Detroit Tigers entering new age of baseball, but still welcome Jim Leyland, King of Old School

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s like trying to follow a social butterfly.

One that never stops moving.

Former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland sits in the dugout on the backfields at TigerTown, taking to Miguel Cabrera, the only player left from when he managed this team.

Now, he is between fields, talking to Javier Báez.

Before long he’s on a bench, talking to Riley Greene.

Blink … and he’s standing behind the batting turtle, talking to Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris.

Then, manager A.J. Hinch calls him over onto the grass and they start a lengthy conversation.

Officially, Leyland’s title with the Tigers is “special assistant to the general manager.” But that’s almost comical, because he’s an assistant to a person who doesn’t exist — the Tigers don’t have a GM. But that hasn’t stopped Leyland.

Neither did a change in Tigers leadership.

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Another one.

Leyland had strong ties to the former Tigers regime. All the way back to Dave Dombrowski, who won the World Series with Leyland as his manager in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. They paired up again in Detroit in 2006. Eventually, Dombrowski left and his right hand, Al Avila, took over.

Now, Avila is gone.

But Leyland is still here. Still working for the Tigers. Still offering his views.

Leyland, 78, hasn’t managed since 2013. But he’s still an interesting presence at Tigers camp. Still does work behind the scenes. Talking to players. Giving advice to anyone who asks. Offering opinions.

“We love when the alumni come around and more importantly when they can sit down in the players’ environment and get to know these guys a little bit,” Hinch said. “We have (Alan) Trammell in camp. Jim Leyland is in town … they dedicate a lot of their energy towards the Tigers. It’s awesome.”

So that’s the first thing that’s interesting. The first thing that’s revealing. Nothing has changed under Harris and Hinch.

This young, bright, new-age team president, who relies so heavily on analytics and technology, continues to welcome the past.

“I really like him,” Leyland said about Harris. “He’s very bright. He’s a very good listener. That’s the one thing that I’m really impressed with him. I’ve talked to him a few times. He asked me some very good questions. He’s very thorough. He’s very smart. And he likes a lot of opinions. He listens to them and then he gathers those and makes a decision.”

Some decisions will work.

Some won’t.

Leyland has been around long enough to know that.

“I’ve really been impressed with him,” Leyland said. “He asks questions and I try to have an answer for him. I’m sure he agrees with some of it and some he doesn’t. He makes you feel at home. He’s made me feel very comfortable. I stay out of the way and I don’t get involved too much.”

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The odd couple

It’s an odd pairing when you think about it.

Leyland is as old school as it gets. His first minor-league managing job was in 1971 — when he took over the Bristol Tigers in the Appalachian League at 26.

Harris, who was just 35 when he was hired last fall, comes from a new way of thinking. Analytics. Biomechanics. Technology. Computers. Spin rates. Pitch shape. And now, “seam-shifted wake.”

“A lot of people use the term ‘analytics,’ and I think originally that term scares people off,” Leyland said. “Because it’s kind of a fancy word. But at the end of the day, it’s information. It’s just a matter of getting good information and utilizing that information.”

Leyland is old enough to remember when the Iron Mike — an old-school pitching machine — was considered new technology.

“You’re just trying to make players better,” Leyland said. “Some of them may work, some of them may not.”

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‘Not near as naked’

Leyland has found his niche with this organization, traveling around the minor leagues and bringing back reports about the prospects.

That hasn’t changed.

“I think we’ve got many more good players than people think we have,” Leyland said. “I just see some real raw talent here. Some of them are gonna develop into good, big-league players. Some of them may fall by the wayside, but we’re not near as naked in the farm system, as some people may think.”

He started ripping through some prospects …

On Parker Meadows: “He turned it around last year. I saw him in Double-A Erie and he had a really good year. He’s a real talent. He can really play center field. He can run. He’s got long strides. He’s got the whole package and that’s one of the guys I’m talking about it. He has the potential to be something special.”

On Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene: “I think they’re both gonna be really good. I think, when you’ve got a couple of rookies breaking in, and the team’s not doing good, the focus goes to those guys. It probably puts a little extra pressure on them because the fans are antsy. But these guys are the real deal. They’re going to be fixtures for a long time.”

On Colt Keith, the young third baseman: “I’ve seen enough to know he can hit. He’s got a good swing. I’d say he’s one of the top three hitters in our organization and I’m not sure who would be better.”

On Ryan Kriedler: “I love Kreidler. I think he has a chance to be a really good player. I think he’s a really good shortstop. He can play around a little bit. And it’s just a matter of getting repetition. You have to remember, Greene and Torkelson and Kreidler had the COVID year. They’re just getting their feet wet.”

On newcomers Matt Vierling and Nick Maton: “They’re both athletic kids. They both got loud sounds in their bats and they both got tools. Probably a good situation for them. I don’t know how it’s gonna play out. I have no idea. I stay out of that. I know how A.J. is gonna work that out.”

On Justyn-Henry Malloy, who is in his first camp: “He can hit. He’s got a big bat.”

Then, he starts gushing about the pitchers. About all the youngsters from Triple-A down.

“They looked really good,” he says. “I gave a good report on some of those guys.”

The practice is done and Leyland heads toward the Tigers facility.

An old-school manager in a new-age time. A new way of thinking.

Dombrowski is long gone. So is Avila. Harris is now calling the shots. But baseball is still baseball. And Harris is bright enough to know that Leyland, this old baseball eye, still has something to offer.

That’s encouraging in the big picture.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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