It’s always open season on Detroit managers. As long as I can remember, Tiger skippers have been widely maligned. Even in 1968, the quiet Mayo Smith was sometimes denigrated – some fans thought that anyone could have managed that team to a pennant.
Many fans said much the same thing about Sparky Anderson in 1984. I was among the fans who thought that Sparky was vastly overrated; I believed he was a blowhard who got good PR because he unfailingly gave the media plenty of entertaining quotes. Even I, however, had to admit that he did a fantastic job with the veteran 1987 club, leading them from last to first with a thrilling stretch run. My final judgment is that Anderson was good with veterans but not that adept at managing younger players, whose abilities he frequently misjudged.
I thought the club never gave Alan Trammell much of a chance after he was saddled with such a terrible team. I wasn’t awed when Jim Leyland was brought in. I put Leyland in the same class as Sparky — though he’s not as garrulous, he’s willing to mumble his way through interviews and give the media memorable quotes. But other fans have been pretty harsh on this Tiger field boss too. Just look at the typical comments we get on this website.
It’s been easy to criticize Leyland for being enamored with the likes of Jose Valverde and Don Kelly. But now Valverde has finally self-destructed for (we hope) the last time, and it’s going to be up to Leyland to piece together an effective bullpen. If he continues to rely primarily on Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, he should be fine for the time being (I really like the way he’s used Smyly to pitch more than two innings and Benoit to get four-out save chances). And Bruce Rondon is getting ever closer to the big league closer role.
However, should Leyland keep calling on the likes of Phil Coke in key situations, he’s going to keep getting burned. (He was fortunate Jhonny Peralta bailed him out when Coke coughed off the go-ahead run against Boston last week.)
Most Tiger fans feel strongly there has to be some reason the team has been winning far fewer games the past two seasons than most analysts believe they should. With such a great starting staff and such a powerful lineup one through six (as long as Peralta is not suspended), the team should be a lock to win ninety-five to 100 games in the weak AL Central. But instead they’re on track to win eighty-five to ninety. So who is to blame?
It’s hard to believe, after the addition of Torii Hunter and the subtraction of Delmon Young, that it’s for lack of team chemistry. This squad seems to be a bunch of happy campers, led by the always-smiling Miguel Cabrera and full of guys who clearly love playing the game, including Hunter, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, and of course Kelly, who should be overjoyed just to have a job in the bigs.
There is no evidence there are factions or divisions on the club; instead, there’s a friendly, healthy sort of competition that compels each player to try to match or top his teammates. If there ever were a star problem, Leyland is well-versed at handling big egos (he was Barry Bonds’ manager in Pittsburgh).
While it’s tempting to blame the club’s underperformance on Leyland, what’s the evidence? Clearly the bullpen has been the soft underbelly of the team, and handling the relief staff is the primary thing left for an MLB manager to do these days. Officially, the Tigers through June 23 had nine blown saves, which was about the major-league average. But that’s really not a very helpful statistic. If you subtract the number of blown saves (9) from the number of actual saves (16), the Tigers had a net of seven — and only six teams were worse than that.
The Tigers so far have had their fair share of key injuries—Austin Jackson out for a month, and now Alex Avila and Anibal Sanchez on the DL — but that’s not an inordinate amount of bad luck. With a couple of late-inning comebacks against the Red Sox at home last week, maybe the team will once again get that winning chemistry going. But so far, it seems every time they do, there’s a sudden mini-slump that follows. Overall, there have been at least as many downs as ups under Jim Leyland. But as Leyland uses Smyly wisely and more often, I’m giving him a hopeful thumbs up even though I don’t generally like his style of managing. But then, I’m one of those fans who’s usually down on Tiger managers. And I know I have plenty of company.