The Jim Leyland Experience
“I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and I really wanted to give you guys something to write about and talk about. This should be really a good time for you. You can say I’m crazy, you can say I’m nuts, you can say I’m dumb, you can say whatever the hell you want.”-Jim Leyland
Just-retired Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland isn’t just the Platonic ideal of a baseball manager (though he’s that as well). Jim Leyland is baseball. He’s the whole experience, from the grimy nicotine addiction to the Homeric professional longevity to the unstable mix of quick wit and sage wisdom. Jim Leyland is the sort of man who, were he out of baseball, wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he’d be a fishing guide? A washed-up steelworker? A Sam Elliott impersonator? It’s not clear. He just doesn’t fit anywhere else.
The results speak for themselves, I guess. In 22 years at the helm of various major league clubs, Leyland won the World Series once (in 1997 with the Florida Marlins) and the American League Pennant twice (in 2006 and 2012 with the Detroit Tigers). It wasn’t just that he didn’t fit elsewhere—Leyland belonged in baseball.
Leyland was also what folks call “a player’s manager.” When guys slumped, he sympathized in public. He tiptoed around their critical, game-blowing gaffes—because these things happen. When a switch didn’t work out, he took responsibility. This, by the way, was his path to authority; Leyland was the author of the actions that determined his teams’ success, so he refused to cast elsewhere in search of scapegoats. No surprise that his reputation with players was stellar.
Fans weren’t always as happy with Leyland’s style. That’s a shame, because Jim Leyland’s approach to baseball was, if I may be so bold, a beautiful approach to the course and rhythm of human life. The Jim Leyland Experience is ontologically and epistemologically savvy. Or, to get to the point, this isn’t really a post about baseball. It’s about sanity.
Now that Leyland’s retired, it’s even more important to highlight his insight into experience. See, it wasn’t always just his. It was once the dominant phenomenological view across baseball (yes, really). By the end, though, Leyland was one of the last, crumbling outcroppings overrun by a steadily rising methodological tide.
The analytical trend in baseball today—and sports more generally—leans towards advanced statistical metrics. (Moneyball was just the most obvious flowering of the so-called “Sabermetrics” Movement.)
There was—and is—something antiseptic about the impetus behind this move; messy things like grizzled old scouts’ “guts” fell before the beautiful explanatory power of more and better data. Numbers can be (and mean) many things, but at their best they are clean. There’s no way to translate a “hunch” into a “feeling” in order to better weigh it against an “intuition.” Good quantitative analysis offers—at the very least—the possibility of making these sorts of things commensurable. Sabermetrics offers the hope that a hitter’s, pitcher’s, and defender’s impact can all be captured and measured in a single, monistic variable: “Wins Above Replacement.” It asks: how many additional wins is this player worth, taking into account his contributions in all aspects of the game? 3? 8? 2.1?
This approach aspires to provide a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Baseball. If we once settled for metrics promising to winnow the best power hitters from the other hitters (or the best average hitters from the others), we now expect comprehensive stats that contextualize the totality of a player’s contributions in terms of fractional wins.
We want to believe this. We want to believe that managers can use this sort of analysis to understand the world that little bit better, that they can compile these data to improve our team’s chances. That is, after all, a reasonable outline of their job description. Managers are not only resource maximizers, but it’s obviously a big part of what they do.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with accessing more useful, refined data to make more reliable decisions. Nothing at all.
But the problem with the broader sabermetrics movement is that popular views on statistics promise more than these metrics can credibly deliver. And that promise is media catnip. While sabermetrics aims at statistical reductionism—one metric to rule them all—it also generates a proverbial quantity of extra measurements. If a manager brings in a relief pitcher to face Jim Thome because he’s outstanding against lefthanded hitters at home, after the ensuing home run he’ll be asked why he brought in a pitcher whose ERA is twice as high when he appears in night games. If a manager sends a runner on second against a knuckleballer with a slow delivery time to the plate, once the basestealer’s cut down, he’ll later be asked why he let the guy run against a catcher who has never allowed a runner over 6’2” successfully steal a base.
The point: it’s one thing to make statistically-informed decisions. It’s quite another to behave as though there’s a simple relationship between statistics, hindsight, and intelligence.
Maybe this is baseball’s version of sin. Our dearest wish, our proudest hope, is that we might master our fate through human knowledge. But we are broken, busted creatures, and we cannot be counted upon to hit a pitcher’s new slider—simply because our VORP is outstanding.
Leyland was no dummy. No Luddite. But he understood that baseball, like life, is an immensely complex, multivariate system. Our best regressions be damned—some things simply defy statistical modeling. A guy’s “Wins Above Replacement” number tells us something, but it does not capture everything that matters. That which is true for a season fluctuates in the passing moments. And each moment is capturable by a nearly infinite number of statistical lenses. Lies, damned lies, and so forth.
So Leyland usually resisted media calls to attach narrative significance to his choices. “What was Don Kelly doing pinch-hitting there in the 9th, Jim?” they’d ask. “Do you regret it? Jhonny Peralta has great numbers against that pitcher.”
Leyland often regretted it. But he was too healthy to salve his regrets with hindsight. The clocks don’t rewind at our wishes. Journalists wanted Leyland to recast his game-time decisions in the context of the outcome, in the context of their narrative. Leyland would periodically complain (see this post’s opening quote) that reporters were pushing him on these lines just so they could have something to talk about.
In Leyland’s world, a losing choice was regrettable because it failed—but that didn’t make it a bad idea before the outcome was known. Baseball, famously, is a game where impressive (batting) success permits a ~60–70% failure rate.
He understood that second-guessing was part of baseball, as long as you respected his first guess.
Even statistically-optimal decisions are prone to failure. Statistical probabilities are never guarantees. Even a weighted coin flip is still a gamble. Even the “right” statistical play is still a risk.
Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” And while Leyland was not famous for his breadth of literary knowledge—a Google search of “‘Jim Leyland’ + Kierkegaard” yields very little—the Tigers’ ex-manager implicitly recognized that little piece of existentialist wisdom. A true baseball romantic would insist that this is evidence of the game’s rich openendedness. For all of its geometric rigidity, baseball is too amorphous to be wholly captured by statistical metrics.
For in life, as in baseball, we are condemned to move in just one temporal direction. Every decision, no matter how statistically defensible, is a contingent thing that may look thoroughly different once we’ve passed through its consequences.
And here’s what Leyland understood best of all: once we’ve made our best guesses, all we can do is resign ourselves to face the resulting fruits. Of course, where there are lessons, we should learn them, but—provided we are working diligently—we should never allow ourselves the false security of believing that we should have known before what we now know. Life’s outcomes are too multifarious for that sort of certainty.
In the daily soup of human self-creation, all we ever have is what American philosopher John Dewey called “warranted assertability.” Even with the most refined statistics, we’re never really acting upon certainty—we’re asserting and choosing things that we believe we have some reasonable warrant to believe.
Alex Ávila may be in a terrible slump on the road, but his (unannounced) knee injury is finally healed, and that’s as good a reason as any to give him a run out there against that Royals pitcher with the goofy delivery. We can’t know whether he’ll succeed before we do it, but we have at least some warrant to believe that it’s worth running the experiment. Whatever happens, we owe it to ourselves to evaluate that proffered reason after the fact, but only in the context of a great many other things. We might reasonably, for instance, conclude that Ávila isn’t yet healed. Or that he is, if the outcome trends that way. But there are serious limits to how much we can learn from one or a few trials.
And, I submit, a similar process works for ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, complicated recipes, used car purchases, applications to college, checkout lines, and most any choice you face today. Think, reflect, try something, and don’t let your eventual second-guessing overwhelm your first guesses. It’s one of the sanest ways you can play the game—of life.
Post image used under Creative Commons license. Photo posted on Flickr by user Tom Hagerty.