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Firing Jim Leyland probably wouldn't matter

With his players failing to hit, Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to pick up a bat himself.
With his players failing to hit, Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to pick up a bat himself.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a companion piece for my inaugural column in the Detroit News. I used the space on Bless You Boys to try to explain some of the concepts in more detail. Although Raburn is continuing to hit line drives at approximately the same rate, he's still getting no BABIP love, and he's continuing to find no fortune on the field. Plus he's striking out more. Well, it happens. I stand by the analysis in the long run, but the short term isn't always friendly ground.

Anyway I'm not here today to review Raburn -- Patrick has you covered for that -- I'm here to add a few details to my column in today's Detroit News. (Go read it if you haven't!)

So you want to fire Jim Leyland? Let's think about it a bit more, first.

Most managers in the higher levels of professional baseball are the same. They use the same "book." They do the same annoying things that tick of fans. They put out lineups people don't like. They rest players when people don't want them to. Some call for bunts far too often. Some, fortunately, don't. They all leave their pitchers in too long or pull them too quickly, use relievers that aren't good enough, and generally make decisions that turn out poorly and get ripped for it. When they make decisions that go well, by the next game no one cares. (It's part of the job. Managers know that. They don't seem to mind much.)

When people talk about firing the manager, it's usually because the team is losing. The team is usually losing because the team stinks or the players aren't performing up to their career numbers. You can't fire the players. They have years left on their contract. You have to look like you're doing something. So the manager goes.

As I hopefully showed in the column, it's a rather pointless exercise. Teams show improvement after a firing, but not much improvement. Most of the time, the new guy either manages to the same winning percentage or maybe a few percentage point ticks up. Some really bad teams do improve by a bit more. But can that be attributed to the new manager? It's popular to say seeing a manager fired puts everyone's feet to the fire. However, due to the contract style in baseball, it's really a cold fire. A player can get paid for years while not even playing the game.

What probably happens after a firing is the team reverting to its mean. Basically, this: The manager gets fired at a low point in the season, generally a point so low the team cannot help but improve. As the team plays more games, the statistical noise starts to flatten out a bit. So it wins more.

Otherwise you just notice a lot of times that nothing much changes record-wise, and that the new guy is the same as the old. As I showed in the column, baseball tends to recycle managers and chiefly values experience. It's a hard racket to break into, but if you're a manager who interviews well and hangs around long enough, you'll experience some losing and some winning.

Do you really think old dogs are learning new tricks? They're not. General managers know that, too.

Most teams seem to be risk averse. With millions of dollars in player salaries and millions of dollars on the line, it's easy to see why. The teams that manage to take chances are the ones like the A's and Rays. The risks are lower. Payrolls are lower. It's safer to use the established guy who has shown he won't cause the house to collapse. If he's not creative, no big deal.

I think that makes some good sense, actually. Managers really do not have that big of an effect on team's record. They'll make some moves that add a win, they'll make some moves that subtract them. At the end of the year you're probably not talking about much impact. Far bigger impact on a team's success is having players that are better than their peers at the game of baseball. And that falls on the general manager (and owner's wallet) much more than the field manager.

So if Leyland were fired, the Tigers would almost certainly not hire some whiz that doesn't do things by the book. They'd just have a different version of Leyland.The outcome of the season wouldn't likely change by all that much. It's possible the next manager could be worse.

I didn't introduce any sabermetric concepts into the column, because manager statistics are generally not solid ground. But Beyond the Box Score writers have dabbled in a few that I will present here:

  • Traditional managing index. Leyland is pretty traditional here. More than most, to be certain. But you can see from the middle of the chart that a lot of the managers do the same things as each other.
  • Manager wins above expectancy. The author includes two concepts in this. One is comparing a manager's record to the "Pythagorean" record. Basically, the pythag uses runs scored and runs allowed to predict a team's record. History has shown this to be a great tool. So if you see a manager who routinely beats his team's pythag, he might be doing something right. Or his players might be better, too. So another idea is to compare a team's record to what the total WAR of the players says it should be. The author of the article notes on his list of leaders and losers that some names remain the same but some names flip lists.

Here's some raw data from that.

Leyland comes in at 4 wins above his pythag expectations, for his career.

In Detroit:

2006 - Expected wins: 95; Actual: 95 = 0
2007 - Expected: 89; Actual: 88 = -1
2008 - Expected: 78; Actual 74 = -4
2009 - Expected: 81; Actual: 86 = +5
2010 - Expected: 82; Actual: 81 = -1
2011 - Expected: 89; Actual: 95 = + 6

Total in Detroit: +5 above pythag.

Leyland also comes in at 18.5 wins above expectancy for his career.

Comparing the team's expected WAR (adding 52 to the WAR at Baseball-Reference, as was done in the original study) looks like this for Leyland's time in Detroit (numbers are rounded):

2006 - Expected wins: 93.4; Total: 95 = +2
2007 - Expected: 87; Actual: 87 = 0
2008 - Expected: 77.6; Actual: 74 = -3
2009 - Expected: 80.7; Actual: 86 = +5
2010 - Expected: 83.1; Actual: 81 = -2
2011 - Expected: 89.9; Actual: 95 = +5

Total in Detroit: About +7 WAE/war.

So either way you look at it from a more sabermetric point of view, the traditionalist manager has gotten more out of his teams than expected, though predictably enough not all years are positive.

There are a few times where a team firing the manager does make sense. If the manager is over his head, you have to get rid of him. If the manager has lost control of the team, you have to fire him. Rumors -- and some reports -- lead me to believe that Alan Trammell had lost his club and was probably over his head. So the move made sense there. I think it would make sense to fire the manager for extreme character issues or behind-the-curtain insubordination and things like that as well. Finally, it would make sense to fire a manager who does not manage to his team according to the philosophy that built it. For instance, he probably shouldn't be asking players to steal who can't steal, or asking star players to bunt when the front office hates bunts.

A team needs to have is a manager who commands respect from his players (and hopefully others in the league) and who manages to his team's strengths and weaknesses.

Leyland does that. Making a move probably wouldn't matter anyway. So the best move is to keep him around.