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Difference makers (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday May 23, 2006 12:36PM; Updated: Tuesday May 23, 2006 5:16PM
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Jim Leyland, Tigers

Tigers skipper Jim Leyland gives a hand to his new closer, Todd Jones.
Tigers skipper Jim Leyland gives a hand to his new closer, Todd Jones.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Leyland looks like he eats breakfast with guys like Robert Duvall and Harry Dean Stanton. He paid his dues for years in the minors. Tony La Russa said that Leyland, who had been on his White Sox staff, was a better manager than he was by 1988, Leyland's third year in the majors.

Known for being tough but honest with his players, Leyland once told Sports Illustrated, "It's a people business, and you'd better start with being honest, because you just can't snow players."

Leyland has an overall losing record, which shows what happens to even the most talented managers when they don't have the horses, but he commands respect and has been instrumental in bringing a culture of success back to the Tigers, who are in first place in the AL Central. Having sick young pitchers and a good pitching coach, like he does now in Detroit, helps too.

Tony La Russa, Cardinals

Genius at work. La Russa's intelligence was famously championed by George Will in Men at Work and in Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August. Famous for his preparation, La Russa, according to Will, co-opted his mantra from Bill Rigney: "The four important things in baseball, in order of importance, are: play hard, win, make money and have fun." La Russa was an early innovator in the use of computerized data, particularly when it comes to the bullpen, and influenced the specialization of the modern reliever more than any other manager.

Joe Torre, Yankees

As Joel Sherman illustrates in his new book, The Birth of the Yankee Dynasty, Torre's reputation was that of an all-time loser when he arrived in New York in 1996. Yet if Buck Showalter was the ideal man to restore credibility to the Yankees, Torre was the right man to close the deal and lead them to championships.

Far from a brilliant tactician, Torre has been roundly criticized for his bullpen usage and bench construction, but if he is not objectively a truly great manager, he has at least proven himself to be a truly great Yankees manager. Torre has weathered the vagaries of life under George Steinbrenner like no other manager before him. He understands modern players and how to deal with the press as well as anyone. His longevity as Yankees manager under Steinbrenner is remarkable.

Mike Scioscia, Angels

Though Scioscia and White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen are similar in a lot of ways, I'll go with Scioscia simply because of his length of service. The Angels have been good for more than a minute now.

Scioscia does a great job of pressuring the opposition's defense by putting his runners in motion and making sure he's got players who can put the ball in play, especially with two strikes. "His style of managing doesn't really reflect what he was as a player," Markusen notes, "which makes it all the more intriguing."

Baseball Prospectus' lead analyst Joe Sheehan is also a fan. "Early on he did a good job of letting performance, rather than service time, determine usage patterns. His best bullpens had no left-hander, and it didn't affect him one whit. He also committed to a plan offensively. It might not have made stat-heads happy, but the Angels' perpetual ball-in-play, runners-in-motion style worked with their personnel for a few years, when they were a very fast, contact-oriented lineup."

Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.