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October 13, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Leyland's Cooperstown Case

by Jay Jaffe

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When Lou Piniella stepped down as manager of the Cubs last summer, he was greeted with a spate of articles from smart people suggesting that he was bound for the Hall of Fame, not to mention tributes to his famous temper. Jim Leyland may lack Piniella’s signature flair for the dramatic base toss or hat-kick, but he can light up a post-game press conference as Piniella did, and the occasional clip of him getting his money’s worth from the umpires have been known to circulate. More to the point, with the spotlight shining on him thanks to the Tigers' post-season run, the 66-year-old skipper's own candidacy looks even stronger than Piniella’s, not to mention many of his peers.

Leyland’s strong resume starts with the fact that he’s one of just eight managers to win pennants in both leagues, with the 1997 Marlins (who won the World Series) and 2006 Tigers (who lost). Of the other seven—Sparky Anderson, Yogi Berra, Alvin Dark, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, Joe McCarthy, Dick Williams—all but Dark are either enshrined in Cooperstown or will be. Berra, who earned his bronze plaque as a three-time MVP catcher, managed only seven seasons, Dark just 13; the cases of the other four certainly aren’t hurt by that accomplishment.

In 20 seasons managing the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies, and Tigers, Leyland has racked up 1,588 wins, 18th all-time, ahead of Hall of Famers Williams (1,571), Earl Weaver (1,480), Miller Huggins (1,413), Al Lopez (1,410) and Herzog (1,281), as well as several others enshrined more for their playing skills than their managerial ones. Eleven Hall of Famers have more wins, as do La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre, all Cooperstown bound. Only Gene Mauch (1,902), Piniella (1,835), and Ralph Houk (1,619) have more wins but are on the outside looking in, with the latter within Leyland’s striking distance in 2012.

Leyland's winning percentage—.50016—is his weak spot. He's three games over .500 for his 3,175-game career, and ranks higher in the all-time loss column (14th) than the wins one. Yet Connie Mack (217 games under .500), Bucky Harris (61 games under) and Wilbert Robinson (one game over) all gained entry with less daylight between their win and loss totals, with the first two managing at least 1,200 more games. For perspective, it's important to understand the peaks and valleys of the careers that produced those figures. Mack, who also owned the Philadelphia A's, managed for 53 years, finishing in last place 17 times while winning nine pennants and five championships. He had no qualms about selling off his expensive stars and settling into the basement, as he did for seven straight seasons following the A's 1910-1914 run of four pennants and three titles. Harris won a World Series in his first year at the helm of the Washington Senators in 1927 and a pennant in the second, but oversaw 13 sub-.500 squads among four different franchises before winning again with the Yankees in 1947. Robertson won pennants with the 1916 and 1920 Dodgers, who finished under .500 more often than not during his tenure due to their shoestring budget.

Leyland's story isn't too dissimilar. A minor-league catcher (1964-1970) and skipper (1972-1981) in the Tigers' chain, he spent four seasons (1982-1985) as La Russa's third-base coach with the White Sox before taking the Pirates job in 1986. He lost 98 games in his first season—an improvement from 104 the year before—with a 21-year-old rookie center fielder who hit .223/.330/.416. That rookie, Barry Bonds, would win a pair of MVP awards as he was helping the Pirates take three straight NL East flags while averaging 96 wins from 1990-1992. Teammate Bobby Bonilla, acquired from the White Sox in mid-1986, twice finished in the top three in MVP voting as well. Alas, the Pirates lost all three NL Championship Series, falling to Piniella's Reds in six games in 1990, then to Cox's Braves in seven games in 1991 and 1992. The latter was most agonizing; up 2-0 in the ninth inning of Game Seven, flagging starter Doug Drabek and closer Stan Belinda surrendered three runs, the last two when Francisco Cabrera's two-out, pinch-hit double plated David Justice and Sid Bream.

Despite falling one out shy of a pennant, the Bucs lacked the bucks to retain Bonds, Bonilla, or ace Drabek, all of whom departed as free agents that winter. Stripped of his stars, Leyland stuck around Pittsburgh for the first four seasons of what's now a 19-year run of sub-.500 futility before escaping to Florida in 1997. The Marlins, an expansion team founded in 1993 and helmed by current Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, had loaded up on established stars such as Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Devon White as well as Bonilla. In Leyland’s first year, they won 92 games, the NL wild card, and a thrilling World Series against the Indians, one decided in the 11th inning of Game Seven. Almost immediately, owner Wayne Huizenga forced Dombrowski to dismantle the team. Shorn of the aforementioned stars by mid-May, Leyland resigned in disgust following a dismal 54-108 season. Remove that anti-competitive campaign from his ledger, and his winning percentage jumps to .509, his games above .500 to 57, numbers alarmingly similar to Casey Stengel (.508 and 63 in about 600 more games spent in a fair number of wildernesses).

Leyland spent one undistinguished year managing the Rockies before departing the dugout for a six-year hiatus, during which he scouted for La Russa's Cardinals. Hired in Detroit three years after the team had lost a near-record 119 games, he led the 2006 Tigers not only to 95 wins but the franchise's first winning season since 1993, their first playoff appearance since 1987, and their first pennant since 1984. The Tigers have finished above .500 in three of the five seasons since, and at .500 once; all told, their .533 winning percentage under Leyland ranks fifth behind the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, and Angels. The major blemish is the 2009 team squandering a seven-game September lead and losing a Game 163 play-in—one not helped by star Miguel Cabrera's arrest for an alcohol-related domestic violence incident the night before.

In all, Leyland has gone to the playoffs six times with three different teams; among contemporaries, only Cox (16), Torre (15), La Russa (14), and Piniella (7) have more; Ron Gardenhire, Charlie Manuel, and Mike Scioscia have as many, and of the last four, only Manuel has two pennants. Leyland won't last long enough to equal the slam-dunk Cooperstown credentials of the first three, but particularly once you account for a record that includes at least half a dozen seasons where management left his teams with little chance to win, the strength of what Leyland has done with the remainder of his time suggests a manager worthy of the Hall of Fame.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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