Jim Leyland hadn’t been retired for half a day before innumerable calls had been made for his eventual enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
This is why there’s a five-year waiting period between retirement — and we’re not even sure Leyland, soon to be 69, is — and induction. Sentiment has its place, but it shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.
Leyland is, by all accounts, great fun as far as baseball managers go, and always available to bum a smoke from. He also lived every Barry Bonds-hater’s fantasy, profanely dressing down Bonds — 335,000 hits on one viewing and counting on Youtube. (Of course, Leyland supposedly stamps his cigarettes out profanely).
But as a a manager, Leyland had just a .506 winning percentage in the regular season; in the playoffs, he lost two of three World Series and five of eight championship league series. Better than Dale Sveum, perhaps, but Hall of Fame ready?
Jay Jaffe at si.com presented the case for Leyland: he won pennants in both leagues (four of the other seven who have done so are in the Hall), he’s 14th in games managed, 15th in wins, he managed 22 years and took three teams to the playoffs. Basically, that Leyland got around and stayed around. Well, it did work for Don Sutton.
But it’s revealing that Leyland ranks higher in games than wins — someone managed less games and won more. And baseball-reference.com’s Pythagorean formula says Leyland’s teams won no more games than they should have — remarkable given some of the huge differentials (his first Pirates team underperformed by 13 games in 1986 and his last Tigers team underperformed by six; his 2011 Tigers overperformed by six).
Leyland backers like to point out the loss of talent in Pittsburgh, which is true, but he never managed a Tiger team that didn’t have Justin Verlander and the last six had Miguel Cabrera. And the only team he managed to a win a World Series with, the 1997 Marlins (thank you Jose Mesa and Tony Fernandez), was transient, as was their manager.
For all the advocacy of Leyland’s troubleshooting, he spent 19 of his 22 years with the Pirates and the Tigers. Yes, he took three teams to the playoffs, but he also took three teams to 90 losses, and a fourth to 88. He lost his first three league championship series, twice when his Pirates had more regular season wins than their opponents, once when they were shut out in Games 6 and 7.
And he lost two of his last three ALCSes with the Tigers. The Red Sox may have had a better team this year, but the Tigers had a grand opportunity.
That’s not all Leyland’s fault, because the players have to play. But for the length of his career he was a good manager when he had good players and a bad manager when he didn’t. That doesn’t seem like Hall of Fame, not even profanely so.