The Detroit Tigers continue to search for their new manager. Here’s why it doesn’t matter who they pick.
At Motor City Bengals we have you covered when it comes to the Detroit Tigers manager search. So far Rogelio has written profiles on Mike Rabelo, Marcus Thames, and Phil Nevin, among others. Jacob took on Mike Redmond, Fredi Gonzalez, and A.J. Hinch. Jonathan wrote about George Lombard, Jon told you more about Lloyd McClendon, Brian chipped in with Will Venable, and even I got in on the act, with profiles on Alex Cora, Rick Renteria, and Don Kelly.
We are more than happy to keep you informed on this manager search. But it doesn’t matter who the Tigers pick. The only thing that matters is player talent.
What Do Managers Do?
It was easier to answer this question a few decades ago, when managers called all the shots on the field. But now lineups and positioning are often determined by committee, with quality control coaches and front-office staff having as much say as the manager, and old tactics like sacrifice bunts and pitchouts have all but disappeared.
This isn’t to say managers don’t affect games. Of course they do. Bullpen usage is more complex and important than ever, and while the rest of the front office can help formulate a plan, the manager needs to be prepared if things go sideways.
Other managers may offer a slight edge depending on their background. Maybe they’re great at recognizing when an opposing pitcher is tipping his pitchers. Or they come from a development background and can quickly diagnose mechanical flaws. Or they’re awesome poker players with a mastery of probabilities.
The key point is, practically none of what managers do can be quantified. People have tried to put a number on it, many, many times. But there’s no one agreed upon method, and good managerial decisions are usually offset by bad ones.
Just this postseason we’ve seen Dodgers manager Dave Roberts receive both praise and scorn for his bullpen management, and both takes are correct. Rays manager Kevin Cash was pilloried for removing a dominant Blake Snell last night, but that was consistent with the decisions the team made all season. No manager makes the right choice every time.
We know Al Avila isn’t asking for miracles from his new manager. He wants a manager who can motivate and discipline players, and he wants someone with “tremendous leadership qualities.”
You know who fits those criteria? Ron Gardenhire. And Ron Gardenhire’s winning percentage as Tigers manager was .354, because the only thing that matters is player talent.
What About Manager X?
Everyone loves a story about a manager showing up to put a team over the top. It’s Jack McKeon leading the 2003 Marlins to World Series glory, or Jim Tracy posting a .638 winning percentage with the 2009 Rockies, or Joe Maddon guiding the Chicago Cubs to their first championship in 108 years.
But there’s also a common thread with all these manager success stories: Player Talent. That 2003 Marlins club had five regulars who made at least one All-Star team, not counting a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, and all five starting pitchers were All-Stars. The 2009 Rockies team had 9 All-Stars. Joe Maddon walked into an incredible amount of talent with the Cubs.
Here in Detroit, Tigers fans love to talk about the way Jim Leyland took over as manager in 2006 and created a culture of professionalism and accountability, turning a lousy 71-win club into the 95-win American League champs.
There’s no doubt Leyland had an impact on that 2006 team. He was a straight shooter with tons of experience, his players loved him, and clearly he gave his team an edge the 2005 club lacked.
But you know what else the 2006 Detroit Tigers had that the 2005 team didn’t? Full, productive seasons from Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Todd Jones, Nate Robertson, Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, and Curtis Granderson. According to Baseball Reference, those eight players produced 30.6 WAR in 2006 — roughly 20 more wins than they (or the players they replaced) produced in 2005.
Jim Leyland deserves some credit for that, but it’s impossible to say how much. The team improved by 25 wins, and we just accounted for 20 of those. We could give Leyland credit for the remaining 5 wins, but let’s be more generous than that. Leyland had to deal with mediocre years from Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco, and he used Marcus Thames masterfully all season. So let’s give the old skipper credit for improving that Tigers team by 10 wins.
It’s still not enough.
The 2020 Detroit Tigers finished with a .397 winning percentage. Over a full season that equates to a 64-98 record. If we add a magical, 10-win manager to the team for 2021 we get a .457 winning percentage. That’s good for 9th place and a seat on the couch for the playoffs. In a regular year they don’t sniff the postseason.
The Detroit Tigers are hunting for a manager, and a good manager would certainly be nice. But what they really need is talent. Some talent is on the way, but if they don’t start acquiring more, the next Detroit Tigers manager simply won’t matter at all.