Detroit Tigers Win, but Jim Leyland Getting Hard to Defend


That doesn’t mean I won’t try. All season long Jim Leyland has been taking a lot of abuse from fans over his management of lineups and the bullpen. A lot of the complaints haven’t been much more than perfect hindsight – some are different and they boil down to one big fault: Jim Leyland runs the team by rules of thumb. If you have a role, you’re going to be called upon time and again to fulfill the responsibilities of that role. Roles are predetermined and inflexible. At times (and this is a deliberate understatement) this is going to make Jim Leyland look foolish.

Oct 7, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland (10) talks to the media before game two of the 2012 ALDS against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-US PRESSWIRE

Not that I really need to mention this, but Jim Leyland took a lot of justifiable abuse for keeping Jose Valverde in game 4 of the ALDS after allowing the tying run to score. He is going to take a lot of justifiable abuse for bringing Jose Valverde out in the 9th in New York last night and for keeping him out there long enough to let Raul Ibanez tie the game. Clearly, in retrospect, Jose Valverde simply didn’t have it that night (leaving aside concerns about his effectiveness over the course of the season) and had Octavio Dotel been brought in to face Raul Ibanez after the embarrassing walk of Mark Teixeira – in a situation when the best strategy was to soft-toss a BP fastball down the heart of the plate Valverde simply couldn’t – the game would never have made it past 9 innings.

I can get behind Leyland’s decision to keep Valverde in game 4 of the ALDS, just like I can support his decision to keep Valverde in the closer role all season long. He hadn’t been great, but he hadn’t been terrible either. I can even get behind his decision to bring Valverde out there in the 9th in the Bronx – though I and every other Tigers fan can probably admit to having a “bad feeling” about it. Valverde was going to be needed later in the season and that situation – 4 ahead – was a decent low-risk way to see whether Valverde could be counted upon at all. There’s also a lot to be said for the idea of getting a reliever right back out there as soon as possible after a blow-up to show that he still has your confidence (even if he doesn’t) and so that a good outing can restore his own. Had Valverde failed to get Robinson Cano out, I’m guessing Leyland would have given him the hook – but that strikeout gave Valverde a new lease on life. Then came Teixeira…

I can’t get behind that decision to leave Valverde in after walking Mark Teixeira… again, that was a situation in which a walk is just about the worst thing you can do. Valverde started 0-2, after striking out the previous two batters, but after Teixeira worked the count full the Big Potato simply could not groove it in there: it sailed high on him as so many pitches had already that inning. Raul Ibanez is – for one thing – a left-handed power hitter playing with a right field wall seemingly 12 feet behind first base. Valverde struggles against lefties, this is known fact. Ibanez is also just about the hottest hitter on that Yankees team. If you’re managing to win game 1, you regard Ibanez as the tying run at the plate and strategize to get that one out. Leyland didn’t.

That isn’t what I would have done. I doubt it’s the decision you would have made either. Frankly, Jim Leyland makes an awful lot of decisions that I wouldn’t have made and does not run that team – in any way, shape or form – like I would run that team. But… I have the feeling that he’s a whole hell of a lot better manager than I could ever be. In essense, my defense of Jim Leyland (in that decision and in general) boils down to this: making the “optimal” decision at that moment of the game is rarely going to be the best thing for the team.

Jim Leyland does take roles seriously. He also takes showing confidence in his players seriously. He plays the guys that he has, no one really ever gets into his “doghouse” even when they get in mine or yours. I want to draw a contrast there with other venerable managers like Dusty Baker who DO have “doghouses” it can be hard for players to escape – which can really ruin a young player’s career. In the present context, let me reduce it to this: Jim Leyland takes the idea of pulling Jose Valverde much more seriously than you do. Jim Leyland also takes the idea of removing Jose Valverde from the closer role much more seriously than you do… and he might have a point. How often have you seen a closer removed from the role after a string of blown saves only to see him excel in a setup role while some other guy pitches worse than him in save situations? Remember Matt Thornton in 2011? He blew 4 straight saves for the White Sox in April and lost the job, but from May 1 on he put up a 2.45 ERA with a .574 OPS allowed.

Guys with good stuff and good track records seen to usually get it together, but managers are loath to give them the closer job back once they have put somebody else in it. Pulling Valverde from yesterday’s game was akin to removing him from the closer role – something that Leyland would not do in the ALDS and would not do before he had allowed that fourth run to cross home plate last night. It’s an irrevocable change of role. With or without that Ibanez home run it would be – and will be – hard to bring Jose Valverde out there in a critical situation this October. Now he has been forced to make that change in role – though his official position as of last night’s press conference is that they need to discuss it – and he has a lot of uncertainty to deal with both in how Valverde’s replacement will fare in similar situations and what to do with Valverde himself. Do be honest, I do feel that he could be effective in the LOOGY role that Dotel has filled (based on stuff and splits) – but it’s very hard to predict how he will react to the change in role and the failures that led to it. It would be better, for all concerned, if Valverde had simply pulled himself together and gotten a weak grounder from Ibanez, wouldn’t it? In a sense, the Tigers lose (in terms of future games, not that one) from pulling Valverde before or after the game was tied – so it shouldn’t be hard to see why Jim Leyland kept doubling down even though we know he lost the bet.

Now we’re left with an interesting question: who closes tomorrow? Obviously it might never come up, but still… Valverde is tainted, Dotel threw more than an inning (and has known vulnerabilities to lefty bats). Joaquin Benoit has been almost as awful lately as Valverde… he blew game 2 of the ALDS and gave up a couple of rockets last night that didn’t affect the box score. Will we see Al Alburquerque? He IS the only guy (other than Porcello) who didn’t pitch last night and he could be due for an audition for the 2013 closer job. With luck, we’ll see who Leyland picks with a lead in the 9th of game 2.