One of the unique things about sports is that anyone can have an opinion—no matter how ludicrous—without ever having to justify it. Last season, the Tigers had a miraculous run to the World Series. In what was an obvious violation of the correlation does not equal causation scientific mantra, Jim Leyland was canonized in Detroit for being the savior of Detroit baseball. Leyland wasn’t the manager in ’05 or any of the other disastrous seasons. He was the manager in ’06. So, Leyland must have been responsible for the Tigers run in 2006, right? The baseball world certainly took that reasoning “hook, line and sinker” naming Leyland the Manager of the Year in the AL and proclamations that Leyland is the best manager in the game. Now, that award would have been given to the manager of any team that improved 24 games from the previous season. So Leyland getting the award doesn’t necessarily mean that the baseball world was duped. But, I think most Detroit fans were caught up in the “Leyland is God” movement and I think most of the baseball analysts outside of Detroit were too.
Judging from the tone of what you have read thus far, I’m guessing you have figured out that I don’t buy into that line of thinking. But, for the people that do think that way, you also have to blame Leyland for everything that the Tigers didn’t accomplish in 2007. If Leyland was the best manager in baseball in 2006, then he has to be considered one of the worst managers in baseball in 2007. He took a team that entered the World Series as huge favorites just a few months earlier, and turned it into an 87-win, underachiever. Or, at least that’s what you should believe if you thought Leyland resurrected the Tigers in 2006. Hopefully, judging from the tone of the last few sentences, you have also figured out that I don’t buy into that line of thinking either. Leyland was only negligibly responsible for the Tigers success in 2006 and he was only negligibly responsible for the Tigers failures in 2007.
Leyland has received far too much credit for what the Tigers accomplished last year. Conversely, Alan Trammell took way too much blame for what transpired in 2003-2005. He was put into a situation with terrible talent and little financial backing. Even when Mike Illitch pulled out his pocketbook for the 2005 season, it only netted a half-season from a still-recovering Magglio Ordonez and a half-season from Troy Percival. Neither move was good enough to impact the club in the slightest. Carlos Guillen missed half the year with an injury as well. The team was already bad and the best players missed half the season. Turning that mess into even a .500 season was an impossible task for Trammell. Instead of seeing the situation for what it was, the Tigers took the chance to make Tram the goat and brought in Leyland. Opting for a fresh start is one thing but allowing Trammell to take the brunt of the criticism for Illitch’s indiscretions was unacceptable. Leyland was given all of the glory for inheriting a massive infusion of talent that coincided with Tram’s departure.
While it is true that the Tigers won 24 more games with Leyland in his first season, it is also true that Leyland had a healthy Ordonez and Guillen, a full-season from Placido Polanco and the additions of Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Kenny Rogers, and Todd Jones. If I remember correctly, those players are the reason the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006. How good of a job would Leyland have done with the rosters Trammell had to deal with? Check out what Leyland did with the Marlins in 1998 for a good indication (hint: .333 winning percentage). There is no doubt in my mind that the Tigers would’ve made the playoffs last season with Tram. The team had an infusion of talent rarely seen in MLB and that infusion just happened to coincide with the arrival of Leyland. Thus, Leyland is your savior.
This is certainly not a knock on Leyland. I think he does a decent job. This is also not an endorsement of Trammell. He wasn’t the greatest manager but he certainly took way too much blame for the state of the franchise. Leyland had been in the same situation that Trammell was in many times in his career and he didn’t do any better. When Leyland had talent (Pirates ‘90-92, Marlins ‘97) his teams performed well. When his teams didn’t have talent his teams were terrible. Leyland lost at least 90 games for the Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies. In 16 seasons, he has managed teams to a .500 or better record just seven times. His career winning percentage is .496. Leyland didn’t magically become the greatest manager of all-time over one off-season.
The inspiration for this post came from seeing and hearing so many people making excuses for Leyland in the face of the Tigers disappointing ’07-showing. The same people making the excuses are the same people that lauded Leyland for being the greatest manager ever last season. There’s no doubt that the Tigers have suffered an uncanny amount of injuries this year. It would have been difficult for any manager to lead the Tigers to the playoffs with partial seasons from Joel Zumaya, Kenny Rogers, and Gary Sheffield. The Tigers had to play seven pitchers with fewer than 10 games pitched in their careers. No club can withstand that sort of instability in the pitching department. I’m quite sure that injuries are the reasons why the Tigers disappointed in 2007 in the same way an unprecedented talent overhaul was the reason the Tigers won in 2006. Leyland won in ’06 because he had the talent. Leyland lost in ’07 because he didn’t have the talent. If you’re intent on giving Leyland the credit for leading the Tigers to the World Series in ’06, though, then you should be the first in line to pile-on Leyland for ruining the ’07 campaign. All I’m asking for is some consistency. Don’t rip Tram for losing when he didn’t have the talent and then give Leyland a free pass when he didn’t have the talent. Likewise, don’t credit Leyland in ’06 and let him off the hook in ’07. You can’t have it both ways. For me, Leyland is an average manager who doesn’t have the ability to improve a team 24 games or keep a team from the playoffs. The Tigers won in ’06 and the Tigers lost in ’07. Leyland, like Trammell, was incapable of preventing either from happening.