I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that Jim Leyland is not a very good on-field tactician. He routinely misuses his relievers and bunts at weird times. On Saturday night, he made a very critical mistake that cost his team a chance to win. It wasn’t a mistake because of the result, it was a mistake because of the process. Let’s walk through it.
The Tigers entered the 9th inning down 1-0 with Greg Holland on the mound. Prince Fielder led off the inning with a walk. The tying run is on first base in the 9th inning and it’s Prince Fielder who is a below average runner. I love Prince, but he’s not a good baserunner. I know that, you know that, he probably knows that, and his manager knows that.
But Leyland didn’t pinch run. Martinez flied out and Dirks struck out to set up Infante. Prince Fielder stood on first while Hernan Perez and Danny Worth stood on the bench. Infante doubled and Prince was gunned down by a great relay by a step or two. The difference in this game was Leyland failing to run for Fielder. It’s obvious to see that this decision was costly, but it was a mistake long before it actually came to fruition.
Here’s the logic behind the mistake. First, Leyland has long said he won’t run for Fielder or (healthy) Cabrera. The basic premise is right. You shouldn’t pull your best hitters for pinch runners in most situations because the potential value of their later at bats is very high. However, this situation is the exact situation in which you must run for your slugger.
Down one in the 9th inning at home, you have to score at least once or you lose the game. That run is everything. You have to do everything you can to score that run and you worry about what might happen later, later. You have to maximize your odds of winning and you do that by putting the much faster Perez on first base. Whether or not Infante gets the hit doesn’t matter, it’s the right decision 10 times out of 10.
If it was a tie game, you leave Fielder in because you know you’re getting another at bat, but down a run you have to pinch run. The problem here isn’t this particular mistake it’s that an MLB manager should be ready for this situation. He’s clearly thought about the merits of pinch running for Fielder, but somehow he didn’t come to the conclusion that there is a single, glaring exception to the rule. You pinch run if that run is the difference between playing on and the game ending.
Leyland’s response to the postgame question was that he doesn’t pinch run for Fielder. (Note: I will update if one of the reporters posts more detailed comments,but so far I haven’t seen him display regret). The absolute nature of that statement is very concerning because while that rule is right most of the time, it isn’t right in this particular situation. Leyland should have been prepared for this. We aren’t talking about him deciding he liked a particular pinch hitter matchup that might involve intuition. This is pure, rational logic. There isn’t a case to be made for not pinch running, especially once we got to two outs and the chance at the two run inning was much smaller.
I don’t know how to properly weigh tactical skills and leadership skills in managerial evaluation, but this kind of mistake isn’t acceptable. And this isn’t the only mistake he’s made this year because he’s unwilling to break his rules. On multiple occasions he’s refused to go to Benoit in a tie game on the road because it wasn’t a save situation and the Tigers have been worse off for it.
The Tigers are still going to make the playoffs, but two weeks from now, the value of individual games is going to sky rocket and Jim Leyland’s poor decisions are going to be much more costly. Maybe his personal skills in the clubhouse make up for it, but that doesn’t excuse it. This isn’t a personal criticism. I have loads of affection for Leyland, but he needs to be better prepared for these situations or the Tigers are going to be disadvantaged in October. The occasional mistake is easy to overlook, but this is a pattern and it doesn’t appear as if he understands where he went wrong.
It’s not his fault the Tigers didn’t score in the first 8 innings, but when he was a given a chance to help the team win, he didn’t do it. Managers don’t often have a chance to make a big difference and you can’t let those opportunities slip away because you don’t know when to break the rules.
Updated 10:40pm: Via Matthew Mowery, Leyland had this to say:
“I’m not taking Prince Fielder out of the game. I’m not going to do it. It’s just the way it is. I’m not going to run for him….That’s the way I do it.”
So, that confirms that he doesn’t see the issue and the bad outcome tonight did not cause him to reflect on why this situation calls for him to break his rule.