Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Rewiring of the Tigers: Jim Leyland Shuts Out Chainsaw Al Dunlap  


These are the best of times for Detroit baseball fans. After enduring twelve consecutive losing years, the Tigers have shocked the baseball world by posting the best record in baseball at mid-season. The fans are more energized than anytime since 1987, the Tigers' last playoff appearance, and tickets are selling fast.

One major difference this year is the change in field manager - the club succeeded in getting 1997 World Series-winning Jim Leyland out of retirement and at the Bengals' helm.

It is difficult to assess Jim Leyland's managing given the phenomenal performance of the 2006 Tigers. Every manager is a genius when everything is going perfectly. But Leyland's actions thus far illustrate two important management lessons that are as valid beyond baseball as they are within it: great managers consistently place their staffs in the best possible position for their organizations to succeed; and a manager can act as a critical leverage point for the organization, having the ability to achieve much different results from the same basic group of employees.

In this article, we'll examine the first of these business lessons, but first, a little background.

Jim Leyland's hiring generated little attention in Detroit last winter, obscured by the NFL Lions' coach Steve Mariucchi's firing, Detroit's hosting of the Super Bowl, and the excellent regular seasons of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons. Leyland succeeded the two managers with the worst winning percentages in the 105-year history of the Tigers - Luis Pujols (.355) and Alan Trammell (.383). Low expectations made it difficult for Tiger fans to get very angry about the Tigers' futility.

The Tigers hit rock bottom in 2003, fielding arguably the worst team in the history of baseball. (To understand just how bad that team was, this year's Tigers eclipsed the 2003 win total in 68 games.) The 2003 Tigers transformed into the 1927 Yankees during the last week of the season to avoid the embarrassment of losing more games in a single season than any other team in major league history.

After improving in 2004 (after all, it is hard to be THAT bad two years in a row), the 2005 Tigers created some buzz by flirting with .500 in late August. But the Tigers collapsed, losing 24 of their last 32 games. Worse yet, Trammell lost control of the clubhouse. Not even fond memories of 1984 and a career as the Detroit Tigers' best shortstop ever could save Trammell's job. Listeners to Detroit sports talk radio flooded the airwaves as the Trammell Era mercifully drew to a close, complaining about Trammell's poor managing and Mike Illitch's terrible record as an owner. Some even dared to suggest that Illitch was worse as a Tiger owner than William Clay Ford has been for the Lions over the past generation. (The Lions' record was 5-25 for the two seasons prior to Trammell's firing.)

Leyland inherited a Tiger team with a realistic possibility of becoming the franchise's best in the post-Sparky Anderson era. Important position players hampered by injuries during 2005 (Magglio Ondonez and Carlos Guillen) figured to return and contribute. Talented young pitchers including Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and Jason Tada were poised to join newly-acquired free agent Kenny Rogers and Jason Bonderman in the rotation.

Perhaps most importantly, Trammell's departure increased the likelihood that Pudge Rodriguez would bounce back from his terrible season on (and off) the field in 2005. The post-steroids-testing, much-slimmer Pudge batted .276, drove in just 50 RBI in 504 at-bats, and hit into more double plays (19) than his walk total (11) for the season -- far outweighing his tremendous defensive play.

Pudge, in a non-divorce year, would almost certainly contribute more at the plate. For cogent analysis of Pudge's decline in 2005 and why he likely would improve in 2006, see this MotownSports article. And this blog notes some of Pudge's antics last year, as well as the general dysfunction that existed in Tigerland at the end of 2005:

That's the background against which Leyland took over.

I promised you a couple of Leyland lessons. Here's the first.

Lesson 1: Great managers consistently place their players in the best possible position for the organization to succeed.
Except for a handful of situations, the on-the-field strategies of Trammell and Leyland are indistinguishable. While double switches and a squeeze bunt excite analysts and incite labels of "genius", game tactics are vastly overrated in assessing managers.

Virtually all important managerial decisions occur away from the field. This is where managers can have their greatest influence.
Leyland was decisive in selecting his team. He cut Carlos Pena and Franklyn German, two highly-talented, enigmatic players acquired with Jeremy Bonderman in the Jeff Weaver deal. They failed to earn their spots despite several chances, so they had to go. Leyland also cut Nook Logan, the speedy centerfielder, handing the job to promising rookie Curtis Granderson. He kept Marcus Thames, well-respected by his teammates for his hitting ability and his perseverance in the Tigers' minor league system for many years. In 2005, Alan Trammell kept Bobby Higginson over Thames, generating a great deal of frustration within the locker room. Getting the right people on the bus is a critical first step for any successful organization.

Leyland's nuanced handling of several personnel issues provides a lesson for all managers.

He recognized the talents of key young pitchers and provided them the opportunity to contribute right away. Leyland, for example, put 23-year old Justin Verlander in the starting rotation despite limited minor league experience and a major league career consisting of two poor starts. He also moved top pitching prospect, 21-year old Joel Zumaya, to a key role in the bullpen despite never pitching in relief before. Leyland kept 24-year old Jason Tada with the club to start the season to give him a taste of the big leagues, before sending Tada to Toledo to join the starting rotation. Leyland also inserted 24-year old Zack Minor into the starting rotation to replace injured Mike Moroth.

Contrast these decisions with the pressure that Leyland faced early in the season. Chris Shelton channeled Lou Gehrig for the first few weeks of the 2006 season - hitting 9 home runs in the Tigers' first 13 games. Shelton got off to hot start in 2005 as well after replacing a struggling Carlos Pena, hitting .345 before the All-Star break. He hit .272 for the rest of the year. Trammell quickly moved Shelton to the number 3 spot in the lineup, where he remained for the rest of the season.

Leyland kept Shelton hitting sixth despite his early heroics. His reasoning: don't interrupt what was working. Leyland told the media that he also wanted to avoid putting additional pressure on Shelton. Leyland wanted to remove the possibility of having to move Shelton down in the lineup if his bat eventually cooled off - which it has. Interestingly, Pudge Rodriguez has hit third all year despite a number of Tiger hitters with better production. Leyland understands that keeping Pudge happy is top priority, given his critical catcher responsibilities and importance in maintaining clubhouse harmony. Had Pudge not been a Tiger, it is hard to say if Leyland would have moved Shelton up in the lineup earlier in the season.

Leyland's bullpen handling reinforces the first lesson. He put players in the best possible position to help a team succeed in the present, while still looking out for their future development.

Todd "Maalox Moments" Jones started 2006 on the disabled list. In his absence, Fernando Rodney pitched brilliantly - not yielding a single run until his 14th appearance on May 9. Joel Zumaya also has emerged as a fan favorite in relief, routinely throwing 100+ M.P.H., and handling pressure situations well in general. Despite a 1-5 record and an ERA hovering over 6.00 for most of the season, Jones has remained the club's primary closer. Rodney has come back to earth after his hot start, but he has pitched better than Jones overall.

Leyland understands all too well that a reliever's ERA is largely irrelevant. The closer's job is to cement a win, and Jones is 22 of 25 in save situations this year (even if the mere mention of his name causes anxiety among the Tiger faithful.) Jones has a long history of success as a major league closer and the quirky personality needed for the job. He is able to rebound from a bad outing - although rarely without allowing the go-ahead run to get in scoring position and surrendering warning track fly balls.

Rodney held the closer role for parts of 2003 and 2005, and he did not perform exceptionally well. Zumaya, despite his electric arm, has given up several critical home runs, and no one knows what would happen if he blew several consecutive saves, so Leyland uses him carefully in his outings. Down the road, Rodney or Zumaya may become excellent closers. Jones seems destined to retain the closer role until he fails to perform - and Leyland determines that the Tigers have a better chance of winning by switching to a different closer.

Leyland knows that the immediate issue is not who is or will be the best closer on the team, but rather how to use the pitchers on this team to maximize this team's chances to win. He needs all three of his situational relievers to perform if the Tigers are to make the playoffs. Remember that Mariano Rivera spent 1996 setting up John Wetteland for the New York Yankees.
Leyland's personnel decisions demonstrate his willingness to treat each situation on its own merits. Within the span of a few months, Leyland cut two talented players, accelerated the development of important pitching prospects, named another top prospect (who had never pitched in relief) as a key reliever, protected two veterans from difficult situations that may have impeded their development, and carefully resisted disturbing his successful lineup.

This lesson of using employees wisely affects all businesses.

I am a facilitator within General Motors' Standards for Excellence, a voluntary continuous improvement process. A dealership I visit experienced decreasing customer satisfaction results shortly after buying two additional GM brands. After observing the service department for several hours, the reason for the decrease in customer satisfaction was obvious. The service manager, an incredibly talented and dedicated employee, was attempting to manage, supervise employees, dispatch - as well as keeping customers informed and redelivering every vehicle, tasks that the service advisors should do. Under the system as it existed, his service advisors did little after writing the repair orders.

Despite the service manager's talent, he could not fulfill his managerial responsibilities, and supervise the technicians and service clients when the volume of work increased. He needed a Herculean effort to pull this off prior to the expansion, and the added workload simply made it impossible for him to succeed.

Although the service advisors lacked the manager's overall automotive expertise, they had much more time to keep customers informed of the repairs and explain what was done to the vehicles. The improved distribution of work has increased business, raised customer satisfaction significantly, reduced stress on the manager, and greatly improved morale within the service department.

The issue was never who was best at writing up the cars, but rather how could the service department best use all of its resources to achieve maximum benefit for the organization and its clients. The ability of a manager to make sure that the right person is performing the right job - establishing processes that lead to success - is an undervalued, yet vital, skill.

As Leyland has done with the Tiger bullpen, we did for our dealership. Now everyone is contributing to the success of the service department.

In Part II of this entry, I'll describe how Jim Leyland has used his management position to act as a critical leverage point for the organization, achieving much different results from essentially the same group of employees.

Bill Peper is an attorney, writer, and professional facilitator. He is a die-hard Detroit sports fanatic. You may contact him at wlpeper at comcast dot net

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