By John Perrotto
The Detroit Tigers weren't the only team to change managers this offseason. And Dave Dombrowski is hardly the first general manager to switch from a Type A personality to a Type B. However, at least on the surface, it's hard to imagine two managers being any more different than Brad Ausmus, the Tigers' new skipper and Jim Leyland, the man he's replacing.
Ausmus spent 18 years as a catcher in the major leagues before retiring from the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 2010 season. Leyland was a backup catcher in the Tigers' farm system for seven seasons from 1964 through '70 and hit .222 with four home runs.
Ausmus' only managerial or coaching experience came when he served as the manager for Israel in last year's World Baseball Classic. Leyland was a minor league manager for 11 seasons in the Detroit organization and spent 22 seasons as a major league manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies and Tigers.
The 44-year-old Ausmus looks much younger and holds a degree from Dartmouth. Leyland, who was 68 and looked 68 when he announced his retirement in October after the Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, likes to joke that he barely graduated from Perrysburg High School in his native northwestern Ohio town.
No one knows how different the two men are better than Leyland himself, which is why he gave a piece of advice to his successor that Ausmus feels is the best he has received since being hired last Nov. 3 with the hope that he can guide the Tigers to their first World Series title since 1984.
"Jim has been fantastic with me, starting with the organizational meetings we had the day after I was announced as manager," Ausmus says. "I've talked to him a lot. He's been great in two ways: One, he'll give me any information I ask for or any information that he thinks I might need, and also makes it clear, 'I'm not the manager, you are. You need to do this. Just because I'm telling you I did it this way or I like this, doesn't mean you have to say that.'"
Yet the thing about Ausmus and Leyland is that both are more similar than they appear on the surface. Though they come from different generations and different backgrounds, both believe that communication and building relationships with players is the key to managerial success. Despite his gruffness, Leyland's greatest strength was having the loyalty of his players.
"Because I'm only three years removed from playing, I think communicating with players will probably be a little bit more natural for me," Ausmus says. "Every manager and every clubhouse experience has bumps in the road, but I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what the makeup is of a player in today's baseball atmosphere.
"They're men, they're adults, and they need to be treated that way. And they're human beings. So as a manager you need to understand that these aren't assets, these are human beings, and when they struggle, they feel bad and sometimes they get upset and emotional. You have to take into account that's just part of being a human being, and not overreact to it."
There didn't appear to be much clubhouse discord during Leyland's eight-year stint with the Tigers that included two World Series appearances along with two other trips to the ALCS. There were whispers last season that rookie outfielder Avisail Garcia and first baseman Prince Fielder had problems with each other and that may have been true, considering Garcia was surprisingly dispatched to the AL Central-rival Chicago White Sox on July 30 via the Boston Red Sox in a three-team trade and Fielder was dealt to the Texas Rangers on Nov. 20.
"If you've got players that get along, you're generally not going to have those issues," Ausmus says. "Now, even brothers get in fights sometimes. So I'm sure there will be the occasional bump in the road. The most important thing is the players themselves. Although I can't speak from experience, everything I've heard about this clubhouse has been positive. Other than that, the only thing I can say is I'll deal with it when it happens. I hope that my communication skills bear some fruit in this situation."
Ausmus is in a situation that has become increasingly more common in recent seasons, becoming a major league manager without much or any managing or coaching experience at any level. Other current examples of that phenomenon include the St. Louis Cardinals' Mike Matheny and the Chicago White Sox' Robin Ventura.
Ausmus' post-playing career has consisted of working as a special assistant in the San Diego Padres' front office. However, he was so well-regarded within the game that he began popping up on lists of potential managerial candidates the winter after he quit playing. Furthermore, Ausmus likely would have been hired by the Astros to be their manager following the 2012 season rather than Bo Porter if he had agreed to live in Houston year-round. Ausmus didn't want to uproot his family, which includes two teenaged daughters, from their Del Mar, Calif., home.
"There is a faction in the baseball industry who have come to the conclusion that maybe the communication with players is as important, and sometimes more important than the actual chalkboard X's and O's," Ausmus says. "The length of the season makes this communication and kind of a clean atmosphere in the clubhouse much more important than, say, it would in a [16-]game football season."
Among the managers Ausmus played for were two long-timers in Joe Torre and Phil Garner, and he credits both with being great influences on his career. However, another unconventional manager, Larry Dierker, made a big impact on Ausmus.
Dierker was a star pitcher for the Astros but had never been in uniform in a non-playing capacity until coming out of Houston's broadcast booth to manage the team from 1997 through 2001. Ausmus was the Astros' starting catcher in each of Dierker's first two seasons and again in '01.
"I was in my fourth year in the big leagues and he actually handed me the reins to control the running game -- the first and thirds, I would call whether we threw to second or pump-faked, and at the time I thought he was throwing a lot on my plate," Ausmus says. "I was only 28 years old. But looking back, that taught me a lot about the game of baseball. Because I had to figure out when to pitch out, who we were supposed to throw to. It was fortunate for me. A lot of catchers don't get that option at 28, they don't get that opportunity."
Because of that, Ausmus says he's likely to give his players their share of autonomy on the field. And, in a bit of a surprise, considering he finished his playing career in baseball's stat-driven era, Ausmus says he will not necessarily use sabermetrics in the construction of his batting order or other strategic decisions.
Sabermetrics were definitely not Leyland's thing. When asked early last season if he felt there was no such thing as a clutch hitter and that high-RBI players such as the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera are more a product of having a greater number of plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Leyland responded with this: "Let me tell you something about sabermetrics and all that talk about on-base percentage. You can stick on-base percentage up your ass. You're going to get a certain number of guys on base in most games. For me, I'll take slugging percentage. I'll take the guys who drive in runs. There aren't a lot of those guys and they are special hitters."
Ausmus isn't likely to go on an anti-sabermetric rant, but he does think that teams may be leaning a little too much on numbers-crunching in this era, especially when it comes to matters of defensive shifting.
"Some organizations are a lot more numbers-oriented and dictate that it trickles down a lot more to the on-field personnel, but I don't know that that will be the case in Detroit," Ausmus says. "That being said, there's no question I've learned through my catching years and game preparation that there are some numbers that you can heed. There's some numbers that can be very important and they're worth listening to.
"But there's also times where you have to understand that regardless of what the numbers say, you're dealing with human beings. And the human factor is something that has to be taken into account."
Sounds like the perfect blend of new-school and old-school to fill the shoes of a decidedly old-school manager.