Brad Ausmus needs a quicker hook


Gather 'round, ye infallible Armchair Managers! Lick your chops, you Masters of Perfect Hindsight Vision! This post is your dream come true, because we're going to talk about every baseball fan's favorite subject: the stupid [bleeping] manager left the [bleeping] [bleep] [bleep] starting pitcher in the game too long. BUT THIS TIME WE'RE GOING TO USE STATISTICS TO PROVE IT!

Ok, so maybe it's not as simple as that. In fact, it's definitely not as simple as that. The decision to pull a starting pitcher is almost always a no-win decision for the manager. If you're Brad Ausmus in 2016, first of all, god help you, but second, these are the things you have to keep in mind when deciding how long to leave your starting pitcher in the game:

  • Is he pitching a reasonably good game?
  • How many pitches has he thrown?
  • How much workload have I thrown on my bullpen lately?
  • How much do I trust the bullpen arms I have available?
  • How many times has the pitcher gone through the opposing team's batting order?
  • Is Mike Pelfrey pitching, and is it still the first inning, and if so, why haven't I pulled him already?

That second-to-last question is very important. Mitchel Lichtman wrote a fascinating article at Baseball Prospectus in 2013 about this nasty little thing called the "Times Through the Order Penalty." It's real, and it should keep you awake at night. The irrefutable evidence is that batters get better and better with each new plate appearance against the same starting pitcher. In fact, batters gain roughly 10 points of wOBA (weighted on-base average) every time they face that pitcher in the game.

We saw this in action with Tigers starter Matt Boyd during Thursday's game against the Yankees. He pitched six full innings and had only thrown a measly 70 pitches. (On average, a pitcher would have thrown 90 pitches by this point, so Boyd was cruising.) But he had also started his third trip through the batting order, when opposing hitters really start gaining a bigger advantage.

What do you do if you're Brad Ausmus? Send him back out for the seventh inning, or be thankful for the six strong innings of one-run, three-hit pitching and hand it over to the bullpen?

This is where the decision becomes full of fail no matter what choice is made. If Boyd goes back out and starts getting hit (which is what happened), Ausmus is a fool for ignoring the Times Through the Order Penalty. If the bullpen takes over and performs poorly, Ausmus is a fool for pulling his starter after he'd only allowed one run on three hits and was only up to 70 pitches.

Matt Boyd is not the only Tigers starter who suffers from the Times Through the Order Penalty. Here are the career OPS numbers against the other starting pitches:


*Boyd's numbers are taken from his second time through the order -- there is a sharp drop-off in the number of batters Boyd faces a second time vs a third time, and in his case, it's interesting to note that he suffers a harsher penalty as early as the second time through the order

But enough empathizing with Brad Ausmus, already, this is starting to make me feel all vomit-y inside.

The specific situation with Boyd on Thursday night aside, this seems to be an on-going problem for the Tigers' manager. According to Baseball Prospectus, Ausmus leads MLB in Blown Quality Starts. (That is, instances in which a pitcher had a Quality Start of six innings or more, allowing three runs or less, only to lose it by allowing more runs after the sixth inning.)

No, the Quality Start statistic isn't perfect. And no, a blown quality start isn't 100 percent a manager's responsibility. It might not even be 50 percent the manager's responsibility, but it's at least part of it. The Tigers have had more than a few pitchers in the past couple years who weren't always good at pitching past the sixth inning, but a manager has to adjust to that information and be smart about knowing when he's gotten the best performance out of his guys. He's got to know when it's time to fold his cards and move on to the next (bullpen) hand.

The fact that Brad Ausmus leads MLB in blown quality starts might be nothing more than an interesting factoid, if it was limited to 2016. But let's look at the last six years just for fun:


I shouldn't have said "just for fun." That didn't seem fun. 

Brad Ausmus has led all of baseball in blown quality starts for two seasons and some change, which seems significant given a few other facts: no other MLB team has led the league in blown quality starts in back-to-back seasons since before 1995 (and probably further, I just stopped checking once I got that far back), and -- perhaps more importantly -- Brad Ausmus has accomplished this feat with two very different sets of starting rotations and bullpens.

In other words, this can't be explained away by saying "he's had crappy starting rotations to work with," or "blame it on bad bullpens." That argument might hold water for a single season, but not for back-to-back seasons (one of which featured a rotation with three former Cy Young Award winners), and certainly not when he's making a bid for a "three-peat" already in 2016.

It's not easy for a manager to know when to pull his starter. In a perfect world, starters could be relied on for seven or eight strong innings every time, and a lights-out bullpen could be counted on for one or two innings every game. But it's not a perfect world, and baseball is not a push-button strategy sport.

Unfortunately, blown quality starts only reveal yet another area in which Brad Ausmus proves that he's not very good at in-the-moment management, when improvisation or ability to rapidly adjust to new situations is required.
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