If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, retired MLB manager Jim Leyland might be one of the most flattered men in baseball right now.
I have heard his voice on more than one occasion this season while listening to Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. Whether it’s a simple turn of phrase, occasional surliness or impatience with questions from Jim Moore, McClendon’s words have struck a familiar tone, one that’s reminiscent of the former Tigers skipper.
It’s clear that McClendon took a lot from his mentor when he served as a coach on Leyland’s staff from 2006 to 2013 in Detroit. While McClendon is 14 years his junior, he takes much the same old-school, monotone, because-I-said-so approach that Leyland did in his dealings with the media.
With the Mariners in Detroit for a pivotal weekend series against the Tigers, it’s worth noting that the similarities between Leyland’s first year in Detroit and McClendon’s debut campaign in Seattle don’t end with media relations. In fact, the Mariners should consider themselves lucky if McClendon can continue to imitate what Leyland did in his time with the Tigers.
Consider that in 2006 Leyland took over a floundering Tigers team that was coming off a 71-91 finish and was picked by exactly none of ESPN’s panel of experts to play in the postseason. Detroit ended up winning 95 games that year, earned a wild-card berth and eventually went on to win the American League pennant.
The Tigers largely got the job done with pitching and the best team ERA in the AL at 3.84, an improvement from 4.51 in 2005. Leyland had to lean on a young ace in Justin Verlander, a veteran in Ivan Rodriguez and some guy named Fernando Rodney in the Tigers’ bullpen to lead his team to the World Series. It’s worth mentioning that from that season forward, the Tigers only finished below .500 one time under Leyland’s leadership.
Fast forward to 2014. McClendon takes over a Mariners team that finished the previous season with the exact same 71-91 record and was summarily ignored by every preseason prediction rag – just like the 2006 Tigers.
The Mariners have succeeded due to their improved pitching staff and a 2.95 ERA that leads the AL – just like the 2006 Tigers. McClendon has had to lean on a young ace in Felix Hernandez, a veteran in Robinson Cano and that same Fernando Rodney guy in the bullpen – just like the 2006 Tigers.
Obviously these parallels aren’t perfect and there are differences between the teams, but even some of those are encouraging for Mariners fans.
The Tigers had a better offense in 2006 than the Mariners do this season, though that difference isn’t as great as some might think. Detroit finished 2006 with a team batting average of .274, good for eighth in the AL and up from .272 the year before. The Mariners’ offense has been slower, hitting just .246, but is working at a better clip since July 1 at .254. Both numbers represent improvement from Seattle’s 2013 mark of .237.
Another difference with the 2014 Mariners is that while both teams are/were ranked first in AL team ERA, Seattle is markedly better top-to-bottom and may end the season with a historically significant pitching staff. Ace for ace, it’s not close, either, with Hernandez far outplaying Verlander’s 2006 season.
And while it may be a tall order for the Mariners to match the 2006 Tigers’ 95 wins, Seattle has a second wild-card spot to shoot for, so it may not take that many wins to reach the playoffs.
No two people are completely alike and I don’t mean to intimate that Leyland and McClendon are an exact match, but Mariners fans would be well served to have McClendon continue his best Leyland impression in 2014. It’s only fitting that he has a chance to make his strongest statement so far by beating the team that his old boss built this weekend in Detroit.
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