Friday, September 26, 2008

Three Straight Bad Second Halves An Indictment Of Leyland

The Tigers are bringing Jim Leyland back for the 2009 season. Understood. He is contracted thru then, after all -- not that that's ever stopped a team from giving a manager or coach the ziggy before. But I can see the logic.

The Tigers have been under Leyland's charge for three seasons now, and they've pretty much laid out like this: 1. World Series; 2. Playoff contention till early September; 3. Biggest disappointment in Detroit sports history.

Some would say that no. 3 trumps nos. 1 and 2, combined. Also understood, though maybe a tad harsh.

But here's what's not harsh.

It's not harsh of me to simply direct your attention to a troubling statistic that I have railed about in this space in the not-so-distant past. Today's edition of the Detroit Free Press had the temerity to print it.

The Tigers' winning percentage, under Leyland's watch, in games played before and after the All-Star break, lays out like this:

2006: (before) .670; (after) .486
2007: (before) .582; (after) .493
2008: (before) .500; (after) .387

Those "afters" don't look too good, do they?

You can play around with numbers in baseball to your heart's content. Figures and stats are often like Silly Putty; you can make them look pretty much like anything you want.

But these aren't Silly Putty numbers. These are of the cold, hard variety. You can't make those "after" percentages look good, no matter how much you try.

In '06, the cool second half cost the Tigers their supposedly in-the-bag divisional title. In '07, it cost them a playoff berth, period. This year, it cost them some dignity, if nothing else.

Would I bring Leyland back for a fourth go at it? Probably. It's kind of hard to justify canning him, with 2-of-3 seasons being pretty decent, overall.

But those second half winning percentages make me a little uneasy. Once can be a fluke. Twice can be some bad luck. Thrice is an indictment of the manager.

Here's what I think when I look at those cold, hard numbers.

In 2006, it tells me that the Tigers were destined to cool off, because they weren't going to play .670 ball all year. Fine.

In 2007, it tells me that they wilted in the dog days of August, when teams like the Yankees, conversely, were kicking it up a gear or two.

This season, it tells me that the Tigers -- and I hate to use this word -- kind of quit.

So who's to blame for all this?

What does it say for a manager when his teams have played the worst baseball of their season, collectively, in the second half, when the games mean more?

I'm not quite sure myself, but I don't think it's very good, whatever it says.

You can cry me a river about injuries and guys having down years. Don't want to hear it. If a manager is truly worth his salt, he finds a way to overcome all that. Billy Martin was great at that. And that's why he was one of the best managers in baseball. Ever.

Sparky Anderson had his issues, but he did his best work in 1987. That year, the Tigers started 11-19 and were considered by many to be middle-of-the-pack, talent-wise, in the AL East. They had just lost catcher Lance Parrish to free agency, and their pitching looked sketchy. The 1984 heroes were three years older.

But Sparky rallied them to an 87-45 finish, including swiping the divisional title from the Toronto Blue Jays in the season's final, frantic week. Forget the meltdown in the ALCS; the Tigers were spent by that time.

All I know is, it's been three years and for three years I've seen Jim Leyland's Tigers nosedive during the crucial months of August and September.

The rest I leave to you.


Blogger Brian said...

I hate to say this because it sounds "Lion"ish and I don't mean it that way, but it seems now that when you watch a Tigers game, you wonder how/when they're going to blow it. And it goes beyond the normal "Oh, God, here comes Jones/Zumaya/Rodney" reaction. When one of those pitchers comes in, there's still at least a little hope.

Take, for example, the game against Texas when we were down 7-0 and fought all the way back, including a grand slam, to tie it. Normally, I'd put that one in the win column pretty confidently. But this season has conditioned me otherwise. And sure enough, Texas answered with their own grand slam. And sure, it was the bullpen that actually gave up the homerun ball, but it was an error that kept the inning alive.

Good teams have the "when one of us is down, someone else picks us up" mentality. The Tigers seem to have the opposite, "when things are going well, someone will bring us down" mentality. I'm not saying that they're looking for a way to lose. But it does appear at times as if it's expected. And when it happens, they seem to have this "well, what can you do?" attitude.

And that has to go back to the manager. He says he makes and will accept no excuses, but we keep hearing excuses.

1:26 PM  

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