Jim Leyland’s Legacy

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Jim Leyland changed Detroit. Not all at once and not all by himself, but he’s responsible for where we stand today. It’s easy to be unsatisfied two days after getting bounced from the postseason, but in the last eight years the Tigers have made it to the playoffs four times and won their first round matchup all four times. They never won the last game of the season, but they made it deep into the postseason in half of Leyland’s eight years. That’s pretty impressive considering they hadn’t made the playoffs in the 18 previous seasons.

Leyland never won the big win in Detroit, but most managers don’t. The Tigers won 700 games during Leyland’s eight seasons. Only four organizations won more – the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies. In the eight years before that only the Rays won fewer games. Some of that credit, maybe even most of it, belongs to Dave Dombrowski and the owner that told him to build a winner, but Leyland gets some of it. Maybe even a lot of it.

I firmly believe that good players will win regardless of who sits in the manager’s office but there is variation among the results of equally talented teams. It’s Dombrowski’s job to build the team and it’s the players job to succeed on the field, but managers play a role in getting the most out of the people under their control. Managers execute strategy, but they also define the workplace and help motivate and teach their players.

I don’t think we can quantify the impact of a manager with the information available to us. I’m not sure if the difference between Ned Yost and Joe Maddon is five games or twenty games, but managers do matter. I’ve never been a huge fan of Leyland’s bullpen choices or use of the bunt or really any of his assaults on modern strategy, but his players adore him. That matters. I don’t know how much, but just because I don’t have a good answer doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Leyland changed the culture in Detroit and there’s a lot to be said for his ability to recruit free agents and make young players feel at home. If you like your boss, you’re going to perform better. Players adore Jim Leyland. It’s clear from their comments but it’s also clear from the polling conducting by outlets like SI that ask who players would most like to play for. I don’t know if Leyland’s clubhouse skills add ten wins to the Tigers or if they add two, but all else equal I’d rather have a manager that players want to run through a wall for than a manager they don’t.

From a tactical standpoint, the Tigers can do much better than Leyland, but from an interpersonal perspective he’s one of the best there is. I don’t think good leaders and good tacticians are mutually exclusive. I’d like the next manager to push the right buttons and stroke the right egos. Both are valuable and we should always strive for the best possible mix of both qualities.

My lasting images of Leyland are from the early days. He used to march out to the mound and talk to pitchers, I miss that. And I remember him being carried off after the homerun in 2006 and the first time he cried like a baby on television. Like every Tigers fan, I wanted to strangle Leyland at times, but I also know that the Tigers are better off because he came here. He didn’t win the big one, but I don’t hold that against him. There’s only so much a manager can do.

I don’t know who the next manager will be. I have some suspicions and some suggestions, but that comes later. For now, let’s tip our caps to Jim Leyland. Somewhere along the line the Tigers went from laughingstock to powerhouse and I’m not entirely sure if that would have happened if not for Leyland. An ending isn’t something to be sad about, necessarily. It was time for Leyland to call it a career and he went out on his terms with the organization in much better shape than when he arrived. I don’t know how much of that is because of him, but I know some of it was and I will always be grateful for that.


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