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.
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.
I’ve written extensively on bullpen usage and the closer role. To catch you up, here are the three big pieces:
I encourage you all to read those piece to catch up, but I’m going to move forward even if you haven’t. I’m going to make a claim and then seek to back it up with real evidence. The claim is this:
Closer experience doesn’t matter. If you put a good reliever into the closer role, he will succeed.
I would prefer managers not use closers at all (see link #3 above), but let’s say managers want to have a closer who comes in during save situations for a single inning. If that is the case, I am here to tell you that you do not need closer experience to be a closer.
I took the 30 pitchers with the most save opportunities from 2012 to test this theory. The group average was 35 save chances from 2012 and none had fewer than 20. Only the Athletics had two players on the list who played for only one team and four players on the list played for two or more teams in 2012. Combined, they averaged 30.3 saves and 910 saves in total.
These are 30 undisputed closers. The took on the closer role in 2012 and accumulated saves. Jim Leyland, who is my target audience right now, would look at their save totals and save percentage and consider them closers.
You with me so far? Good.
Only 10 of them had more than 17 save opportunities in 2011. Only a third of 2012’s best closers would have made the list from 2011. Certainly there were injuries, but Joe Nathan is the only one who was a legitimate closer before 2011 other than Rafael Soriano, who backed up Mariano Rivera in 2011. Maybe I’ll give you Jonathan Broxton, but he had lost his closer tag, so we’ll see. Despite all of this, at most we could say that half of 2012’s best closers had closer experience. Just half.
Half of them had fewer than 10 save chances in 2011 and five had zero save chances in 2011. Half of the best closers of 2012 weren’t even closers the year before.
I’ll cut the group in half and say anyone under 10 save chances in 2011 is non-proven and anyone over 10 chances is proven. I’m being generous.
The non-proven closers averaged 27 saves in 2012 and the provens averaged 33. But they averaged an 87 and 86% save percentage, respectively. The non-proven closers averaged 7 fewer opportunities in 2012, but they converted essentially the same percentage as the proven closers.
These are facts. I’ll go a step further. The five closers who had zero save chances in 2011 converted 84% of their save chance in 2012. There is literally no discernible difference between pitchers with closing experience as it pertains to saves. None. None. None.
It gets better. The proven closers had an ERA of 3.11 in 2012. The non-proven closers had an ERA of 2.73.
So basically, this is the argument I’m making. Closing experience does not predict future success in that role. The 30 best closers from 2012 prove that pretty nicely. The 15 proven guys were no more successful at converting saves and had a worse ERA than the non-proven closers. If anything the unproven closers pitched better.
Jim Leyland and the Tigers have placed an extremely high value on closing experience. They signed a reliever who was past his ability to pitch in MLB because he had saved games before and they won’t turn to better pitchers because they “can’t close.” Leyland has been clear on this. I have never heard a clear explanation about what makes the 9th inning different, but I can tell you very clearly that pitchers have been placed in the closer’s role as recently as last season and had absolutely no problem handling it.
No problem at all. So while I don’t advocate using a closer at all, if managers insist on defined roles with specific limits can we at least accept the fact that you can put anyone who is reasonable competent into the closer’s role?
Leyland doesn’t want to use Smyly or Benoit in the closer’s role and has repeated said the “9th inning is a little bit different,” but there is just no evidence that is true.
You can create a closer by putting a good reliever into the role. The Tigers have good relievers and should just put one of them into the role if Leyland insists on having a closer. It really is that simple. You can invent a closer. Fifteen teams did it last season.
I’ve included an Excel File (Closers) with the the data I used. The stats to the right of the yellow divider are from 2012 and the left side is from 2011.
If you follow me on Twitter or have spent a lot of time on this site (here, also here) you know that I’m not a fan of how most managers use their bullpens. Primarily, I think “saves” are worthless and utilizing a one inning-saves only closer, even if that closer is excellent, is not the right way to use your bullpen.
This idea is simple and it’s explained in the links above, but I’ll summarize. You should use your best relievers when the game is most on the line. That does not always happen in the 9th inning. Your relief ace should pitch when he is needed, not when he can accumulate saves. The 9th inning is not “a different animal” that requires special skills. Many pitchers have moved into the 9th inning role without any problem and a high number of saves does not mean you have pitched well.
In general, I’m a fan of rethinking bullpen usage so that the best pitchers pitch in key situations. I’ve routinely mentioned that Jose Valverde is not a good MLB reliever anymore, but even if he was, the Tigers are using him incorrectly. Let’s explore.
Fangraphs furnishes a statistic that measure the average leverage index each pitcher enters the game during. Leverage index measures how much the game is “on the line” at every moment, so this captures exactly what we’re after. On average, how critical is the moment that Leyland brings in each reliever:
Obvious, some of these guys have fewer appearance than others, but you’ll note that Phil Coke, Jose Valverde, and Darin Downs have been called on during the most critical moments with Joaquin Benoit coming in 4th among pitchers who have a decent chunk of innings. What you should also notice is that Drew Smyly is effectively dead last because Reed and Porcello have hardly pitched at all.
Yet it’s Benoit and Smyly who are actually the team’s best relievers. If we look at Win Probability Added (WPA) which measures the the change in win expectancy from a pitcher’s entry into the game until their removal, Smyly and Benoit are the best the Tigers have:
And if you’d rather consider WPA in conjunction with LI:
What we see here is that Smyly and Benoit are the pitchers who are performing the best out of the Tigers bullpen but they aren’t getting place in the high leverage situations. Leyland is going to Coke, Valverde, and Downs more than Benoit and Smyly when the game is on the line even though those guys are worse.
We can look to other numbers like FIP and ERA, among Tigers relievers with more than 8 IP, Smyly and Benoit reign:
Put very clearly, Smyly (who is 8th in MLB in reliever WAR) and Benoit are the Tigers best two relievers by pretty much every objective measure, yet they are not getting the call when the games count most. Until yesterday (June 9th), Smyly had pitched to just 15 batters in the previous 2 weeks despite being the team’s best reliever. That just isn’t acceptable.
The way to fix this is simple. First, managers need to stop valuing “proven closers” and should not be afraid to go to closer by committee. Jose Valverde leads the Tigers in “Saves,” but by every other measure, he’s nowhere close to the team’s best pitcher. Second, managers need to accept that the most important time in the game is not always the 9th inning and should bring in their best reliever to face the other team’s best hitters or when the other team is threatening. If you go to your best guy with the bases empty against the 6-7-8 hitters, you’re wasting them.
The flaws were on display in Baltimore (5/31) when Jose Valverde came into the game in the 9th inning up by 2 against the Orioles’ best hitters and blew the game, but on the next day, Leyland went to Smyly for two innings up by 7 runs. The opposite should have happened. Valverde should not pitch when the game is on the line and Smyly shouldn’t pitch in garbage time. You need to align your best relievers with the most important moments in the game.
Now certainly you can’t see the future and I won’t begrudge someone for going to Smyly in a tight spot only to find the game gets tighter in a future inning. But when Leyland doesn’t use Smyly for days at a time and then gets him work during a blowout, it’s maddening.
People complain about the Tigers’ bullpen, but it’s actually 7th in MLB in WAR, 9th in FIP, and 4th in K/9. It’s not elite, but it’s reasonably good. The problem is not the individual pitchers but rather how they are used. If Leyland was willing to think differently and go to his best guys in the tightest spots, the Tigers wouldn’t have these late inning issues.
The Tigers have far and away the league’s best staff and one of the best couple of offenses. Their only weaknesses are defense and the bullpen, but the bullpen isn’t really a weakness, it’s an inefficiency. And it’s one that can be fixed.
It took just a single blown save by the Tigers closer by committee for Jim Leyland and/or Dave Dombrowski to panic. A single blown save caused them to jump ship on the idea (which is a good one) that you do not need a defined closer to be successful. One data point. The Tigers abandoned the strategy, or at least signaled their intent to, because of one bad inning that included a defensive miscue.
Today, the Tigers signed Jose Valverde to a minor league deal that requires them to call him up by May 5th or he can opt out of the deal. The financial risk is minimal, which has led writers both local and national to suggest that this is simply the Tigers exploring all of their options and doing something that won’t cost them anything if it doesn’t work out.
That is bad analysis. There is a giant, catastrophic, enormous risk in signing Valverde. The risk is that he could pitch well enough in Lakeland that they call him up and return him to the closer role, thus abandoning closer by committee and reverting to the paradigm in which they have a closer, but that closer is terrible.
This signing is the Tigers signaling that they think Valverde is better than any of the arms they have in their bullpen. That is not true. It’s not as if the Tigers middle relief had a bad week and they decided to add Valverde for depth. They added Valverde because they think he can be their closer, which they define as their best reliever. This is crazy. Valverde isn’t good enough to be the last man in the Tigers bullpen and he’s going to get a chance to win the closer role.
Don’t get me wrong, Valverde was a good reliever earlier in his career. But he’s been getting worse over the last few years and had a really bad season last year that ended in an utter and complete meltdown. I don’t mean to indicate that Valverde is no longer a useful MLB reliever, but he is no longer a good reliever on a contending team.
Allow me to illustrate this with a graph. Here is Valverde’s strikeouts per 9 and walks per 9 over his ten major league seasons:
As you can see, his walk rate is higher over the last three seasons than it was over the previous three, but it hasn’t changed dramatically. He’s a high walk guy, that’s who he is. Fine. But the strikeout rate is very troubling. It has gotten worse every tear since 2006. Every year. It was below 7.0 last year. That is not a recipe for success. His xFIP was 5.01 last year!
If Valverde performs poorly over the next couple weeks and the closer by committee works well, then we have nothing to worry about. In that scenario, there is no harm in this move. But that’s not what’s going to happen. You know that isn’t how this story is going to go. Valverde will look good in extended spring training. Leyland will foam at the mouth because he wants a real closer and the Tigers will call him up. The Tigers will have a “closer” and everyone who doesn’t know better will be happy. But the outcomes will be worse. Valverde will blow as many games as the committee would have and the middle relief will be worse off because Downs or Villarreal will end up in Toledo.
This signing gives the Tigers a path to revert back to a situation that is safer from a PR perspective. Leyland won’t have to answer committee questions from writers who don’t understand baseball and fans will go back to living in a world in which their views on closers are unchallenged.
But that’s wrong. Closer by committee is the right way to run a bullpen. Someone has to break through and show the world it works. But everyone has to buy into it. The GM, the manager, and the players. If they don’t, then we get this. A washed up former closer who belongs in the Rockies bullpen pitching in close games for a pennant contender. The Tigers were positioned to make such a statement. The have good relievers, but none were defined as closers. It will work if Leyland sticks with it.
This move is an overreaction. It’s a mistake and it’s a risk. The committee blew a single save on the second day of the season and they panicked. Apparently, that’s all they needed to see to decide their closing situation was flawed.
Except last year, Jose Valverde entered in the 9th inning of the first game of last season. And he blew the save.
The Tigers overreacted to a single data point and used that to justify reverting to a strategy that feels safe. But they’re wrong. Valverde in the 9th is a worse option than what they have now. If he flames out in Lakeland, no problem. If he doesn’t and finds his way onto the team, it will be bad news.
And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Because as much as “saves” don’t matter and anyone can close, there exists a mythology in baseball about the 9th inning and the men who can conquer it. That mythology is utter nonsense, but for now, it seems clear that no one is willing to challenge it.
The Tigers made news today by announcing Jim Leyland and his coaching staff will return in 2013. Additionally, Dave Dombrowski met the press to talk about the 2013 roster.
Let’s start with Leyland. Some Tigers’ fans have been calling for Leyland’s job this season in frustration with his lineup choices among other things. I, however, maintain that this was a good choice for the 2013 Tigers.
Managers have control over certain aspects of a team, so let’s evaluate Leyland point by point. First, managers set the lineup and make on field personnel choices. Fans take exception with Leyland in this department, but I’ll defend him on two points. One, lineup order matters very little. If you put the right 9 guys on the field, over the course of a season, it doesn’t matter than much where they hit. Two, no one, not even fans use ideal lineups. The game is too set in its ways for that. Want to see the Tigers ideal lineup based on their production (based on who got the most ABs this year)?
Fielder, Dirks, Peralta, Cabrera, Jackson, Infante, Young, Boesch, Avila
Fielder, Dirks, Avila, Cabrera, Jackson, Young, Peralta, Infante, Berry
Not what you expected, right? Basically the commentary here is that no one would do it much better, so who cares. As for who he puts on the field, he can only work with what he’s given. Dombrowski makes the roster, Leyland just puts them on paper.
How about his management of the pitching staff? As far as the starters go, Leyland’s pretty good. He doesn’t usually leave guys in too long, but also doesn’t have too quick a hook. His bullpen management is problematic at times, but most managers struggle there. He insists on using his closer only in save situations too often and only for one inning at a time (more on bullpen usage later this winter).
His in-game strategy bothers me at times. He brings the infield in too often (you should only do it in the 9th inning and never if there’s a runner on second unless the game ending run is on third) and bunts far too often. But even these mistakes are pretty common and it’s not really holding the club back.
On the field, he’s not a tremendous skipper, but he’s not really costing them a lot of games. However, in the clubhouse, he’s widely respected. The players love him and there has almost never been a clubhouse spat during his tenure. All told, I think the quality environment he brings to the organization outweighs the potential negatives of his on field strategy because the Tigers are not a club that would push the boundaries with a new school manager who would actually correct the problems I’ve laid out.
As for the Dombrowski presser, we learned a few things we expected. Valverde and Young will not be back. Peralta and Dotel had their options exercised. The Tigers intend to pursue Anibal Sanchez in free agency and will make the 5th spot Smyly’s to lose if they fail.
They’ll go with an in house candidate to replace Valverde and will not spend heavily in the bullpen, but will add pieces if they can. Corner outfield will be a target to hold down the fort until Castellanos and Garcia are ready for the show. Dirks will be a fourth outfielder or better and Berry will get a shot to compete for a job.
Infante and Martinez should be ready for Opening Day.
So the roster will look like this:
C – Avila
1B – Fielder
2B – Infante
SS – Peralta
3B – Cabrera
LF – Dirks
CF – Jackson
RF – (TBA)
DH – Martinez
Bench – Santiago, backup catcher, TBA, TBA
Starting Rotation – Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello, Sanchez/Smyly/other
Bullpen – Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Alburquerque, Villarreal, TBA, TBA.
The obvious places for offseason activity are corner outfield, bullpen help, some bench help, and maybe the #5 starter. They’ll pay some of their arbitration eligible players more money and will talk extension with some. All in all, the core is in place.
It will be a mostly quiet offseason in Detroit, but we said that last year. Stay tuned for full coverage, but my key offseason target this winter for the Tigers is Torii Hunter. He’ll play a quality RF, hit well, and can mentor Jackson.
The Tigers head into the offseason looking to win it all in 2013 after a runner up performance in 2012.
SABR Toothed Tigers will have full coverage every time news breaks and will provide plenty of analysis for all of the Hot Stove dealings this winter. 153 days til Opening Day.