Sparky or Leyland: Who was the better manager?

There's no question that Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland are the two best managers the Detroit Tigers have had in the last 60 years. But which one was better?

There’s no question that Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland are the two best managers the Detroit Tigers have had in the last 60 years. But which one was better?

On Saturday the Detroit Tigers celebrated Jim Leyland with a ceremony on the field prior to their game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. The crusty former manager was predictably kind and emotional and professional during the ceremony, as he was in his eight years in the dugout for the Tigers. Where does Leyland rank among Detroit managers? Over the weekend I was startled to see a message on Twitter in which the writer claimed Leyland was a much better manager than Sparky ever was. That didn’t seem right to me, so I decided to dig into the debate and see which of the two most recent long-term Tiger managers was better. I’ll tackle it by examining the most common critiques of Sparky’s career and contrast with that of Leyland. For the purposes of this “debate” I am going to look at both manager’s entire careers, which only seems fair. Leyland only managed the Tigers for eight years, and both Sparky and Smoky had success prior to coming to Detroit.

Argument #1: Sparky had good players and anyone could have won with them.

This is something that’s been around for a long time. How much does a manager matter when you have great players? Did Sparky win because he had Johnny Bench and Alan Trammell or did his teams win because Sparky was the manager?  How much credit do managers deserve? My feeling is that good players will win if the manager stays out of the way, if he lays a foundation for a winning atmosphere, and if the manager and coaching staff prepare them to win. Sparky did all of that but it worked a little differently in his two stints as a big league manager.

For nine seasons, from 1970-78, Sparky managed the Cincinnati Reds. The team was young when he came in, but they had an excellent core of very good players: Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan, and Lee May, chiefly. Sparky had more success right away than any other manager in the history of baseball: his ’70 Reds won 70 of their first 100 games. But even though the Reds had great players (Joe Morgan, George Foster, Ken Griffey, and Dave Concepcion came along via trades or matured under Sparky in the next few years), they couldn’t just roll out of bed and beat people, they needed leadership, and Sparky provided it. Famously, Sparky had two sets of rules in Cincinnati, one for his top stars and another for the rest of the team. It rankled a few, but it worked. The Reds won their division five times in nine years seasons while Sparky was there.

In Detroit, Sparky didn’t have the superstars he had in Cincy. He helped a group of young homegrown players mature into bonafide major league stars (Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Dan Petry). Sparky was no push-button manager, when he took over in Detroit the “stars” of the team were guys he ended up sweeping out of town, players like Jason Thompson, Ron LeFlore, and Steve Kemp, who didn’t fit into his plans. He was right to do so and those moves helped shape a team that would win 104 games in 1984 and the second most games in the 1980s.

One way to measure how much starpower Sparky had is to look at it by the numbers. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) measures players in a single number, a rating of 5 or higher is an All-Star caliber season. How many player seasons of 5+ WAR did Sparky’s teams have? From 1970-78, the Reds had 24 such seasons (more than half from Morgan, Bench, and Rose). That’s an impressive total, as high a total as any manager had in that era or any since. With Detroit though, Sparky did not have the same fortune: 25 5+ WAR seasons in 16 seasons, or about 1.5 per season. How about Leyland? In Detroit, Leyland had much better starpower: in 8 seasons he had 18 player seasons of 5 WAR or more. That’s 2.25 per season. Miguel Cabrera and Ivan Rodriguez are certain Hall of Famers, and Justin Verlander has a good chance of getting a plaque in Cooperstown someday too, as does Max Scherzer if he continues to progress. Add in Victor Martinez, Magglio Ordonez, and even Austin Jackson (three 5+ WAR seasons already, or as many as Perez and Concepcion combined under Sparky) and Leyland had great players from 2006-13.

Sparky’s ’84 team is one of only three championship teams WITHOUT a Hall of Fame player. If anything, Sparky proved he could win with a roster of very good to good players in Detroit, without an obvious Hall of Famer, while Leyland had the advantage of managing when Detroit spent their way into the upper echelon of baseball and also made several good trades to get outstanding players.

Argument #2: Leyland did more with less than Sparky did.

As I just pointed out, Leyland had more stars in Detroit during his time than Sparky did during his. But how did they each fare when their talent was thinner?

During his nine years in Cincinnati, Sparky had a great lineup, no question. He didn’t always have a very good or deep starting rotation, but overall his Reds teams were star-studded. In Detroit, the pipeline was overflowing with young talent, the product of great scouting and drafting in the 1970s. With that team, Sparky won more games than any team other than the Yankees in the 1980s. But, from 1989 to his final season in The D, in 1995, Sparky didn’t win much at all. His teams were less talented, for sure, but Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were still there, and Cecil Fielder, Tony Phillips, Mickey Tettleton, and Travis Fryman were good players. Still, Sparky never won another thing after 1987. Was he unable to win without great talent? Not exactly. The Detroit pitching staffs from 1990 to 1995 were terrible, often in the bottom third of the league in runs allowed. The Detroit farm system also dried up, which was not Sparky’s fault (more on that later).

Did Leyland perform better than Sparky when he had mediocre teams? In the 1980s, his Pirates were young and talented but not ready to win yet, sort of like Sparky’s 1979-1982 Tigers. Smoky won with stars Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke in Pittsburgh. When the Pirates’ stars left in the mid-1990s for more money, Leyland bolted the Steel City for Miami where he gladly took over the Marlins, a team with a lot of talent in their prime. When the Marlins dumped their stars, Leyland left and grumbled as he exited that he “thought my job was to win championships, but apparently that’s not what [the owner] wanted.” He went to Colorado where he talked about wanting to be a part of a team that was building for the future, but he left Colorado after a season, walking away from two years on his contract. Many fans were furious, and one of his players said, “It feels like our manager quit on us.” After working as a scout for a few years, Leyland finally accepted the Tigers’ job in 2006, coming to a young team, but hardly a barren one. He won right away, of course, but it’s important to note that Leyland never really managed a bad team for more than a season. He preferred to be were there was sufficient talent and a strong commitment from ownership. Twice he quit teams when he felt ownership was being cheap. Sparky’s situation was different: I’m not saying it means he was better, but Sparky was strapped with a mediocre to crappy team for 5-6 years and had a terrible farm system behind it. He did about as well as anyone could have. No manager could have won with the Tigers from 1989 to 1995, and Leyland probably wouldn’t have stuck around to try.

Argument #3: Sparky wasn’t good with young players.

I think this knock on Sparky stems from a few high profile incidents when the grey-haired manager let his mouth get away from him, as he was known to do. In the spring of 1980, Sparky drooled over Kirk Gibson, comparing him to Mickey Mantle. Gibson obviously never became Mantle, and he wasn’t a star until 1983-84, but he was an excellent player. He won an MVP award, he hit a few of the most important postseason home runs in history, and he was a winner. Sparky was hyperbolic, but that doesn’t mean he was bad with young players. Sparky deserves some credit for helping Gibby become a ballplayer, in fact, in his biography Top of the Ninth, Gibson says as much.

Later, in 1985, Sparky completely whiffed on Chris Pittaro, and he also missed the mark on a few young pitchers in the early 1980s. His treatment of Howard Johnson was the most egregious: HoJo rubbed Sparky the wrong way for some reason, and Sparky didn’t play him as much as he should have. Ultimately he was traded away when he should have been at third base for Detroit for a decade. But Sparky’s scouting skills were just as accurate as most managers, it’s just that Anderson touted young players more loudly than most skippers.

His prognostications aside, it’s grossly unfair to say Sparky wasn’t good with young players. Sparky helped make a lot of young players everyday starters and he helped mold some of the best players in baseball. In Cincinnati he managed Johnny Bench from age 22 to 29, he made 22-year old Dave Concepcion an All-Star shortstop, he also made starters out of 24-year old Cesar Geronimo, 24-year old Ken Griffey, and 24-year old Dan Driessen. Sparky probably made more young pitchers into solid big league relief pitchers than any other manager in the history of the game before Tony LaRussa. There was Pedro Borbon, Will McEnaney, Rawley Eastwick, and Manny Sarmiento, all of whom became key parts of Sparky’s bullpens before the age of 23.

When we turn to Detroit, we see Sparky’s mastery with youngsters: Trammell and Whitaker started playing for Sparky when they were 21 and 22. Parrish was 23 that season and in his first year as Detroit’s regular catcher, he grew up under Sparky. Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Kirk Gibson, Tom Brookens, Glenn Wilson, Matt Nokes, Mike Henneman, and Travis Fryman all started their careers as regulars in their early 20s under the watchful eye of Sparky.

If Sparky was so bad at handling young players, why didn’t that impact Sweet Lou, Tram, Morris, Gibby, and Parrish? All five of those players became All-Stars and played so long and so well that they ended up on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Argument #4: Leyland groomed the players Sparky won with in Detroit.

This is a curious statement, one that sort of piggybacks on the “anyone could have won with the players Sparky had” argument. But let’s look at it.

Leyland managed in the Detroit minor league system for a decade from 1972-1981. In that capacity he had a lot of good young players under his charge since the Tigers drafted very well in the 1970s. But Leyland didn’t shepherd the stars of the 1980s Tigers teams all that much. He was Lou Whitaker’s first manager, when Sweet Lou was 19, but just for one season. He never managed Trammell, nor did he manage Parrish, and he only had Jack Morris for a few weeks in 1979 before the right-hander was called back up to the big league team. Morris was already a big league pitcher by that time. Leyland did tutor Gibson for two seasons, and Gibby credits Leyland with helping him learn a lot about the game. Leyland managed Dan Petry for parts of three seasons in the minor leagues, but he had Tom Brookens and Barbaro Garbey for only a single season. He had Dave Rozema for a season and he managed Marty Castillo (a bit player on the ’84 team) for four seasons. Is that the record of a manager who “groomed” the 1980s Tigers? I just don’t see it. The core of that team was up the middle (Parrish, Tram, Sweet Lou, Chet Lemon), and Leyland managed only one of them and that was in rookie ball when he was 19.

Leyland was a part of the organization when the Tigers were packing their big league roster with players who would win the ’84 world Series, he just wasn’t an integral part. I’ll concede that Leyland was a better minor league manager than Sparky was, but Sparky was busy molding the big league team into a championship club while Leyland was managing prospects, only some of whom contributed to the major league squad down the road.

Argument #5: For nearly a decade Sparky won nothing in Detroit.

After a second place finish in 1988, Sparky had only two more winning seasons in his final seven years in Detroit. But there where many factors involved: (1) the Detroit farm system dried up as a result of terrible drafts in the 1980s, (2) in 1990 the team had an internal power struggle that resulted in the exit of Bill Lajoie, who was largely responsible for the great drafts of the 1970s and most of the trades that helped build the 1980s Tigers, and (3) the major league team aged and suffered from the loss of on-field leaders Gibson and Parrish.

I’m not sure anyone would have fared any better from 1989-95 with the players Sparky had in Detroit. As outlined above in argument #2, Leyland never had to manage under such “the cupboard is bare” conditions, at least not for long.

Argument #6: Sparky’s players didn’t credit him with winning, Leyland’s did. 

I heard this one from Tony Paul, who writes for the Detroit News. According to Paul, Leyland’s players love him and credit him with much of their success, while Sparky’s players will tell you (off the record apparently) that Sparky was “ok but not that great.”

This is a very difficult point to prove, because I can throw out quote after quote from Sparky’s players that are glowing with praise. “He didn’t just help us be better ballplayers, he taught us how to win and how to be men.” That’s from Alan Trammell, for example. Dan Petry, Dave Bergman, Kirk Gibson, Tom Brookens, Chet Lemon, Larry Herndon, Travis Fryman, and other former Tigers echo the same thing. Pete Rose called Sparky the best manager he ever played for.

But, of course, guys who played under Leyland say a lot of the same things about him. So, what’s the point? Players like some managers and don’t like others. Maybe their being polite, maybe their not. But I’ve spoken to most of the players who were on the 1984 World Championship team and with only one exception, there were good things said about Sparky. That player wasn’t happy with how he was handled after an injury, and I could tell he wasn’t a huge Sparky guy. But what does that prove? Only that every team has different personalities and not everyone gets along with their skipper.

Argument #7: Leyland got to the postseason more than Sparky.

In his 22 seasons in the major leagues, Jim Leyland advanced his team to the postseason eight times. Sparky got to the postseason seven times in 26 seasons. Seems like advantage Leyland, right? Not so fast. In all but two of the years Sparky managed in the big leagues, there were only two teams that could get to the postseason and you had to finish in first place to do so (from 1969 to 1993 there were only two divisions in each league and no wild cards). Leyland managed 14 seasons in the modern era when there were three divisions and at least one wild card. In fact, two of the times Leyland won the pennant (in ’97 with the Marlins and ’06 with Detroit) he got to the postseason as a wild card. Five of Leyland’s playoff teams made it to the postseason when there were 4 or 5 teams getting in.

What if there had been a wild card and three divisions in the 1970s when Sparky was managing the Big Red Machine, or in the 1980s in Detroit? Well, Sparky led the Reds to one of the top two records in the league seven times in nine seasons! In Detroit, Sparky’s Tigers had the best record in the AL in 1984 and 1987, but they also had one of the top four records in the league in 1981, 1983, 1986, and 1988. Had their been a wild card or a “Central Division” in baseball in the 1980s, Sparky’s Detroit team would have made at least two more trips to the postseason. All told, Sparky guided his teams to a top four record in 14 of his 26 seasons, nine times finishing with either the best or second best record in his league. Leyland had a top four record nine times in 22 seasons, and only had the best or second-best record in his league four times. In 2012 Leyland’s Tigers won the division crown and ended up winning the pennant even though they had just the 6th best record in the AL. In fact, in none of the three seasons that Leyland won the pennant did his teams have the best record in their league, or even come close. Conversely, Sparky became the first manager to win 100 games in both leagues, a World Series in both leagues, and the only manager to guide teams in each league that led from wire-to-wire and captured a pennant. Sure, Leyland won three straight division crowns, but it’s much easier to win a division title and much easier to get into the playoffs now than it was in Sparky’s time. With a wild card, Sparky’s Reds would have made the postseason three more times and his Tigers would have made it at least two more times.

Argument #8: Game-manager Leyland handled his team well in tight spots and got players to perform in crucial situations.

Some Leyland fans believe Smoky had a magical way of making mediocre or average players better. In ’06 he was credited with just about everything but sprinkling fairy dust on his players. But, if Leyland was such a great motivator and tactician, why was his postseason record so average? In 16 postseason series, Leyland was 9-7 and his game record was 44-40. He lost the NL Championship Series in both 1991 and 1992 despite being favored. Same thing happened in the 2006 World Series and the 2012 World Series, when Detroit was favored. Many observers also gave Detroit the edge in the 2013 ALCS, but Detroit lost in six games after blowing Game Two on the road when they could have taken a 2-0 stranglehold over the Red Sox. His Pirates’ teams lost three straight times in the postseason despite having the best record in the league twice. Any way you slice it, Leyland’s postseason record is disappointing.

On the other hand, Sparky’s teams won 8 of 12 postseason series and he was an impressive 34-21 in postseason games. Where Leyland’s teams often fell flat in October, Sparky’s teams often dominated in the postseason. In ’76 the Reds went undefeated, sweeping the playoffs and World Series (the only team to do so), and in ’84 his Tigers nearly matched that feat, going 7-1 in the postseason. Sparky’s teams were almost always tough to handle in the postseason and his postseason winning percentage is one of the best ever.

Argument #9: How much does winning matter?

After the 1,000 or so words above, maybe the best way to look at this debate is the simplest.

Sparky posted a .545 winning percentage in 26 seasons as a big league manager. Leyland’s mark was .506, in fact he had a losing record before coming to Detroit. If you want to only look at their time in Detroit, Leyland comes out ahead, .540 to .516, but Sparky led the Tigs for 17 seasons, while Leyland was at the helm for less than half of that and he never went through a rebuilding period or downturn like Sparky did.

Sparky had 10 90-win seasons, whereas Leyland had 7.

Sparky won 100 games four times, Leyland never had a team that won 100 games.

Sparky won seven division titles, Leyland won six in an era when twice as many teams made the postseason. (Though had there been three divisions in the 1970s and 1980s, Sparky would have captured five more titles).

If awards are your thing, Leyland won three Manager of the Year honors, while Sparky won two.

Including all of his managerial stops, Sparky won three World Series titles and five pennants. Leyland won only one World Series title and three pennants.

Sparky has the edge in wins and championship hardware. He also has the reputation as one of the greatest managers ever. Leyland is one of the greatest managers of the last 25 years, but before coming to Detroit where he had star-studded teams, he had a losing record (.485).

Perhaps the most important point is this: Sparky won a World Series title in Detroit, and Leyland didn’t. People still look back at 1984 because the team hasn’t lifted the trophy since. Until they do, Sparky – with all of his other accomplishments too – comes out on top.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.