Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/17/13
Jim Leyland is an elder statesman of the game, usually recognized as one of the best managers in baseball, and his Tigers just won their third straight division title. The three best managers of the last generation, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre, have all retired. So, is Leyland a future Hall of Famer? Jim Leyland has managed for 22 seasons. Remarkably, all of them have been full seasons: he’s never been fired or hired midseason. Leyland is the winningest active manager: his 1769 regular season wins are fifteenth all time, behind Lou Piniella (1835) and ahead of Dusty Baker (1671). He has taken eight teams to the playoffs, garnering one World Championship, three league championships, six first-place finishes, and two Wild Cards, both of which went to the World Series. He has won three Manager of the Year awards, in 1990, 1992, and 2006. He won the first World Series in Marlins history, took the Tigers to their first World Series since the Bless You Boys of 1984, and led the Pirates to their last division title in franchise history, 1992. I love managerial Hall of Fame debates; in my old gig at Yahoo, I entered three of them, evaluating Billy Martin (no), Lou Piniella (no), and Joe Torre (yes). It’s a lot harder to evaluate managers than players: while the Hall of Fame instructs voters to consider a player’s character including off-field activities, the bulk of a player’s worth is achieved on the field, while a manager may have his greatest impact in the clubhouse, in the long hours between games, helping his players to perform to the best of their ability and putting them in the best chance to succeed. So a player’s worth is easily measured with on-field stats, while a manager’s worth is not. Tactical screw-ups on lineup construction, bunts, situational hitting and pitching may cost a team a few runs here and there. It’s hard to measure how much the rest is worth, but it stands to reason that it’s worth something. In every other human endeavor, leadership matters. (Think about the difference between your best teacher and your worst, or between your best boss and your worst, and then try to imagine that $200 million was riding on your performance.) By that standard, Leyland has been remarkably successful: not only have his teams won, but he’s one of the only people in the last two decades to coax wins out of the Pirates, Marlins, and Tigers. But by other measures, Leyland is less impressive. According to Chris Jaffe’s 2010 book “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers,” Jim Leyland actually is credited with being worth negative runs to his teams. Jaffe’s book is three years old, and his data is five years old, but it’s worth trying to understand why that might be. There are three general features of his career, across the four teams he has managed. First, he helmed some truly awful teams. Second, he undervalues closers, perhaps to a fault. And third, he rides his starters hard. As to the first reason, he is partly victimized by some truly awful teams toward the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh, in Florida in 1998 after the big firesale, and in his single season in Colorado in 1999. But Jaffe found that Leyland did not generally tend to make his players better than they otherwise were. Regarding the second reason, according to Jaffe, throughout his career, Leyland has generally lacked a shutdown closer. As Jaffe writes, “his actions indicate he thinks it is overrated.” That was true in 1989, when his best reliever was setup man Bill Landrum; it was true in 2006, when his best reliever was setup man Joel Zumaya; and it has certainly been true the last two years, when he has hardly had anyone he trusted at the front or back of the pen. Of course, refusing to overrate a closer is a form of sabermetric thinking. But his bullpen troubles in the 2012 and 2013 postseasons may suggest that he takes it to an extreme. Moreover, Leyland is not otherwise on the cutting edge. He has overworked many of his most promising young arms, including the fortunately indestructible Justin Verlander, but also including Jeremy Bonderman, Rick Porcello, Livan Hernandez, Doug Drabek, and the young (and equally indestructible) Tim Wakefield. According to Jaffe’s numbers, then, Leyland has actually been worth negative wins to his teams. Jaffe’s book has him as worth -156 runs. That’s quite similar to Dusty Baker, at -103 runs. By contrast, Piniella was worth +50, Bruce Bochy has been worth +354 runs to his teams, and Bobby Cox was worth +655 runs. So Leyland was decidedly worse than his longest-tenured peers. For what it’s worth, Leyland’s overall winning percentage is barely positive; his .506 winning percentage is decidedly pedestrian, 42nd out of the 59 managers who have won 1000 games, just ahead of Bobby Valentine at .504 and Bruce Bochy at .500 even. On the other hand, Leyland’s eight playoff appearances are tied with Connie Mack for eighth of all time. After Cox, Torre, and La Russa, Leyland has the most playoff appearances of any manager in the last 50 years, though Baker and Bochy are right behind him with seven and six, respectively. Unlike Torre or Piniella, all of Leyland’s career value came as a manager: as a minor leaguer in the Tigers system, Leyland never made it out of Double-A. That’s the same level at which Fredi Gonzelez’s playing career stalled. Most managers reached the major leagues as players; Leyland is one of the most successful of those who haven’t, behind luminaries such as Earl Weaver and Joe McCarthy, the greatest manager of all time. It feels as though Jim Leyland has been around forever, which is why people are often astonished to learn that he is still only 68. His Hall of Fame case rests largely on the rest of his tenure in Detroit. If he wins another World Series or a couple more pennants, he’ll basically be a lock. As it is, he has a reasonable case but not an overwhelming one.
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