When Jim Leyland exited Detroit after the 2013 season, he left large shoes to fill. Even for a little man. The city is still trying to figure out what that era of Tigers’ baseball meant. But one thing is for sure: without Smoky it wouldn’t have been possible.
Leyland led the Tigers to two pennants, something not even Sparky Anderson could accomplish. He guided the team to three division titles and four post-season appearances. He presided over arguably the greatest era in Tigers’ history, when you consider the accomplishments by the team and individuals on the roster.
But for all his success in a Tiger uniform, Leyland was unable to capture a World Series title. That fact nags at Tigers fans, and you better believe it nags at Leyland and former team architect Dave Dombrowski, and the Ilitch family, and Miguel Cabrera, and on and on.
Given his mixed success in Detroit? Is Leyland a Hall of Fame manager? Will he get a plaque in Cooperstown in the next few years when they consider managers from his era?
Let’s examine his credentials:
- 1,769 wins in a 22-year major league managerial career. That win total ranks 17th all-time.
- Three pennants and one World Series title (with Florida in 1997).
- Six division titles, three with Pittsburgh and three with Detroit.
- Post-season appearances with three teams.
- At least 700 wins with two franchises (Pittsburgh and Detroit).
- Manager of the Year three times (1990, 1992, 1996)
- Runner-up in Manager of the year voting three times (1988, 1991, 2011)
- A career .504 winning percentage (1,769-1,728)
Of the 16 managers who won more games than Leyland, twelve of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The only ones not are Bruce Bochy (who will be elected to the Hall eventually), Gene Mauch, Dusty Baker, and Lou Piniella.
Leyland ranks 16th all-time in games managed, and only the same four guys are not in the Hall of Fame of the 15 managers in front of him.
So, the .504 winning percentage doesn’t look great, but Leyland has other things in his favor. Namely, among managers since 1901, he is one of only 27 to win as many as three pennants. Of those, only five are not in the Hall of Fame: Leyland, Bochy, Terry Francona, Ralph Houk, and Charlie Grimm.
Let’s look at that list of five three-pennant managers NOT in Cooperstown:
Bruce Bochy: he won three World Series in five years with the Giants this century and he will be elected to the Hall of Fame when his name first appears on a ballot.
Terry Francona: A lock for the Hall of Fame when he retires. Francona won two World Series with Boston and added another pennant with his current team, the Indians. Francona is widely considered the best active manager in the game.
Ralph Houk: “The Major” took over the Yankees in the early 1960s and guided them to three straight pennants, winning the World Series twice. But Houk was largely seen as a beneficiary of the loaded Yankee lineup, which featured Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Elston Howard. He was unceremoniously fired after he had the audacity to lose the Fall Classic in his third season in the Bronx. The team brought him back, but Houk never again brought a team higher than second place in his ensuing 17 seasons as a skipper. He had a .514 career winning percentage, which is nice, but built largely on his first three seasons as a young manager of those great Yankee teams.
Charlie Grimm: If anyone was around with a strong enough voice to argue his merits, Charlie Grimm would probably be a Hall of Fame manager by now. The popular Grimm won two pennants as a player-manager for the Cubs in the 1930s, and guided that team to a winning record in each of his first ten seasons at the helm. In 1945, in his second stint with the Cubbies, he led them to another flag. He ran into great AL teams all three times in the Fall Classic and never won that title. But his career .547 winning mark is outstanding.
What is Leyland’s greatest accomplishment? Undoubtedly it’s the 1997 season when his Marlins went to the World Series in only their fifth season of existence. It was a very talented team, with a number of veteran stars. But they were still underdogs to the Indians in the Fall Classic. Yet somehow they rallied to win a classic Game Seven in eleven innings to become champions. It was Leyland’s 33rd season in professional baseball: half of them as a minor leaguer.
That’s one of Leyland’s best assets: his story. His career in baseball started as an unheralded catching prospect in the Detroit organization in the 1960s. He quickly proved that he would never hit good pitching, and someone asked him if he would consider a coaching career. He was only 26 years old when the Detroit Tigers asked him to trade the catchers’ mask for a clipboard. He spent seven years managing at Class-A ball, before earning a spot at Triple-A where he tutored many of the players who ended up forming the core of the 1984 World Champions. In 1982, when it was clear he would never get a chance to manage the Tigers while Sparky Anderson was still breathing good air, Leyland accepted a job to coach under Tony La Russa in Chicago for the White Sox. Four years later, largely thanks to a glowing recommendation from La Russa, he got his first managerial job with the Pirates.
After successful tours with Pittsburgh and Florida, and a brief unsuccessful stint in Colorado, Leyland surprised many by accepting the Detroit job before the 2006 season. He was recruited by Dombrowski, who knew him well from the Marlins. It was clear immediately that things would be different with Leyland in the manager’s chair. In spring training, after the Tigers were defeated by the Yankees, Leyland confronted his young new team in the dugout.
“Look at those guys over there,” Leyland said. “See how they walk around like winners? That can be you, but you have to believe it. You have to act like winners and go onto the field and compete likes winners to get where they are.”
In 2006, Leyland’s team jumped out to a hot start and rolled to 96 wins. Even a late-season collapse that coast the team the division title didn’t derail Leyland’s confidence. The Tigers dropped Game One of the Division Series to the Yankees, and then won seven straight to win their first pennant in 22 seasons.
During Leyland’s stay in Detroit the team fielded some of baseball’s biggest stars having historic seasons. Pitcher Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and MVP award in 2011, and he tossed two no-hitters. Cabrera captured four batting titles and won a pair of MVP awards, as well as a triple crown as he placed his name alongside that of Al Kaline among the greats to ever wear the Old English D. Others to thrive under Leyland included Max Scherzer, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Victor Martinez. The team had a winning record in seven of Leyland’s eight seasons writing out lineups.
Leyland will be eligible to be named to a ballot for modern candidates to the Baseball Hall of Fame this winter.
Do you think Jim Leyland deserves to be in the Hall of Fame? Tell me in the comments below.