It's true the Tigers were the prohibitive favorite to win their division leading into Opening Day, but it never ceases to amaze how a fanbase can so quickly and magnanimously provide "solutions" for a ballclub hovering at a .500 win percentage. As if, suddenly, they have figured out that Jim Leyland and his coaching staff do not know what they are doing.
Rarely does a fanbase ask itself, "Are we jumping the gun? Is there something Jim Leyland knows that we don't?"
If skeptics asked themselves these questions honestly and sincerely, they'd come to know that the answer to the last question is a resounding “yes.” Jim Leyland does know something that we don't.
He knows enough to be the winningest manager currently still active in baseball. He knows enough to have won over 1,600 games, and a World Series ring.
What's most important, however, is just as recently as last season, he was experienced enough to take a struggling team (17-18) to end the season 95-67, winning the division. He knew not to panic.
Coincidentally, 35 games into this year, Jim Leyland's Tigers are at 17-18. He is not panicking.
When he took the Marlins to their first WS championship in '97, his team was at 19-16. He has shown the ability to manage a team through rough patches.
Here is something skeptics don't know about Leyland: Even though he'd never say it openly, he knows the AL Central is weak. He's not a dimwit. He knows he has plenty of time. Critics of Leyland think they have him all figured out, and that Leyland simply doesn't get it. But, the skipper is biding his time.
He has plenty of weapons, some of which are very cold right now, and some of which are very young. He understands that it's too early to fire his hitting coach, give up on hitters or unnecessarily stretch rookie pitchers out.
My case and point for this is last night's early removal of Drew Smyly. Leyland pulled him after giving up four runs over five innings. The Tigers had the lead, 5-4. And to fans' dismay, Leyland pulled Smyly after throwing only 69 pitches.
On initial thought, one might find this to have been the wrong move; the rookie's outing went relatively smoothly. Smyly settled down each time he gave up runs, and his pitch count was quite low.
On second thought, careful consideration and a bit of intellectual respect paid to Jim Leyland reveals a different answer. Leyland isn't required to leave the rookie in. This isn't September. The Tigers are two games out in a very weak division. What's the point in sending the kid back out to potentially get rattled when you have a fresh bullpen that needs work?
Leyland understands the consequence of losing a game, and sometimes chooses to risk it on the behalf of a few struggling players needing to prove themselves worthy. Leyland also uses these opportunities to give call-ups innings at the major league level, and to give his underachieving hitters more at-bats. This sort of early season managing pays dividends down the stretch.
Compared to the years past, Leyland seems quite calm in his postgame interviews, even after losing games. This year, he seems more relaxed.
Leyland knows what he's doing and rest assured, when the time comes, he will not be resting players as often. He won't baby his pitchers, nor will he tolerate poor batting in the lineup. This is Jim Leyland's track record—easy-breezy starts, no kid-gloves down the stretch. Lest we forget last year's torrid finish of 20-6.
The Tigers skipper has been around the block. He's seen better divisions, and he's managed good teams before. He deserves a bit more respect than he's getting. Fans should know that he's not panicked, and they shouldn't be either.