Leyland's direct approach gets results
No-nonsense style works with World Series-bound Tigers
DETROIT -- Want to tell someone who has followed the Tigers all season apart from someone who just started following? Watch the reaction when Jim Leyland first walks to the mound in an early- or middle-inning jam.
Those who haven't seen him will comment on a quick hook or say he isn't messing around with his pitcher. Those who have watched him all year know he isn't messing around, too, but they also know the pitcher isn't coming out. Rather, the message is coming in.
"He gets the point across," reliever Jamie Walker said. "He doesn't beat around the bush. He comes to you and tells you what he feels [about] the situation, gives you some information. He's no-nonsense. You listen when he talks. That's the biggest thing."
Though there's no official total, Leyland is not a rare visitor. If the pitcher's issue is physical or mechanical, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez will head out. If it's mental or strategic, out goes Leyland in his none-too-subtle way. It's one example of Leyland's managerial style, and it's one example of how a guy who spent more than a decade managing in the Minors and waiting for his chance in the big leagues can be so successful once he gets there.
He wasn't the hot coaching candidate following a successful playing career. He was barely known as a player after toiling in the Tigers farm system. He had to put in his time to get here, and he learned some things along the way.
"I think one of the reasons that I go to the mound moreso, I guess, than most managers is because that's the way I was," he said. "I grew up as a manager. When I managed in the Minor Leagues, you didn't have pitching coaches. And now almost every Minor League team has a pitching coach."
"So the 11 straight years that I managed in the Minor Leagues, I just got in the habit. You had to do it. You were the baserunning coach, you were the hitting coach, the pitching coach. I think that it's important if you think you have something to say, I think it's important for you to say it. Because you may be able to relay it to a pitching coach, but by the time he gets out there it may not come out the way you want it to come out."
He tried his best to fill all those roles. He remembers talking to Ted Williams in Spring Training about how to coach hitting, trying to figure out how a lifetime .222 hitter in the Minors can teach prospects. Williams' advice on how-to-teach approach was simple: 'Wait for your pitch to hit, and when you get it, don't miss.'"
He isn't a Moneyball believer, but he knows the approach. He isn't a statistical guru, but he knows how to read a trend. Most importantly, he knows how to use a little bit of everything to put his players in a position to be successful. He'd like his players to be more patient, and he'd like to be able to send runners in motion a little more, but he knows how to use what he's got.
When Sean Casey was injured in Game 1 of the ALCS, and everyone wondered how he'd fill the third spot in the batting order, he put Placido Polanco there. He was about as far from a masher as he could get, but Leyland said he could trust Polanco to not change his approach at the plate no matter where he hit. To top that, he moved Craig Monroe up to the second slot in Game 3, taking a page from old friend Tony La Russa's book to put some power in that spot. Polanco ended up as the ALCS MVP, and Monroe broke out. He shuffled Marcus Thames, Alexis Gomez and Omar Infante at DH and ended up with seven times on base in 16 plate appearances for the series.
At the same time, he knows how to challenge a hitter. During the regular season, he'd send a runner in motion on a hit-and-run play with a slumping player at the plate just to get them to focus on putting the ball in play. He sent slow-footed Sean Casey twice in one game down the stretch.
"He makes you feel good about what you're doing," Monroe said, "and he gives you that confidence that you can go out and get it done."
When the Tigers reported to Spring Training, non-roster invitee Matt Mantei was telling anyone who would listen. Leyland, for whom he pitched as a reliever with the Marlins in 1998, was the best manager at running a bullpen that he had ever been around.
"He doesn't get you up [to warm up] very much," Walker said. "When he gives you a day off, he will not use you. He's prepared, and in return, we're prepared. We know what we need. We've got a feel. He doesn't give any set roles other than a closer. I can honestly say he's done a heckuva job with the pitchers, and he's said from Day 1 that pitching wins you championships."
The lack of set roles works from the belief that the most important out of the game isn't usually the one that comes with the closer on the mound in the ninth. In fact, he says the sixth inning of a game is the toughest to manage.
"Sometimes," Leyland said, "I think people don't realize that the most important out of the game could come in the third inning of the game, it could come in the sixth inning, and it seems like the sixth inning is one where it comes more often than not. So you're always saying to yourself, 'Is what I'm bringing in better than what I'm taking out? If this is the most important out, should I have the best guy out there with the exception of the closer? Or can I milk an out?'
"That's what I've emphasized from Spring Training on. I don't have a 12th pitcher or 11th pitcher. I've got 12 pitchers that are going to have to get a big out at some point during the season."
That doesn't mean he doesn't lean on his best guys. Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones have formed the core of his bullpen all year, and they've handled the bulk of the work in the postseason. But he knows he can't go to them every day.
So when the Tigers were trying to hold down the A's in a game tied at 3 in the eighth inning of Game 4, Leyland went to Jason Grilli, hoping to save Zumaya and Rodney. When Grilli walked the bases loaded with two outs, he turned to Wilfredo Ledezma, who jammed Marco Scutaro into an inning-ending popout.
Magglio Ordonez got the walk-off homer, and Ledezma got the win. But no matter how much Leyland doesn't want it, he'll get a good part of the credit.
"He's the boss," Jones said. "He sets the tone for everything. If he doesn't look confident, then we don't feel confident. He dictates everything. We just follow his lead. We just close our eyes, grab onto his leg and go."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.