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Leyland Unplugged (and what makes a “great” manager)

Oct 22, 2013, 4:16 PM EDT

Detroit Tigers' manager Jim Leyland looks on during a practice in preparation for the MLB American League Championship Series baseball playoffs in Arlington, Texas Reuters

What a fascinating baseball career Jim Leyland has had. He was born and raised in Toledo, less than an hour from Detroit, and he was a no-hit minor-league catcher for the Tigers for seven years. He was one of those ballplayers everyone knew from the start would coach; Leyland was the sort of player who loved the game so much he DESERVED to have more talent. But, as they say, talent isn’t necessarily given to the deserving. Leyland hit .222/.262/.261 in his seven minor league years, though the last two years he mostly hung around to help the real prospects develop.

I once talked to someone who saw Leyland play in Montgomery, Ala., in the late 1960s. His scouting report: Leyland couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield and he couldn’t run worth a damn. He could catch and throw a bit.

In 1969 and 1970, as mentioned, Leyland essentially served as a player-coach, with more emphasis on “coach.” In 1972, he got his first managerial job for the Clinton Pilots of the Midwest League. The team went 49-77. Ah, the joys of managing. After that, Leyland went where the Tigers sent him. He managed in Clinton, in Montgomery, in Lakeland and in Evansville. Some years he had talent — he managed Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson in Lakeland, got Jack Morris and Dan Petry in Evansville — some years he did not. Some years his teams had winning records, some years they did not. In 1982, he became third-base coach for the Chicago White Sox and their young manager Tony La Russa.

It was 1982. La Russa was 37 years old. Leyland was 37 years old. The two men were born in 1944, barely two months apart. Technically, they were both still young enough to be playing baseball in 1982. But neither had played a game in years. That 1982 White Sox team won 87 games and showed promise. The 1983 White Sox won 99 games, the best record in baseball. A lot of people were watching closely. La Russa, of course, would be hired by the Oakland A’s in 1986. Early that year, Leyland was hired to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates were terrible. They were beyond terrible. They were coming off a 104-loss season and had not been worth a damn for a while. But, worse, they seemed to have lost their way as a team. The famously nice Chuck Tanner was the Pirates manager, and he had been pretty lax about, well, everything. The Pirates had fallen apart as an organization, It was a disaster. Leyland seemed young and energetic enough to help turn things around.

He did help turn things around. The team slowly developed. Those Pirates, of course, had the young Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Jeff King, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, John Smiley and so on. They all stayed together and emerged in 1990. Bonds and Bonilla each hit 30 homers, Van Slyke won a Gold Glove, Bell and King both played their first full seasons, Drabek won the Cy Young Award, and the Pirates won 95 games and won the National League East.

They more or less repeated the formula the next two seasons. Bonds, of course, kept getting better and better. Smiley won 20 games in 1991. And so on. Leyland ran a pretty smooth ship. The Pirates won 98 and 96 games the next two seasons. They also had their hearts broken in the postseason, first by Cincinnati, then twice by Atlanta.

And then, like that it was over in Pittsburgh. Bonds left, Drabek left, Smiley was traded, Bonilla already left before the 1992 season. Leyland could perform no miracles. He managed the Pirates for four more seasons, all losing years. Actually, it would be 20 straight losing seasons for Pittsburgh, but Leyland was gone after four.

He was then was hired by Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga who had decided to build a superteam because, well because he was Wayne Huizenga. Superteams rarely work. I mean the band Asia didn’t work. But that Marlins team with Leyland conducting — and with Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Livan Hernandez, Al Leiter and the rest — squeaked into the playoffs with 92 wins and then won the World Series. Promptly the team was shut down, disbanded, Leyland’s next team went 54-108. He was not happy and left to manage the Colorado Rockies. One 90-loss season there, he stopped managing entirely and did some scouting.

Then, in a Sinatra like comeback, he came to Detroit in 2006, won a pennant his first year back and won his third Manager of the Year Award. His team went up and down the next four years, then won 95 games, then won another pennant, and then this year, well, you know what happened this year. Ninety three wins. An ill-fated playoff series against Boston where the bullpen allowed TWO grand slams. And Jim Leyland walked away for what, you would think, is the final time. He’s 68 years old now.

His career record as a manager: 1769-1728 — 41 games over 500 in a career of 3,499 games. He won his division six times. He finished fifth or worse in his division eight times. There are 15 managers in baseball history who have managed for 10 years and are within one percent of .500 on either side. Two of them are in the Hall of Fame (Wilbert Robinson and Bucky Harris). Others like Bobby Valentine and Buck Rodgers tend not to be remembered fondly.

And Leyland? Where is he on the list? People like him. People respect him. But it’s a fair question: Was Jim Leyland a great manager? And, what is a great baseball manager anyway?

* * *

Here we are, 120-plus years into our baseball history, and nobody seems to agree on what makes a good baseball manager. We have countless ways to judge hitters, pitchers, fielders. We have statistic after statistic, some complex and precise, some vague and simplistic, and we used them liberally, and we can tell you to the nineteenth decimal point why Tom Seaver was better than Steve Carlton or why .294-hitting Frank Robinson is one of the greatest players in baseball history while .294-hitting Steve Garvey is not a Hall of Famer.

But managers? No. With managers, basically, we still use three numbers to calculate value. Wins. Losses. Championships.

Maybe that’s just how it has to be. After all a manager is not hired to do SPECIFIC things like hit 30 home runs or pitch 220 effective innings or get batters out in the eighth. A manager is hired to win a lot of games and win championships. If his team fails to do the first of those, he will be fired quickly. If his team fails to the second, he will be fired after an undefined period of time. The specifics — that is to say all the countless things, big and small, that a manager actually needs to DO to get his team to win those games and championships — are not really our concern. Did he win?

But it is those countless things, big and small, that define the manager. Was Joe Torre a great manager? He sure was in New York when he won four World Series and handled George Steinbrenner’s team as well as anyone ever could. And he sure was not in New York, where he led the Mets to three consecutive 95-loss seasons. He also was not in St. Louis, where he could not find a way to spark the Cardinals beyond mediocrity.

Bill James, not surprisingly, has written some of the most interesting thoughts about managers and what they do. “Bill James Book On Managers” might be the best of his excellent books. Bill comes up with thoughts on managers the same way he has come up with thoughts on everything else — by asking lots and lots of questions and trying to find dispassionate answers.

For instance, 25 or so years ago, he asked: What are the manager’s actual responsibilities?

He came up with three levels.

1. Game-level decision making. These are the strategic game decisions a manager makes, everything from picking a starting pitcher to deciding whether or not to bunt in the ninth inning. Bill estimated a manager legitimately makes about 70 decisions every game.

2. Team-level decision making. These would be decisions about the team itself such as whether to go with young players, whether to get an established closer or go with a live arm, whether to build the team around speed or power or something in between.

3. Personnel management and instruction. That would be everything else — such as how a manager treats players, how he sets the rules, how strictly he enforces the rules, how he deals with the media, how much teaching he does …

I think in the last 25 years, these have changed slightly. I think it’s more like this now.

Level 1: Game decisions.

Level 2; How you work with the GM and the rest of the organization.

Level 3: Managing people.

The main change is at Level 2 — it seems to me that GMs now play the big role in defining a team’s personality. My impression is that managers used to have a lot more power; this was the thing that Moneyball mocked. The GM always some autonomy, of course, including the power to fire the manager. But it feels like now the GM is much more involved in decide what KIND OF TEAM the manager will get. The manager has some input, of course, but again I think it’s more a manager’s job these days to work with the GM (and owner’s) vision of the team than it is to come up with the vision himself.

* * *

So … Leyland. Level 1 means game decisions, and from what I see Leyland has always seemed more of a pragmatist than an innovator, more of a motivator than a strategist. He had his own rhythms that, after a while, became predictable. He liked to stay with his starters deep into games — often steering clear of the pitch count trends of the day — but he would pull relievers like they were weeds. One way he definitively stood out in his time was his mistrust of closers. In his 22 seasons as a manager, he had 14 different primary closers and he never had one for more than three years in a row.

In later years, he liked making a lot of defensive replacements — this probably had to do with the contraction of the Tigers. He was not opposed to a good sacrifice now and again, though he wasn’t married to small ball like many others. He had an on-again, off-again affair with the intentional walk. Mostly, he stayed pretty basic with tactics. If you were a Jim Leyland fan, you probably knew what he would do about the same time Leyland knew. He did not surprise much (though moving Miguel Cabrera to the No. 2 spot in the postseason was unexpected and showed some moxie).

How much do game decisions matter in the grand scheme of things? People argue about this all the time. On the one hand, people CONSTANTLY argue about managerial moves, which seems to suggest they are hugely important. On the other hand, many think that strategic moves are widely overrated and that, over time, they tend to even out. One little hobby I have is asking big league managers how much of a difference a manager can make over a season with strategic moves. The answer is pretty constant: Three to five games a year. I don’t know if that’s true and wouldn’t know how to figure it, but that’s what managers seem to think.

I suspect that Leyland has probably held his own as a strategist, no more, no less. Chris Jaffe wrote a fine book on managers and one of the surprising conclusions was the Leyland did not score well at all. This did not include the most recent Tigers teams but still, other managers simply scored a lot better than Leyland. It’s an interesting theory. I never got the impression that Leyland was breaking new ground or that he was prone to the sort of preconceived prejudices that can really hurt a manager. Like I say, I think he held his own.

* * *

Level 2 is working within the team framework, and in this I would rate Leyland very high. Think of the different challenges he has faced. In Pittsburgh, he was brought in to reshape a team that had sunk to rock bottom. The Pirates were terrible, they had a drug problem, a lot of the players were overweight and seemingly bored. Under Leyland, they became a consistent winner. Leyland stayed for several years when they were drifting in the abyss, and were constant losers. He didn’t like it but he stayed.

Then, he went to Florida where the demand was: WIN RIGHT NOW. That’s a tough one. But the Marlins won the World Series that first year. It took some good fortune but they won. When the team was torn apart the next year, Leyland found a different mission: Just don’t embarrass yourself. In this, I think, he failed. The Marlins lost 108 games. I’m not sure if a different kind of manager could have cut that loss total a bit, but what difference would that have made? It’s clear that Leyland was frustrated with what he perceived (rightly) was a pretty disgraceful way to run a baseball team. He got out.

He went to Colorado for one year and that just wasn’t a fit.

Then he came to Detroit where he seems to work in lockstep with GM Dave Dombrowski. That might be an illusion — I’m sure they have disagreements behind closed doors — but in general the team seems pointed in the same direction. The team has collected a lot of specialized talent and Leyland has taken them to two World Series. Defense has obviously never been a priority in Detroit; Leyland has worked around it. The pitching staff has been built around starting pitching and the bullpen has been something of a revolving door; Leyland has worked with it. The Tigers are a spectacularly gifted and spectacularly flawed team; Leyland has worked with it for eight years.

This ability to work within an organization is an underrated skill. Davey Johnson, I think, is a fantastic manager. But if you look at his career you find that he always wears out his welcome. Now, part of this is that Johnson has had a knack for getting hired in dysfunctional places. I mean NOBODY could work for Marge Schott for very long. The Mets and Baltimore were crazy places for different reasons. But since the Mets, Davey has never been in a place for longer than three years, and you would think part of that has to be Davey himself. Leyland has a unique talent for speaking his mind without creating animosity, for embracing plans that he might not entirely buy into, for keeping everything going forward.

* * *

Then there’s Level 3, the actual management of people. This is probably both the most underrated part of the job and the toughest part to quantify. Even so, I think it’s fair to say this: Leyland is spectacularly good at managing people.

What does this mean for a baseball manager? Again, I have collected some thoughts from big league managers. They say that their jobs include (in no particular order):

– Dealing with he media.

– Build confidence and puncturing arrogance.

– Helping team avoid distractions.

– Deflecting praise while diving in froth of blame.

– Developing an atmosphere of unselfishness.

– Protecting players’ vulnerabilities.

– Highlighting players strengths.

– Maintaining discipline.

– Being consistent.

– Fostering an even keel mood where nobody looks too far forward or too far back.

There are countless other tasks, of course, but that’s not a bad start. Here I’ll include an opinion: I think in 2013 the single most important job for any manager is handling the media. That does not simply mean saying unobtrusive things to the reporters. Media swirl all around the game. Social media. Television. Radio. Newspapers. Magazines. Blogs. Comments. More people are saying more things about baseball teams than at any point ever. And it’s all potentially: a) A distraction; b) an opportunity; c) a fissure; d; a way to get people closer together.

Managers often will say, “I just ignore that stuff.” And, sure, much of it can and should be ignored. I’ve written before about Ray Knight, a good guy, who when he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds would often allow himself to be swayed by what was being said on television, on the radio, in the newspaper, in the stands. He couldn’t help it. He did not have the ability to shut out any of the outside world. And, remember, this was BEFORE the internet exploded. I wrote a column saying that he needed to stop listening to everyone else, that he was the manager and should do what he believed.

He called me into his office the next day. I expected a lashing. Instead, he said: “Joe Joe, you’re right,” and showed me that he had put my column on his bulletin board.

And I thought: “Ray, I think you might have missed the point.”

But ignoring the media entirely is not a viable solution. It was probably NEVER a viable option, but it’s certainly not now when it penetrates every aspect of life, not with players on Twitter, not with easy access to everything that everybody in the whole country is saying. If I was hiring a manager, I think this would be on top of my list. I would want to hear the manager’s strategy for dealing with the media. How would he make sure that his message got through? How would he deal with the inevitable negativity and misunderstandings. How well would he be able to stay on point after frustrating losses? How well would he be able to stay grounded during long winning streaks? How would he respond to a player who got swept into a media swirl?

And by all this, I don’t mean I would want a manager who sounds like Jay Carney. A manager has to be himself. I would just want to know that a manager THINKS about this kind of stuff. Too often, I think, managers rely on their wits and go improv with the media. I don’t think that works now. You need a plan. You need a clue.

Leyland was hardly a modern media strategist — but I don’t know that there was anybody in his time who handled the media better. He really was a natural. He was funny, a story-teller, a straight-shooter. Even when he was grumpy, he had the ability to come across as likable in a gruff sort of way. He seemed to have a deeper reason for just about everything he said — he would defend a player or (rarely) call out a player or talk confidently or sound negative, and he could imagine exactly how players would read it the next day. He may not have had the ability to play Major League Baseball but dealing with the media he was Henry Aaron.

You might say: Well, he was just a likable guy, it was no big deal. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think of Trey Hillman, who is a very good guy and good baseball man. I spent a lot of time with him in Japan during the Japan Series in 2007 and found him to be thoughtful, funny, passionate about baseball, all those good things. I expected him to come back to the U.S. and be a managerial star. Instead he came to back to manager the Kansas City City Royals and, almost immediately, alienated everyone. He came across as defensive and dismissive and pompous — I don’t think he IS those things but he simply could not bring his personality to life. It was too bad, and I feel certain he’s learned from it and will do it differently if he gets another chance.*

*I wrote these words before Hillman was fired as Dodgers bench coach on Tuesday. Hillman was probably Don Mattingly’s best friend, so it seems probable that the firing was more to send Mattingly a message than anything else.

But it reminded me, yet again, that what Leyland did so naturally is actually MUCH harder than it looked.

Beyond that, Leyland had to manage all sorts of cranky and unpredictable and misunderstood and complicated characters through the years — Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Bonilla, Delmon Young on and on — and he has done a pretty magnificent job of it. I think he has done it in part by being so straightforward, by staying the same day after day, by giving people the benefit of the doubt but never looking the other way when he sees something wrong.

It’s a tough thing to be that constant. That, I think, was Bobby Cox’s genius as a manager. He was the same yesterday, today, tomorrow. He was intensely loyal at all times. Leyland had that too.

* * *

So was Leyland a great manager? It depends what you mean by the question. I think people generally refer to a manager’s strategic skills when asking the question. I do not believe Leyland was a great strategic manager. I don’t think he was a bad one either. He was somewhere in the middle.

But a great manager — yeah, I think Leyland was great. I think his ability for working toward a plan, his ability to guide his teams through the distractions, his talent to manage people and get the best out of them, these things made him great.

I asked Bill James if he thinks Leyland was a great manager. His answer, I think, gets at the heart of what i’m trying to say in many, many fewer words.

Was Leyland a great manager, Bill?

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t know that I could give you chapter and verse as to why, but … he seemed to have the ability to make things work.”

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