Monday, October 21, 2013
Leyland's legacy: Borderline Hall of Famer
By David Schoenfield
One of the things I liked best about Jim Leyland is that he never really gave you a song-and-dance response to questions. He knew that players win games and that players with the most talent win the most games.
My favorite example of this came back when he was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates and got into the infamous shouting match with Barry Bonds during spring training in 1991. Asked after the incident about what kind of example Bonds was setting, Leyland responded to the effect of "Leadership is a .300 average, 30 home runs, 30 steals."
Just the other day he was asked about what Torii Hunter brings to the Detroit Tigers and his first response was something like "Well, to begin with, he's a good player on the field."
Leyland wasn't dismissing the importance of things like veteran leadership or clubhouse chemistry, but merely stating that talent comes first. What you do between the lines is always the most important attribute for any player.
Leyland was also asked, with all his experience and multiple years of managing in the postseason, whether he had learned if there were any keys to winning in the playoffs. Not really, he said. You play the games.
In other words: Anything can happen. You can have one of the best rotations in baseball history and one of the best hitters of all time, but that's no guarantee of anything.
After eight years of managing the Tigers and 22 years of managing in the majors, Leyland has stepped down. He's 68 years old and managing in the major leagues isn't an easy life, even for a baseball lifer like him. He's undoubtedly still beating himself up over some of the moves he made with his bullpen against the Red Sox, but Leyland would also be the first to tell you: That's the playoffs. Their guys beat our guys.
While he managed the Tigers to two American League pennants, there is undoubtedly an air of disappointment over this era of the Tigers, a team stocked in top-line talent with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Prince Fielder. In 2011, the pitching fell apart in the final two games of the ALCS against the Rangers, Verlander and Scherzer getting pounded. In 2012, the bats died in the World Series against the San Francisco Giants as the Tigers hit .159 and got shut out twice. Against the Red Sox, Cabrera wasn't 100 percent, Fielder didn't hit and the bullpen blew two leads.
Leyland will retire 15th on the all-time win list. Nine of those ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre will get there some day, leaving Gene Mauch and Lou Piniella. However, Leyland's .506 winning percentage would rank 12th of those 15, ahead of only Bucky Harris, Connie Mack and Mauch. Ten of those 14 also won at least two World Series titles, with Cox, Piniella and Leo Durocher having won one and Mauch none.
Those numbers would seem to put Leyland right on the borderline of the Hall of Fame: his longevity working for him, his career winning percentage and one title against him. The winning percentage is clouded by a couple of things, however. When he took over the Pirates in 1986, they were coming off a 104-loss season. He lost 98 games his first season but had them in the playoffs in 1990, the first of three straight NL East titles. After Bonds, Doug Drabek and Bobby Bonilla departed as free agents, the franchise fell apart and Leyland stuck it out for four losing seasons.
He took over the Marlins in 1997 and they won the World Series. But that club had the big fire sale and the '98 club went 54-108. He managed the Rockies in 1999 but didn't return to the dugout again until his old GM in Florida, Dave Dombrowski, hired him in Detroit in 2006. The 2005 Tigers had gone 71-91. The 2006 Tigers went 95-67 and reached the World Series.
Is he a Hall of Fame manager? Certainly, one more title probably would have made him a lock. The Hall is pretty generous about electing managers, though: Whitey Herzog has just one title and 500 fewer wins than Leyland and he's in; Dick Williams has two titles, fewer wins than Leyland and a .520 winning percentage but he's in. Leyland certainly wouldn't be described as an innovator like Herzog, but he managed the talent he had and didn't try to do too much with it.
Based on historical precedent, I'd say Leyland eventually goes in. Once the big three get in, the next choice would seem to be Leyland, Piniella or maybe Davey Johnson (shorter career, better winning percentage). Leyland did reach three World Series, while Piniella and Johnson reached just one. All three certainly were "famous" managers. I say Leyland rates the slight edge over those two.