The Case For Jim Leyland


My Mom hates Jim Leyland.

Suffice it to say, she has her armchair pedigree like most of us – a die-hard Lions fan since the glory days of the ’50’s, veteran viewer of hundreds of little league games and thousands of George Kell-narrated broadcasts, starts every day with a pot of coffee and “Mike and Mike”.  She can tell Cover-Two from Man, and unlike Tim McCarver, she can describe a hit-and-run in 30 words or less. She doesn’t know a WAR from a WHIP, but she knows that she knows a LOT more than that Leyland knows!

If the Skipper told her the grass was green, she’d say,”actually, it’s between emerald and kelly.” Every pitching change is either an inning too early or a batter too late; he sits the regulars too often but doesn’t use his bench enough. Unlike the annoying know-it-all at the corner pub, you can’t argue with Ma.

Certainly, there are some legit criticisms of Leyland, just as there are for all managers. It is difficult to quantify, however, the actual impact a manager has on his team. Is it preferable to have an in-game tactician who knows matchups and tendencies, or someone who goes with their gut? A fiery, in-your-face driver like Billy Martin, or a laissez-faire diplomat like Dusty Baker? Is it better to treat everyone the same, or give leeway to the star players to keep them happy? Are you a micro-manager, or do you delegate responsibilities to coaches and team leaders?

In baseball, the team with the better players has an advantage that the best manager usually can’t overcome. Sparky was no genius for writing Morgan, Bench, Perez et al on his lineup card every day.  Joe Torre was 894-1003 with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals; he piloted the Yankees at a .605 clip. The marathon of a 162-game season reveals the strengths and weaknesses of each club – it is when the teams are equal, a good manager (or a poor one) can make the difference. A ballpark estimate of a field manager’s effect on his team is 3-5 games a season either way…a small percentage, but not an insignificant number (ask a Rangers fan, or Bosox circa 2011).

Tigers fans know the common complaints about Leyland, so let’s take a look at them one-by-one and determine if they are problematic or overblown.

1) He has his favorites, and stands by them to a fault. As a “players manager” Leyland will give guys time to play out of a slump, and he won’t blast them in the press, that’s for sure. We’ve seen Ryan Raburn, Brandon Inge, and Craig Monroe all get the benefit of the doubt, at the expense of Marcus Thames, Matt Joyce, and Mike Hessman. This is understandable, especially with guys that have a proven track record. But when the back of the baseball card indicates a player is inconsistent at best, you need to explore other options sooner. Verdict – Problematic

2) He rests his regulars too much.  This is not only intangible, but it is impossible for a fan to know who needs a day when. I don’t like seeing a Sunday lineup look more like “I-give-up”, either; but it’s a fine line to walk between keeping your bench sharp and your big guns healthy. And since Prince played in 162 games and Miggy 161 last year, I trust the old boy on this one. Verdict – Overblown

3) Why’s he batting that guy there???  We are all still waiting for Raburn to “run into one” out of the 2-hole. With the Tigers roster, however, it makes some sense to have a power guy bat 2nd. It’s bad strategy to bunt a base open, setting up an intentional walk and double play. But I would argue a better OBP would fit there instead. Otherwise, his lineup construction  is typical – he seems to consider matchups and left-right combos as would be expected. Demerits for ever batting Brandon Inge higher than 9th. Verdict – Neutral

4) He’s clueless about running a bullpen. Like most managers, Leyland wants to direct the late innings by script, with defined roles and  a designated closer, as discussed here: While it is frustrating to see late inning leads vanish, believe it or not we’ve been spoiled by the success of Jose Valverde for the past three years; that is to say, it could be worse this season. So if you become bilious each time  Jimmy marches to the mound, you may be hitting the Rolaids early and often this year. Verdict-Overblown, but merits watching.

5) He’s too loyal to his assistants. Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont evoke the most ire from fans – Lloyd in his nebulous role of batting coach, Gene as the erstwhile 3rd base coach who’s gaffes unfold in plain sight. In McClendon’s case I find it unfair to blame him for one hitter’s struggles while attributing zero credit for another’s success. Lamont, on the other hand, has been indefensible the past few seasons. Credit Leyland (and/or the organization) for taking some positive steps – bringing in Toby Harrah‘s fresh voice and shuffling Lamont to the bench coach position – while not disparaging either man’s efforts. Verdict – Problematic

If the bottom line on a manager is victories, with his 74th win in 2013, Leyland will pass Ralph Houk for 15th on the all-time list. The World Series Championship we all expect this year vaults him into serious Hall of Fame candidacy. Describe him as gruff, crusty, stubborn, old-school; quibble with his quirks and curse his idiosyncrasies; decry his coaches and wish him gone. He commands respect, massages massive egos, and with a few exceptions puts players in position to succeed. He’s not perfect, but I think it would be difficult to find a better manager for the Tigers than Jim Leyland.

I think if Ma and Jimmy sat down over a beer he’d make her see things his way – at least he’d have a chance. Me, I have no shot.

February 12, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland during spring training at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports