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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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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lemppi

Sparky Anderson? Your list of managers winning a pennant in both leagues....one guy shy?

Oct 13, 2011 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Goddamn it. When I alphabetized the names, I cut him off, and wrote around what was left. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Anderson was the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues. La Russa was the second - it was going to be either him or Leyland in 2006.

Oct 13, 2011 11:18 AM
 
BillJohnson

So the basic contention here is that as the fifth greatest manager of his time (Cox, La Russa, Torre, Piniella), Leyland has the chops to get into the Hall. Question: does the fifth greatest second baseman of his time (the current time) also have such a case? Or the fifth greatest shortstop? Among active players with 10+ years of service time, those would be Brian Roberts and Rafael Furcal, if I read my WARs correctly.

I assume your answer is along the general lines of "are you out of your mind?", and to be sure, I neither advocate those two worthies for the Hall, nor consider their situations comparable to Leyland's. However, a sense of perspective is no bad thing. It's credible that we are, in fact, living in a time with a surfeit of extraordinarily great managers.

Oct 13, 2011 16:01 PM
rating: 3
 
BarryR

Underlying this very interesting point is the question of whether the managers at the end of that list - Piniella and Leyland - are special, or whether the era in which they are managing is highly conducive to experienced managers who bounce from franchise to franchise ending up in the playoffs. Given a random assortment of teams - and Leyland has managed some very good and some very bad, how many times should a manager get in the playoffs in 20 seasons? Given that 8 of 30 teams get in the playoffs, one might say 5 or 6 would be par for the course in 20 years. Let us posit that he is a good manager, since he has been given the opportunity to manage for 20 years. But his accomplishments are a lot like a player who hung around to compile 2500 hits and a decent number of HR, with good enough defense. A fine player, but short of the Hall of Fame. Like Steve Finley, Vada Pinson, and Al Oliver as players, Leyland has been a fine manager, but IMO, a little short of the Hall of Fame.

Oct 14, 2011 20:11 PM
rating: 0
 
saucyjack88

133 pitches for Verlander tonight. Are you fucking kidding me???

Oct 13, 2011 21:46 PM
rating: 0
 
NYYanks826

Not surprised at all. If anyone can help rest the pen, it's Verlander.

133 pitches might have been a bit much, but his last pitch hit triple digits, so he clearly wasn't gassed, despite the outcome of the pitch.

Oct 13, 2011 21:58 PM
rating: 3
 
JoshC77

It wasn't some meaningless regular season game in May against the Royals when the team was up 10-0. This was a playoff game with their chance to go to the World Series on the line. If they don't win that game, they would be screwed.

THIS is the time you let your workhorse Ace go 133 pitches.

Oct 14, 2011 04:14 AM
rating: 4
 
69wildcat

Absolutely, it was game 5 (an elimination game!) of a 7 game series. You have to ride your ace until he can't go any longer; he has four months to rest. The only realistic chance of Verlander getting another start in the ALCS is several days of heavy rain in Arlington.

Oct 14, 2011 06:32 AM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

While I agree with everything said by the guys below, in hindsight, I might have taken Verlander out after the Napoli single - keep it to 130. Cruz is on fire.

Oct 14, 2011 06:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

When I saw "Prospectus: Jim Leyland belongs in the Hall" on ESPN, I was shocked and actually a bit disappointed because I figured the article was "thrown out there" just because Leyland's in the playoffs.

Leyland's a good manager but I don't think he's a Hall of Famer. I never quite saw the argument that Leyland's candidacy "looks even stronger than Piniella’s" besides Leyland being "lucky" enough to win a pennant in both leagues. Also, I believe the best managers tend to stay with their teams for many years and have little opportunity to win a pennant in both leagues. In addition, Leyland completely gave up on the Rockies which shouldn't be considered "undistinguishable" but should be a ding against him. Nor has he done anything to revolutionize or change the game of managing.

The main argument revolves around winning a pennant and for all the years I've read BP, I've heard who wins the pennant is primarily based on luck. No discussion of run differential or expected wins or any of the metrics in the manager's sections of the annual. In my mind, Scioscia is a better manager (and isn't HoF worthy yet) and BP also sings Ozzie Guillen's praises as a manager and in the annuals at least, uses metrics to support those claims. At least come up with a JAWS or something for managers?

So my basic argument is this. Pinella's better than Leyland and you believe Pinella has "an outside shot", so Leyland's case is weaker than Pinella's. I think billjohnson put it best when he said "Question: does the fifth greatest second baseman of his time (the current time) also have such a case?"

Oct 14, 2011 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Richard, you make some fair points , but to simply dismiss the matter of pennant-winning as "primarily based on luck" is a gross underestimation of what it takes. Obviously, first your team has have to win enough games over the 162-game season to make it to the playoffs, which is a considerable achievement. Yes, luck does play a part in the playoffs, but over time it tends to even out. For Leyland, the heartbreak of the early-90s Pirates - who were good enough to win a pennant - is somewhat offset by the Marlins' less-likely win, perhaps part of a cosmic Francisco Cabrera/Eric Gregg trade. That Leyland has had as much success as he had with three fairly different situations is an indicator that there's more than luck involved.

As for the Rockies, Leyland was by his own accounts burned out from managing, and the fact that he took the next six years away from the dugout suggests he was quite serious about that - it's a demanding job, and he wasn't simply trying to weasel out of one position so as to take another (a la Billy Martin with the Rangers, or even Piniella with the Devil Rays). You could accuse Leyland of doing that in Florida, but the Huizenga teardown of the 1997 team was more or less a generational fluke (the post-dynasty A's of the 1970s would have been the most recent comparisons) and changed the conditions under which he was working rather drastically; I think most established managers put in that position would have done the same. That he was able to find considerable success after returning at an age when a lot of managers have hung up their spikes is impressive; his could have been an Earl Weaver comeback.

As for the run differential and Pythagorean stuff, I couldn't put everything into the article that I would have liked (ESPN imposes space limitations on us), and it's not the easiest stuff to gather (B-Ref doesn't aggregate, so comparisons are time-consuming), or the most revealing, particularly in a career that as I pointed out featured a lot of teams that had relatively little shot at winning. Overall he's at -11 (-13 in his first year, +2 since) by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, but does that tell us much (Piniella was -5, for purposes of "comparison")? Take his two years in Florida: does a 54-win team falling four games shy of its projection mean as much as a 92-win team exceeding theirs by four wins? No, because those marginal wins at the top end are worth a whole lot more, and in this case they were the difference between winning the Wild Card and being in a three-way tie.

The teams Leyland did take to the playoffs almost uniformly overachieved relative to pythag; those three Pirates winners were a combined nine wins above expectations, the Marlins another four, the '06 Tigers were even, and this year's bunch was six above. The 2009 near-miss club, which lost a play-in, was five wins above expectations; they were outscored by two runs, one of them in the 12th inning of Game 163. What does one do with that particular season's worth of info, ding him for blowing a seven-game lead or credit him for an overachieving team? There's no clear answer.

As for the argument that he didn't stay in one place long enough, Leyland did last 11 years in Pittsburgh and has six seasons under his belt in Detroit. Piniella lasted 10 in Seattle but never more than 3 anywhere else except for his partial 2010 with the Cubs. Dick Williams' longest stint was just under six years with Montreal (he was relieved of duty in late 1981 when the Expos made the playoffs); he totaled 10 years with the three teams he took to the World Series. Casey Stengel's second-longest stint was five years, five very sub-.500 years with the Boston Braves. I could go on and on - not everybody is Weaver or Lasorda or Bobby Cox.

As to the "fifth-best" argument, well, you have to look at the whole stretch of his career if you're talking about Hall of Famers. A quick-and-dirty WAR ranking (I'm using the Play Index) tells us that Biggio, Alomar, Kent, Sandberg and Utley are the top five in WAR from 1986-2011; two enshrined, Biggio with 3000 hits, Kent with a good case, and Utley the superior player at his position of recent years if hardly a lock due to injuries. Also on the list are Lou Whitaker (7th, with the majority of his career already behind him) and Robinson Cano (11th, and just 28 years old) - we may yet get five HOFers among the upper reaches of that list. So yeah, I don't think it's an unreasonable argument that Leyland is Hallworthy on that front either.

Oct 14, 2011 13:00 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Thanks for responding, Jay. I would have responded sooner but it's been a bit busy for me in real life and I didn't want to type up a comment completely off the cuff.

As you know from my commentary over the years, I respect and enjoy your writing even if, at times, I disagree. Information you include like what you put in your commentary are the kinds of things I wish ESPN would find room for when they do these cross-published articles since I think it'd show some areas of managerial analysis that haven't hit "the mainstream" yet. I guess my main beef was the article was written "ESPN-style" without any of the metrics or analysis normally used at BP. I almost think a better format would've been for Bowden or someone else at ESPN to argue Leyland's case based on the "pennant" and BP provide additional in-depth commentary.

Regarding your comment more specifically, Leyland shouldn't have taken the Rockies job if he was burned out though I'll agree that Leyland wasn't just punching a timecard in Florida given how wacky their ownership is and was.

I definitely agree with your viewpoint regarding the worth of marginal wins and I do wish it was easier to tease out of the numbers since not many places (B-Ref, BP, etc) aggregate it well.

I don't dismiss the pennant as pure luck and realize that part of the idea of a good manager is putting their team(s) in a position to win a pennant in the first place. However, it seemed to me that the main argument (besides his win total and his one World Series win) was that Leyland was Hall-worthy because he won a pennant in both leagues. To me, that's more of a trivia answer tidbit than an extra reason he should be enshrined. Would it have made that much of a difference if he had won a NL pennant with two different teams?

True, Leyland is not Weaver or Cox or Lasorda from a longevity point. However, I do think longevity with one team, to me, is an extra argument for Hall of Fame status. Since we can't measure managers all that well, we have to factor in perception to some extent and a manager who stays for more than one contract is being "perceived" as doing a good job for what they are being paid compared to any other managerial talent available.

In the "fifth-best" argument, I was referring to you mentioning that Pinella had an outside shot. When taken with second basemen or pitchers etc, yeah it is possible to have all five as Hall of Famers.

However, when you say Pinella has an outside shot and that Leyland is better than Pinella, I need to see why Leyland is better than Pinella. I did not see that besides the "two pennants, two leagues" argument and as I stated earlier, I did not give much weight to that argument. Thus, I have to conclude Leyland is equal to Pinella at best, and not as good as Pinella at worst. Thus, if Pinella has an outside shot, then Leyland's case must also have an outside shot (or worse).

In summation, I got more out of your comment than I did out of the article and I wish ESPN had made some room for that kind of insight and analysis they (and the "mainstream") need.

Oct 16, 2011 16:06 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

If I understand it, identifying managerial success is even harder to do than for any player. As a result, the hall generally enshrines folks who are managers for an entire generation of baseball fans, and have at least a few great moments on national tv. Longevity with some success seems to be what is rewarded. By that precedent, Leyland's probably in. Middle-aged folks remember him as skipper of the successful Pirates, WS champion Marlins, and successful Tigers over a period of 25+ seasons.

Oct 14, 2011 11:35 AM
rating: 0
 
StarkFist

"Harris won a World Series in his first year at the helm of the Washington Senators in 1927." No, the Yankees won the AL pennant and the WS in '27. The 1927 Yankees are widely regarded as the best team in MLB history, in fact.

Oct 18, 2011 10:04 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I'm well aware of the 1927 Yankees. It was a goddamn typo.

Oct 25, 2011 15:04 PM
 
davidlthomas

The Washington Senators won the World Series (Giants) in 1924, lost in 1925(Pirates) & 1933(Giants),the Ottawa Senators won the Stanley Cup in 1927 (Bruins).

Oct 18, 2011 19:42 PM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

Cabrera's hit was a single, not a double. If i recall correctly, the first Brave to score on the hit was Terry Pendleton, not David Justice.

Apr 26, 2012 23:44 PM
rating: 0
 
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