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Just The Sports: Giving Credit Where It Is Due

Just The Sports

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Giving Credit Where It Is Due

Whenever a team improves drastically from one season to the next as it looks like the Detroit Tigers will do, it is always fun to try to discover the root of their improvement. Perhaps a player is performing up to his capabilities this season whereas he underperformed last year. Or maybe the improvement comes from the addition of players who are contributing more than their predecessors. And then there is always the possibility that a player who spent most of last season on the disabled list is healthy and producing again like he is expected to do. All of these are possible keys to figuring out a team's success. That is, unless your name is Mike Celizic and your IQ is barely higher than Forrest Gump's. Then all a team's success can be attributed to the hiring of a new manager. In the case of the Detroit Tigers, Jim Leyland.

In no sport does the man who runs the team get less credit and more blame than in baseball.

Once a team gets on the field, the manager has little impact on the game. One could even argue that lots of times teams win despite the best efforts of the manager to waste outs with foolish hit-and-run calls, stolen base attempts, sacrifice bunts, not letting his best players get the most plate appearances, and inefficiently using their team's bullpen.

And yet for all that, it is recognized that some managers are better than others. There aren’t many of them, but they’re the guys who always seem to make teams better.

Now, there’s Jim Leyland, last seen on Colorado’s bench in 1999, where he pulled a Larry Brown and quit on the team and himself after one awful season as a lousy facsimile of the savior-designate he was hired to be.

Now, Jim Leyland is one of those managers who always seems to make teams better. Oh, except when he's not.

They’re essentially the same team that couldn’t win an intrasquad game last year. The single biggest difference between now and then is Leyland.

The single biggest difference between from the Tigers last year and the Tigers this year is not Jim Leyland. There are lots of differences between the way these Tigers are performing compared to last year. Let's look at all the differences between last year and this year.

First, let's look at the pitching staff. During the 2005 season, where the Detroit Tigers posted a record of 71-91, the pitching staff was frankly an average staff. Collectively, the Detroit Tigers pitchers put together a 4.51 ERA, four percent worse than the league average. They also managed to strike out less batters per nine innings than the league average while posting a league average WHIP. Combine those statistics with the fact that the Tigers also gave up thirteen percent more home runs per nine innings than the league average and it is no wonder the team finished up the season ten games below .500. The problems with the pitching staff were due in large part to giving a large amount of starts to a mediocre pitcher (Jason Johnson) and the rest of the staff being young and right on the cusp of figuring out how to succeed on the major league level.

Contrast that to the pitching staff of the 2006 Detroit Tigers. Jason Johnson is no longer with the team since he signed with the Cleveland Indians and the Tigers shored up the rotation with Kenny Rogers, who has pitched very well for the team so far. In addition, they have added rookie Justin Verlander to starting rotation and another rookie Joel Zumaya to the bullpen. Both have been productive for the Tigers. Most importantly, though, the Tigers have improved overall as a pitching staff. The team ERA is 3.27, a forty-four percent improvement over the league average. While their strikeouts per nine innings is still below the league average, it is better than it was a year ago. Also, the Tigers pitchers have drastically reduced how many home runs they give up per nine innings. Now they are fifty percent better than the league average in that category. In other words, the pitching staff is better this year in every day.

Now, let's look at how their hitting has changed from 2005 to 2006. In 2005, the Detroit Tigers were basically an average hitting team. Their on-base percentage was lower than the league average, but they were fractionally better than the league average in terms of slugging percentage and batting average.

What a difference a year makes, though. The Tigers have been able to find more at-bats for Chris Shelton, who has responded by slugging .664, a monstrous sum. They have also managed to keep their strongest bats healthy, which they were unable to do last year with Magglio Ordonez going down after 81 games. The most important thing, though, is that they have improved overall hitting-wise. Their numbers are up across the board, most importantly their slugging percentage, which is the hitting statistic which provides the highest correlation to scoring runs. Now, the Detroit Tigers are slugging ten percentage more than the league average.

Another improvement the Tigers have made is in their defensive efficiency. Last year, they ranked fifteenth out of thirty teams in defensive efficiency. This year, they are tied for first.

So either the real reason is that as a whole the team is managing to play better. Or it is the mere presence of Jim Leyland in the dugout that is the reason. Just remember, if i wear a certain hat and my favorite team wins, it doesn't mean the team won the game because I was wearing my hat.

It’s hard to make a baseball team win; some would say it’s impossible. That’s because the nature of the game is such that the harder you try to succeed, the more likely you are to fail.

Another patently idiotic proclamation. If baseball was a game where the harder you try, the more likely you are to fail, then explain to me why baseball players put themselves through grueling off-season workouts to get in shape for the long haul of the season. Or why baseball players bother taking batting practice or watching video of their at-bats. Or fielding groundballs or pop-ups before the game. According to you, doing all those things just makes the players worse.

A routine throw from the shortstop to the first basemen only looks routine because he's practiced it, oh, about a million times in his life.

But Leyland makes teams win. He’s personally intense, but in a feet-on-the-desk kind of way. In an age in which managers talk increasingly like CEOs, he’s gnarly and lean, his speech is peppered with profanities, and he’s so far managed to live 61 years without hearing the news that tobacco is bad for your health.

A real man's man, that Leyland. I bet he even eats nails for breakfast. Maybe that's why for his managing career, entering this season, his win-loss record was 1069-1131, a winning percentage of .486. Because a real badass doesn't need to win games to prove how great a manager he is.


  • Celizic doesn't come close to saying this, but couldn't the point be made that Leyland and his coaching staff have helped the Tigers improve the statistics you cite?

    By Blogger Benny Friedman, at 4:00 PM  

  • I highly doubt Leyland has done much besides play the best players available to him. There are any number of variables which may have contributed to the success of the Detroit Tigers. To attribute it solely to the hiring of a manager is absurdly simplistic. That is the point I was trying to prove in this post. Also, let's not forget many of the Detroit Tigers are in their prime years. Maybe Leyland was more lucky than anything else in managing a team with its stars entering their primes.

    By Blogger David, at 4:57 PM  

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