2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Jim Leyland

© JULIAN H. GONZALEZ, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

This post is part of a series covering the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot, covering candidates in those categories who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. For an introduction to the ballot, see here. The eight candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 3, and anyone receiving at least 75% of the vote from the 16 committee members will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21, 2024 along with any candidates elected by the BBWAA.

2024 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Manager Jim Leyland
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Jim Leyland 3499 1769-1728 .506 41 8 3 1
AVG HOF Mgr* 3662 1968-1674 .540 294 7 6 2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* Average based on the careers of 21 enshrined AL/NL managers from the 20th and 21st centuries

Jim Leyland

Jim Leyland was his era’s archetype of an old-school manager, as he went from looking ancient at the start of his career to actually being ancient, at least in baseball terms. Prematurely gray — at 42, he looked 20 years older — and known for sneaking cigarettes between innings, he cut an indelible image in the dugout and in front of a microphone. His dry wit made him a media favorite, and despite a gruff exterior and a knack for getting his money’s worth from umpires when the situation merited it, he earned a reputation as a players’ manager rather than an old-school hardass. That sometimes worked against him, as he was prone to sticking with struggling players longer than most other managers — a vulnerability in a short series. His success will garner him strong consideration for the Hall of Fame, but his case may be haunted by the number of times his teams came up just short.

Born in Toledo, Ohio and raised in the suburb of Perrysburg, Leyland spent seven seasons as a light-hitting backup catcher in the Tigers’ minor league chain from 1964–70, topping out at Double-A. At 26 years old, he graduated to managing the Bristol Tigers of the rookie-level Appalachian League, beginning an 11-year run (1971-81) within the Tigers’ organization, during which he oversaw the likes of future stars Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, and Dan Petry.

In the American Association in 1979, Leyland crossed paths with Tony La Russa, who was managing the White Sox’s Iowa affiliate. The next year, La Russa took over the White Sox, and Sparky Anderson moved from the Reds to the Tigers, bringing his entire coaching staff from Cincinnati, a move that effectively blocked Leyland’s path to Detroit. A sympathetic La Russa brought in Leyland to serve as his third base coach. “Tony didn’t make me a manager,” Leyland recalled in 1997, “but he made me a major league manager. He made me his third base coach, and it got me over the hump. It got me the exposure that I needed.”

Leyland spent four seasons with the White Sox (1982–85) before being tabbed to succeed Chuck Tanner as the manager of the Pirates. The team improved from 104 losses under Tanner to 98 in his first year at the helm, but the 21-year-old center fielder whom he stuck with as he hit .223/.330/.416 would grow up to be Barry Bonds, who won a pair of MVP awards as he helped the Pirates win three straight NL East titles and average 96 wins from 1990–92. Teammate Bobby Bonilla, acquired from the White Sox in mid-1986, joined him in the top three in MVP voting in the first two of those years, and Leyland himself won NL Manager of the Year honors in the two bookend seasons.

Alas, Leyland’s Pirates lost three straight National League Championship Series, falling to Lou Piniella‘s Reds in six games in 1990 and then to Bobby Cox‘s Braves in seven games in each of the next two seasons. The last year was the most agonizing loss of all. Up 2-0 in the ninth inning of Game 7, Leyland stuck with flagging starter Doug Drabek and closer Stan Belinda long enough to trigger a three-run rally, with the last two runs scoring when Francisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit double plated both David Justice and Sid Bream.

Despite the Pirates’ status as a powerhouse, they couldn’t keep their core together due to money. Bonds stewed about his contract as early as the spring of 1991; check out this famously blue clip (it’s NSFW) of Leyland chewing him out at the batting cage:

Bonilla departed the Pirates in free agency after the 1991 season, and Bonds and Drabek followed after ’92. Though stripped of his stars, Leyland showed his loyalty to the organization by remaining at the helm for four seasons, the start of the franchise’s 20-year run of sub-.500 futility.

Disappointed by the continued exodus and lack of spending, Leyland resigned after the 1996 season. “It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was a sad decision,” he said. Within two weeks, he agreed to a five-year, $7 million contract to manage the Marlins, a 1993 expansion team whose general manager Dave Dombrowkski had served as assistant GM of the White Sox during Leyland’s time there. Dombrowski was in the process of jump-starting the Marlins by loading up on established stars such as Bonilla, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Devon White. In Leyland’s first year, they won 92 games, the NL Wild Card, and a thrilling World Series against Cleveland, one that wasn’t decided until the 11th inning of Game 7.

Alas, before the champagne had dried, owner Wayne Huizenga ordered Dombrowski to dismantle the team. By May, most of the stars were gone, and a disgusted Leyland resigned after a 54-108 season. The Marlins let him out of his contract to manage the Rockies, but after a 72-90 record in 1999, his first year of a three-year deal, he conceded that his heart wasn’t in it, and resigned again.

“I never said anything about the ballpark, but I wasn’t a 9-8 manager, I wasn’t a 12-9 or an 11-10 manager,” Leyland told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian. “It was like slow-pitch softball. I’d look at the frustration on our pitchers’ faces, and it frustrated me so much. I thought, ‘I can’t go through this again.'”

Leyland spent six years away from the dugout, during which he served as a scout for La Russa’s Cardinals. Dombrowski, by this time the president/CEO/general manager of the Tigers, hired him to manage following the 2005 season, their 12th in a row below .500; they ran through six managers in that time, from Anderson through local legend Alan Trammell, losing a near-record 119 games under the latter in 2003. The turnaround under Leyland was almost instantaneous. Spurred by the arrivals of rookie Justin Verlander and 41-year-old All-Star Kenny Rogers, the Tigers rocketed from 71 wins in Trammell’s final season to 95 in Leyland’s first, along with a Wild Card spot — their first postseason appearance since 1987 — and their first pennant since ’84. In the World Series, the Tigers squared off against La Russa’s Cardinals, a matchup that highlighted the pair’s friendship even as Leyland tried to downplay it. “Everybody knows I think he is the best,” said La Russa. “Rather than tough, this is actually the greatest situation you can imagine, to be in a situation with somebody you respect as much.”

Though they had gone just 83-78 during the regular season, the Cardinals and La Russa were on an October roll. Capitalizing on a sloppy defense that made eight errors leading to eight unearned runs, the Cardinals prevailed in five games.

The Tigers finished above .500 in six of Leyland’s eight seasons at the helm, and right at .500 in one (2010). They won over 90 games three times, and made the playoffs four times, three as division champions. For that eight-year period, only the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Phillies had higher winning percentages than the Tigers’ .538.

Their 2009 season ended in disappointment, as they blew a seven-game September lead and lost a Game 163 play-in on the heels of slugger Miguel Cabrera‘s arrest for an alcohol-related domestic violence incident that had occurred during the season’s final weekend. Cabrera emerged as the game’s top hitter (though he also had another alcohol-related arrest), with three straight batting titles from 2011-13, and back-to-back MVP awards accompanied by a traditional Triple Crown (2012) and a slash-stat one (2013). Verlander developed into a true ace, winning the MVP and Cy Young awards in 2011, and Max Scherzer won the latter award two years later. Led by that pair, the Tigers had by far the best rotation in the game over that three-year span (the bullpen was another matter) as well as a potent offense; the powerhouse team took three straight AL Central titles. After winning 95 games in 2011, the Tigers beat the Yankees in the Division Series, winning Game 5 in the Bronx thanks in part to light-hitting utilityman Don Kelly’s first-inning home run off Iván Nova. Afterwards, a question from this scribe (or rather, a “talk about” prompt — this was my first year with a credential) about what went into his decision to play Kelly left Leyland a little watery-eyed:

The Tigers bowed to the Rangers in a six-game ALCS. The next year, after edging the A’s in another five-game Division Series, they swept the Yankees, holding them to six runs in four games and heading back to the World Series for the second time during Leyland’s tenure. In the World Series, however, it was the Tigers’ turn to be swept by scoring six runs in four games against the Giants, who won the second of their three even-year championships under Bruce Bochy.

By the time the 2013 season started, the 68-year-old Leyland was the game’s third-oldest manager behind 70-year-old Davey Johnson and 69-year-old Charlie Manuel, and he was going year-to-year with his contracts. His Tigers won 93 games and their third straight division title. Again they beat the A’s in a five-game Division Series, with Verlander’s 15 scoreless innings, including eight in the decisive game, the difference-maker.

In the ALCS against the Red Sox, the bullpen proved to be the Tigers’ undoing. The team was four runs ahead and four outs away from taking a two-games-to-none lead at Fenway Park when Leyland called upon Joaquín Benoit — his fourth pitcher of the eighth inning — to face David Ortiz with the bases loaded. Ortiz hit Benoit’s first pitch into the Red Sox bullpen for a game-tying grand slam as right fielder Torii Hunter tumbled over the wall, and the Red Sox won on a walk-off single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. In Game 6, with the Tigers on the brink of elimination, they clung to a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning, but Scherzer departed with two on and one out. The bases were loaded by the time Leyland brought in Jose Veras, who got ahead 0-2 on Shane Victorino, then served up a grand slam. It was all over but the shouting from the Fenway fans.

Two days later, Leyland announced his retirement, explaining that he’d informed Dombrowski in early September. Dombrowski in turn told owner Mike Illich, but all three men kept the news from the players. “[T]he fuel was starting to get low,” he said at his retirement press conference.

Brad Ausmus replaced Leyland as manager, guiding the Tigers to another AL Central flag with 90 wins in 2014, but the team hasn’t been back to the postseason since then, finishing at .500 or better just once in the last nine seasons. Leyland has remained with the Tigers as a special assistant to the general manager, outlasting not only Dombrowski but also successor Al Avila. He did return to the dugout for one more stint, managing Team USA to a championship in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, its only one in five tournaments thus far.

Like Piniella, his fellow Contemporary Baseball candidate, Leyland won only one World Series, but that’s not as big a detriment to a Hall of Fame case as you might think. Four of the 21 enshrined managers whose careers took place mostly or entirely in the 20th and 21st centuries won only one, namely Cox, Leo Durocher, Whitey Herzog, and Earl Weaver, while Al Lopez and Wilbert Robinson never won one. Of the 21, five won three or fewer pennants, namely Durocher, Herzog, and Bucky Harris with three, and both Lopez and Robinson with two.

Expansion and additional playoff rounds have made the path to pennants more complicated, with more teams competing for the same prize, but also able to slip into the October tournament without having dominated the regular season. For what it’s worth, of Leyland’s eight playoff teams, six won their divisions, five with at least 93 wins, but none of those teams won pennants. Instead it was his three Wild Card teams that did so — the 92-win Marlins in 1997, the 95-win Tigers in 2006, and the 88-win Tigers in ’12. Leyland’s total of eight playoff appearances is tied for 10th overall, and tied for seventh among those whose careers included substantial time in the Wild Card era, alongside Maddon, Dave Roberts, and Bob Melvin.

One cool facet of Leyland’s Hall case is that he’s one of just 11 managers to win pennants in both leagues. Five of the other 10 — Anderson, Herzog, La Russa, Joe McCarthy, and Dick Williams — are enshrined, while Dusty Baker and Bochy will be. Of the rest, Yogi Berra is enshrined as a player, while the jury is still out on Joe Maddon. The other manager among the 10, Alvin Dark is justifiably in the dark given not only his low totals (he managed just 13 seasons) but also his racist remarks dating back to his days managing the Giants in the early 1960s.

Beyond that, Leyland has longevity in his favor; even given his 2000–05 hiatus, he spent 22 seasons in the dugout, and ranks 17th all-time in games managed, one notch below Sweet Lou. He’s 18th in wins, which outdoes eight managers from among the 21 20th- and 21st-century enshrinees, including modern Hall of Famers such as Weaver, Williams, and Tommy Lasorda. Of the non-Hall of Famers who outrank Leyland, three are contemporaries who may well be elected via this committee in three years, namely Baker, Bochy, and Terry Francona; the other two are Gene Mauch and Piniella. From among that group, Baker and Francona both won three pennants as well, while Piniella won only one and Mauch didn’t win any; Bochy, of course, has won five. Like Baker and Piniella, Leyland won only one World Series.

The big knock on Leyland’s case besides his single championship is his .506 winning percentage, weighted down by his sticking around Pittsburgh and Florida after those franchises were stripped of their stars. Remove that 54-108 record of the 1998 Marlins and he’s got a .514 career winning percentage. Remove that one and his four post-Bonds/Bonilla seasons from the Pirates — while still letting him wear his first four seasons after inheriting a 104-loss team — and he’s up to .529, more or less on par with Piniella’s .533 if you ditch his Tampa Bay detour.

While I don’t think Leyland’s credentials definitively point to him as a Hall of Famer the way those of La Russa or Bochy do (to name just a couple), to these eyes he stands out as the best among the four on this ballot (of whom I’ve covered Piniella and Davey Johnson but not Cito Gaston). I think he’s a reasonable choice who wouldn’t be at all out of place in Cooperstown, and I’ve stumped for him for over a decade. If I were sitting on this committee, I wouldn’t hesitate to put his name on my ballot. I hope to see him in Cooperstown next summer.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 months ago

He deserves to be in. Biggest thing in my mind is how he turned around 2 flailing franchises- Detroit & Pittsburgh & led them both to their greatest successes over the last 40 years. & it’s notable that both franchises both immediately improved when he came on & then got worse when he left.

One note- It was NOT Benoit’s first pitch that Ortiz hit for a grand slam in 2013. It was a long AB & had at least 1 pitch that probably coulda, woulda, shoulda been a strike 3 vs a different hitter in a different environment.

David Klein
5 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

Well Pittsburgh got bad once Bonds left they were very bad Leyland’s last few years. That said, I agree Leyland belongs in the hof.

5 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

It was indeed Benoit’s first pitch, copy and pasted from the B-R game log:

Gm 2   b8   down 5-1   2   123   1 (0-0)   RRRR   BOS   David Ortiz   Joaquín Benoit   6.99%   57.29   Home Run (Line Drive); Middlebrooks Scores; Ellsbury Scores; Pedroia Scores