On Monday morning, Jim Leyland stepped down as manager of the Detroit Tigers, leaving behind a 22-year career on the bench and a legacy that should ultimately land him a plaque in Cooperstown.
"I want to retire a Tiger," Leyland said during a press conference, via USA Today, in Detroit. "So long. It's not goodbye. And from the bottom of my heart thank you for having me."
The city of Detroit, along with all of Major League Baseball, should thank him for a long, storied career.
Yes, the gruff, old-school Leyland, far from the type of manager that is adored by the new-school, sabermetric crowd, should garner support for future Hall of Fame candidacy from any well-versed baseball thinker. In baseball, there isn't one way to evaluate a manager, especially one that managed through vastly different eras, through the whirlwind of mid-, small- and major-market franchises and with varying degrees of talent through his decades on the bench.
As Richard Justice eloquently described in this MLB.com piece, Leyland wasn't a leader built on stats, matchup data or gut feeling. He simply got the most out of his rosters on a yearly basis by being the ultimate player's manager. From Barry Bonds to Don Kelly, Leyland had a knack for finding a way to motivate the player, extract his talent and make use of the 25-man roster on a yearly basis.
It's a major part of the reason why Leyland won 90-plus games in a season seven different times, captured three Manager of the Year awards (1990, 1992, 2006), leaves the game 15th all time in managerial victories, led his team to the World Series three times (1997, 2006, 2012) and captured a championship with the 1997 Marlins.
But to be fair, Leyland isn't a slam-dunk case when his voting process begins.
There is the feeling of disappointment with many of his clubs, especially the early-'90s Pirates and recent edition of the Detroit Tigers. Blessed by having two of the most dominant hitters of their respective eras, Barry Bonds and Miguel Cabrera, Leyland's clubs couldn't find a way to capture a World Series championship. In an eerie twist of fate, both the 1992 Pirates and 2013 Tigers lost their respective league championship series in heart-breaking fashion on clutch hits to left field. In 1992, it was Sid Bream crossing home plate. In 2013, it was Shane Victorino flying around the bases after a grand slam.
When detractors rally against a Leyland induction, expect two numbers to stand out within the argument: 1,728 and .506. As you can probably guess, those figures stand for career losses and winning percentage.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine Jim Leyland on the wrong end of 1,728 baseball games, the 10th most in the history of baseball. Yet his loyalty and willingness to stay with franchises that gave him little to work with or stripped away from the organization's talent base is a testament to his character, not a knock on his ability.
From 1993-1996, Leyland's last four seasons in Pittsburgh, the franchise didn't crack better than a .465 winning percentage in any year, finishing no better than third in the NL Central over that frame. Instead of counting the losses during those four seasons, count the talent: Jay Bell, Steve Cooke, Zane Smith, Orlando Merced, Dan Plesac and Jeff King were among the standout WAR performers during those lean years in Pittsburgh.
After capturing the 1997 World Series in Florida, team ownership stripped the club of all expensive talent, ushering in a stark and immediate rebuilding process. The fact that Leyland lost 108 games with a minor league squad in 1999 has little bearing on his place in the history of the game.
Peaks and valleys in managing is part of the game, especially after 22 years in the dugout. In fact, of the nine managers ahead of Leyland on the list of most losses ever, five are in the Cooperstown. Three of the other four are undoubtedly headed there in the near future.
|Most Managerial Losses in MLB History|
|Tony La Russa||33||2365||Eligible|
The lesson: Don't count losses when assessing Hall of Fame candidacy.
Leyland's winning percentage, however, is probably a more significant detractor when considering the historical significance of other managers in the Hall of Fame. His .506 career winning percentage is worse than luminaries such as Jerry Manuel (.507), Johnny Oates (.517), Kevin Kennedy (.531) and Willie Randolph (.544).
Of managers currently in Cooperstown on the merits of their coaching and not a previous playing career, like, say, Ted Williams or Frank Robinson, only Connie Mack (.486) stands out as someone who overcame a mediocre total record to achieve induction. Ironically, 2012 World Series winner and skipper of the San Francisco Giants Bruce Bochy began talk about his own future candidacy despite a worse career mark (.500) than Leyland.
Simply put, managing for a long time, through the ups and downs of rebuilding process and away from major markets like New York and Boston (where winning on a yearly basis is primary objective), contributed to Leyland's numbers more than his ability behind the bench. Yet his star rose above in the aforementioned Manager of the Year awards, World Series appearances, victories and knack for extracting the most out of each and every player.
A wise sports fan once described his idea of the Hall of Fame to me like this: Can you tell the story of the history of the game, or, at least the story of the era in which the candidate starred, without mentioning that figure?
When it comes to Jim Leyland, you simply can't.
He won, managed in four cities (Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, Detroit), made the postseason eight times, captured three pennants and a World Series title. He wasn't perfect, didn't subscribe to new ideology and was often on the wrong end of historic October moments. Yet his teams won more baseball games than all but 14 other managers in the history of the sport.
Due to the drastic changes in baseball over the last 28 seasons (small ball in the '80s, steroid era in the '90s, pitching dominance of today and total reconstruction of the schedule and postseason format), few managers could have survived and thrived in a game that has undergone such a radical transformation.
Leyland did it with a personality that never wavered. For that, as much as the numbers that do and don't support his case, you can't tell the story of the last 28 years (Leyland's career began in 1986) without including him.
Within time, Cooperstown should recognize that and honor one of the game's best managers.
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