The case against Jim Leyland in the Hall of Fame


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.

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3 Responses to The case against Jim Leyland in the Hall of Fame

  1. Mike says:

    Valid points for sure. He still gets consideration I think. Thank Don Sutton.

  2. Scott says:

    Good take. On a somewhat related note, how about Davey Johnson? One WS title, but 14 of 17 seasons in first or second.

    • I remember in his early years, I thought Johnson was an excellent manager. Unorthodox, unafraid, unconventional. I like him a lot more than Leyland — his winning percentage is much higher, as it should be because he didn’t have the duds Leyland did, but he also managed them better. His teams finished 17 games better than baseball-reference.com’s Pythagorean formula says they should — there are a few partial years that are hard to figure. He was 12 games better in his first year alone (the 84 Mets were 90-72, the formula says they should have been 78-84).

      All that being said, I think the postseason is going to hurt him. He lost the last four straight championship series he was in (one Mets, one reds, two Orioles). The ’88 Series is one the Mets should have won — sticking with Gooden too long in Game 4 is going to really hurt. Gooden threw 133 pitches that night — six more after the home run. Good managers can be really stubborn. Plus, the 85 and 87 Mets both lost pennant races to the Cards, and the impression — true or not — is that Whitey Herzog outmaneuvered Johnson in both of those years.

      I liked him as a manager, but I think he’s going to be a little short to get in. A bit like Gil Hodges, good at both playing and managing but not great enough at either to get in (Hodges a better player, Johnson a better manager).

      The stat I love with Johnson is the 43 home runs he hit in 1973; he never hit more than 18 in any other year. Only other player I’m aware of with a bigger one-season differential is Brady Anderson (50-24).

      And, by the way, Davey Johnson was also the last player ever to get a hit off Sandy Koufax, in the 1966 Series. When Johnson saw Koufax at spring training the next year and reminded him, Koufax said: “Davey, that’s when I knew I was washed up.”

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