I attended the 2008 convention in Cleveland of the Society of American Baseball Research. I always like looking for Tigers-related presentations -– and in the absence of those presentations, I look for more general-interest talks.
Chris Jaffe of Schaumberg, Ill., delivered a terrific presentation, “Evaluating Managerial Tendencies.” In the 20 minutes he was allotted to speak, he tore through any number of slides showing which managers (generally with 10 years of big-league managerial experience) rated best or worst at a host of different categories.
I was scribbling furiously when I saw the names of past Detroit skippers like Sparky Anderson, Ralph Houk and Billy Martin come up. But the one slide that struck me dumb was “managers whose teams do worse in the second half of the season than the first half”
Jaffe explained that one wouldn’t be likely to see the name of Connie Mack on such a list. His Philadelphia Athletics teams were bad in both halves of the season for a whole lot of seasons! But ninth worst on the list was then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
In 2008, Leyland was only in his third year of his eight-year managerial reign in Detroit. However, the stumble of 2006 was all too clear in my memory.
The Tigers, divisional doormats for a decade, had suddenly charged out well ahead of the pack in the American League Central Division. They topped out at an incredible 75-35, 40 games over .500, in early August. I remember this because win #74 was the Mayo Smith Society’s Annual Gathering game. After a first-inning three-run homer that looked like the beginning of yet another long night for Kenny Rogers, Rogers found that little extra something and held the Cleveland Indians at bay the rest of the evening. And, with Placido Polanco on base, Ivan Rodriguez hit a bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning home run off Fausto “don’t call me Roberto Hernandez” Carmona to give Detroit the come-from-behind 4-3 win. And the next day, 2003 Rule 5 pick Wilfredo Ledezma pitched a whale of a game in a spot start to lead the Tigers to another victory. However, Polanco went down with a broken collarbone and without him Detroit stumbled. The Tigers even lost the season-ending home series against Kansas City to fall to second place behind Minnesota and back into a wild-card slot instead.
And in 2007, Detroit went into the All-Star break with the AL’s best record, but slipped badly in the second half to fall out of the playoff chase.
Sadly, nobody in the front office was paying attention to this phenomenon. In 2008, the Tigers staggered out of the gate, starting 0-7. They fought mightily to get to the .500 mark at 41-41, depending more on the likes of Eddie Bonine than the likes of Todd Jones to do so. However, Detroit faded yet again to finish 74-88, 14 games under .500.
The year 2009 was a little bit different. In the last month of the season, Detroit played decently, much like the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers –- even taking care of divisional rival Minnesota in a late-summer series. However, after that series, the Twins caught on like a house afire while Detroit couldn’t match Minnesota’s pace. That final-weekend season against the Chicago White Sox will long be looked at as a travesty, especially with the first public revelation of Miguel Cabrera’s late-night carousing with Chisox players and his drunken tirade with his pregnant wife. And, let it be remembered that Detroit fell out of the playoff chase in that agonizing extra-inning “Game 163” when Fernando Rodney was asked to pitch a fourth inning for the Tigers and had nothing left in the tank.
Leyland fared better after that. In 2010, Detroit bounced up and down all season, finishing at 81-81. And in 2011, the Tigers went on their first September rampage in quite some time, winning the AL Central by 15 games. They also took the division in 2012 and ’13 –- although in 2013 (Leyland’s last season), having clinched a playoff spot, Detroit resembled the 1988 Red Sox by playing lackadaisical ball the final week of the season while Cleveland finished with a flourish and wound up just a game off the pace.
Jaffe wrote a book, “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers,” published by McFarland & Co. in Jefferson, N.C. It’s a wonderful book, although its statistical analysis ends with the 2008 season. The website promoted on the back cover of the book appears to have been hijacked by someone who knows little or nothing about how to evaluate managers, and no new content has been posted in several years.
But I did get in touch with Jaffe by phone, and he’s working on a few new tweaks on his analysis, just in case there’s a new edition of the book. And the creator of the database Jaffe used for his evaluations is reworking it to be able to include WAR, the stat du jour (remember Win Shares? Runs Created? Total Player Rating?).
Jaffe, though, did note that sabermetric guru Bill James, in his latest edition of his baseball analytics book, put together an essay on managers and bullpens. In it, James ranks Leyland dead last at building a bullpen. Of course, these days managers don’t have the final word on how their roster is constructed — if they ever really did. But one can see the connection between a chronically overtaxed bullpen and a team’s collapse down the stretch.
This essay is not meant to be a “j’accuse!” directed at Leyland. After all, he did lead the Tigers to two World Series and four years in the postseason in his eight seasons as manager –- more than any other Detroit skipper and a great rate than any prior manager. It’s just that managers can be subject to statistical analysis just like players can -– and it wouldn’t have hurt in retrospect had Leyland had someone like Mariano Rivera shutting down the opposition game after game, season after season.
By: Mark Pattison