Leyland gets a failing grade so far in 2012

Just as players can struggle, so can managers, and Detroit's Jim Leyland is off to a terrible start in 2012.

There’s an old saying that says that every man thinks he can do three things better than any other man: build a fire, make love to a woman, and manage a baseball team.

I’m terrible at building fires.

So, I’m as qualified as any other average joe to critique the managerial skills of Detroit Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. First, to swipe an oft-used phrase from our president, “let me be clear” about one thing. I respect Leyland’s experience and he has certainly proven to be a capable big league manager throughout his career. He has one more World Series ring than I do, and he’s managed more baseball games than I will ever see. His credentials are impressive. However, just because he’s won before and has decades of experience, doesn’t mean Leyland is immune from criticism. And so far in 2012, he deserves a bunch.

In grading Leyland’s performance so far this season, I’m going to examine three specific areas:

  • Construction of the active roster
  • Lineup selection
  • Use of the pitching staff/bullpen

I also think Leyland is open to criticsim for some of his in-game strategy, for example he has been too infatuated with the sacrifice bunt, whether he claims to be using it to “jump start the offense” or not. But I won’t spend any more space on that issue here.

Let’s dive in. The first thing a manager has to do every year is evaluate his players and construct a 25-man active roster to start the season. This spring the Tigers had two major roster questions: finding a fifth starter and solving the second base problem. The latter was more crucial and required more careful examination. It allowed for far less margin for error, too. The team had several good choices for the rotation slot, finally settling on Drew Smyly, which has worked out brilliantly. But even if Smyly hadn’t pitched as well as he has (he’s currently leading the American League in ERA), Detroit has a few backup options who are decent and the nature of that role being an every fifth day means there’s room for experimentation.

The Tigers chose to start the season with three players on their roster who could play second base: Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, and Ramon Santiago. Santiago serves as the backup at shortstop and Raburn can also play the outfield (if that’s what you want to call what he does out there). Add Don Kelly, Andy Dirks, and Gerald Laird and you have the “bench”. But two of those six players have to play every day – one at second base and the other at DH or in the outfield. That leaves a four-man bench because Leyland and the Tigers elected to carry 12 pitchers on their roster: five starters and seven relievers. Many MLB teams use seven relievers, so in some sense my criticism is of a league-wide practice, but more narrowly, I’m pointing my finger at Leyland because he has kept two long relievers on the roster all year, and rarely used them. This has come at the expense of the rest of the club.

Because of his insistence on carrying 12 pitchers, that leaves Detroit with four guys on the bench, and the players who Leyland chose for the bench has left him in bad situations so far in 2012. In my opinion it’s cost the Tigers a couple of games.

Second base has been a debacle for the team so far in ’12. The departed Inge, and Raburn, Santiago, and Danny Worth have been used there, none of them effectively. A large part of the blame, if not all of it, lies at the feet of Leyland. Let’s just use his own words, after the team waived Inge in late April:

“We’ve probably handled this wrong,” Leyland said, “in not giving one guy a chance to play [there]. It’s probably been a disservice to not run one guy [out there] on a consistent basis.”

Leyland’s right about that. His insistence on shuffling 2-3 second basemen in and out of his lineup was a huge mistake. But the most damning thing is that Leyland continues to do it even after admitting it was wrong when Inge was cut loose! All the Tigers have done since then is mix Worth into the recipe, shuffling him in along with Raburn and Santiago. None of the three have gotten on track offensively, and that has to be blamed on Leyland, especially considering that he himself admitted it was a mistake.

Often the Tigers bench consists of Kelly, Laird, and the two second basemen not starting. If Santiago (a switch-hitter) is playing second base or giving Peralta a rest (more on that later), that means that Leyland only has one left-handed bat on his bench: Kelly. Don Kelly is a nice ballplayer. He’s well liked and a good teammate. He seems to come up with a healthy number of “hustle plays”, but Don Kelly is not a quality major league pinch-hitter. Not even close. This team should have a decent bat coming off the bench from the left and right side. And more flexibility to use the bench. A few times already this season, Leyland could not get a more favorable matchup because he couldn’t pinch-hit for fear of losing the DH (since the DH: say Santiago or Dirks or Kelly would have to enter the game defensively). Why be so hamstrung, just to keep a Luke Putkonen or Collin Ballester who were used about once every 7-10 days? The Tiger manager gets a big fat “F” for the construction of the bench.

Now let’s move to lineup selection. It’s probable that Leyland uses more lineups than just about any other manager in the league. Every damn game he’s giving another one (or two) of his regulars a day off. Only Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are exempt from this head-scratching policy. The only thing positive about it is that it makes Leyland’s bench better for that one game. But Smoky often sits players for no apparent reason – to “give them a blow” as he says, or (more annoyingly) because of what he thinks is a poor matchup. You know, like Peralta is 1-for-8 against the Royals’ starting pitcher. Leyland needs to learn what the term “sample size” means.

Given the poor performance of the Tigers offense so far this season, some tinkering is understandable, but only after it became obvious that the team was scuffling. A more proven theory is to start your regulars every day, consistently, so they can find their groove. I’m convinced that Danny Worth won’t learn how to hit in the big leagues until the Tigers give him 4-5 weeks of steady play. But Leyland’s infuriating habit of mixing up his lineups makes that impossible. Grade: D-

Lastly, we come to Leyland’s use of the pitching staff, the area where he deserves the most scrutiny, and the area where he is most second-guessed (and deservedly so). Right here on this blog recently, Christopher Czar pointed out how Leyland has misused his pen. Earlier this year I criticized the Detroit skipper for not allowing his ace to go deeper into games. That’s been a problem, for sure. But it hasn’t only been evident when Justin Verlander is on the hill. By my count there have been six games this season when a starter other than JV has been cruising – absolutely cruising – and Leyland has removed them to use his formulaic late-game bullpen. That means Phil Coke (situational lefty), Octavio Dotel (7th), Joaquin Benoit (8th), and Jose Valverde (9th). This is the push-button strategy made popular by Leyland’s BFF Tony LaRussa. It’s also maddening and it’s cost the Tigers all six of those games.

Instead of handling his staff based on how the pitcher right in front of him is doing, Leyland follows the “safe” approach. As a result, he’s cost the Tigers games. I won’t spend a lot of time on why I think the strategy is a bad way to run a team in general, but it’s obvious it isn’t working for the Tigers in 2012. Valverde and Benoit have ranged from terrible to mediocre so far, Dotel has been so-so, and the long relievers (who take up two roster spots) have thrown 27 innings all season long. Frequently, Verlander and Smyly have been dominating, been removed, and then saw the bullpen come in and get hit around like a piñata. Amazingly, on Monday, Leyland removed Smyly after five innings when the lefty had thrown fewer than 69 pitches, only two of which had been hit hard, though each for homers. Leyland said he removed Smyly because the young pitcher “was leaving his pitches too far up in the strike zone.” So, finally Leyland decides to manage the game with his eyes instead of a bullpen formula, and it’s for the wrong reason! The bullpen blew the game.

There’s a reason that the starters are starters – they’re better than the guys you have in the bullpen. If Smoky let his starters get into the 7th, 8th, and (gasp!) 9th inning of games that they are obviously in control of, they would learn even more how to pitch at this level. Instead, he turns the fate of close games over to a bullpen that is mediocre. Given how difficult it’s been for the team to score runs so far, there might be a lot of close games this season. Leyland earns an F for his use of the pitching staff.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a manager who has had such a terrible start to a season. I firmly believe that players win games for the large part. But managers can lose games, especially if they over-manage. That’s what Leyland is doing this year with the formulaic way he’s using his bullpen, the silly daily lineup changes, and the rock-headed way he shuffles his bench and never gives one player a shot to show what they can do at second base.

The good news? The Tigers are 18-18 and only a couple games out of first place. That’s due largely to the brilliance of JV, the surprising emergence of Smyly, and the run production from Cabrera. Austin Jackson is having a great season too. But none of those things have a thing to do with Jim Leyland. The Tigers manager has only meddled and stumbled so far this year. Like Ryan Raburn at the plate, Leyland needs to get out of this funk, and fast. There’s no guarantee that the team can overcome a terrible season by their manager.

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