, but I still think a potent offense."
When asked about a report that the Tigers planned on using more defensive shifts this season, though, Ausmus hesitated.
"To say we're going to shift or not going to shift, I think it's premature," he said. "But we will be looking at that information. Dave [Dombrowski, team president/general manager] has been very candid about saying, 'Hey, we're going to let you handle that stuff any way you want.'"
Ausmus has spent these Winter Meetings picking his predecessor's brain, from the planning of Spring Training to the evaluations on his players. He won't have Leyland around when Spring Training opens in February, but he'll have Leyland around for most of camp. He wants Leyland's presence and expertise, but he clearly wants his own identity.
"Jim was one of the best managers of his time, and we're talking about the time where there was some pretty darned good managers. Three just got elected to the Hall of Fame," Ausmus said. "But I don't go in trying to be Jim Leyland. I'm not Jim Leyland. I wouldn't expect anybody to want me to be Jim Leyland. In talking to a few managers that I know here, [such as] Mike Scioscia, I was talking today about this, he said the most important thing is to be yourself.
"If I try to emulate Jim Leyland or be Jim Leyland, I think people would look at me as being kind of fake. It doesn't carry a lot of weight. Certainly wouldn't gain any respect. The most important thing is being myself."