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Sweet Lou And Cooperstown

[ 29 ] August 29, 2010 |

When Lou Piniella announced that he was walking away from the Cubs before the end of the season, I saw Buster Olney assert on ESPNnews that Piniella was a Hall of Fame manager, which seems to be a pretty common sentiment. I may have too much of a stake in this, since my very first online writing gig was a guest column for Neyer in 1997 comparing the Mariners with the early 80s Expos, but I really don’t get it. Posnanski, as usual, I think gets it right:

OK, I’m going to probably tick off some people here … but I guess I should probably just say this. I kind of think Lou Piniella is overrated in every baseball way a man can be overrated. I mean, he’s a perfectly fine manager … but you would think the guy was Joe McCarthy by the way some people talk about him. He’s like 100 games over .500 in his career — and that 2001 Mariners team was 70 of those games. He won that awesome World Series in Cincinnati — fabulous there — and he managed Seattle to that cool 116 win season and playoff heartbreak, he managed Chicago to a couple of playoff heartbreaks … and that’s really about it. The Yankee years weren’t much, the Tampa Bay years were pretty disastrous, he leaves the Cubs a mess and before the season’s even out. I’m not saying he’s a bad manager — he’s good — but he doesn’t seem to me to be THAT good.

Let’s go through them one at a time:

Yankees: You could see evidence of his best quality as a manager: his ability with hitters. Not only did he get some great years out of his stars, but he got impressive production from some marginal talents like Dan Pasqua and Ron Hassey. On the other hand, you can see some of the flaws you’d see throughout his career — his impatience with pitchers and a consequent inability to turn good arms into pitchers, and some flailing around with roster spots that don’t have a clear good player attached. On balance, I think you’d have to consider the performance of these teams mildly disappointing; 1986 wasn’t bad, but it’s hard to explain why a team with as much front-line talent finished behind the Brewers in 1987. Sportswriters have largely given him a pass because the Yankee organization was so chaotic, and I accept that to a point — it wasn’t easy to make a commitment to a young player in that context. But I think the causal link goes both ways; Piniella never fully unlearned these bad habits.

Reds: Obviously, the 1990 season is at the core of his HOF case –taking a perennial underachiever to a world championship is the kind of accomplishment that defines a great manager, and let’s say that sweeping the heavily favored A’s makes up for an otherwise unimpressive postseason record. But there wasn’t much follow-up.

Mariners: Here’s where the case has to rise or fall. The 2001 season is the other core component of his HOF case. As I’ve argued before, it was actually a long-term disaster for the Mariners organization, because the strategy they used that off-season — refusing to sign a genuine superstar in his prime and giving the money instead to some veterans of modest accomplishment — is normally a disastrous one. But it worked, in part, because Bret Boone suddenly turned into Joe Gordon and Mark McLemore turned into Tony Phillips, and Piniella obviously deserves a lot of credit for that. And because of whatever combination of an extreme pitcher’s park, Bryan Price, and his mellowing he didn’t have the problems with thin pitching that have otherwise undermined his teams. Again, it would have been nice if it was backed up — the failure to win the division in 2003, in particular, doesn’t look great — but a huge year. 1995, too, is a Hall of Fame type year, taking a perennial underachiever to the playoffs and winning a round.

But here’s the problem: on balance, I think it’s clear that his Mariners teams underachieved. For a forthcoming post on the recent documentary about the 1994 Expos, I’ve been thinking about the best teams of the post-Big Red Machine era. I don’t think any of them — ’84 Tigers, ’86 Mets, late 80s A’s, ’98 Yankees — had the kind of front-line talent that Piniella’s Mariners did in the late 90s. You have three inner-circle Hall of Famers — one who may have the case for the greatest player ever when he retires, another who has a good case as one of the 4 or 5 best pitchers of all time — backed up by another Hall of Fame caliber hitter in Edgar and a fifth outstanding player in Buhner. In 1998, this was good enough to finish 11.5 games behind a Rangers team that had some terrific hitters but also had Rick Helling as its #1 starter. I agree with Bill James that only the Giants of the 60s have ever done less with more, and they faced much stiffer competition in the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers and Gibson/Brock/Boyer/ultimately Cepeda Cardinals. Piniella’s not the only reason — or perhaps even the primary reason — for this egregious underachievement, but there’s no way in hell that this represents Hall of Fame caliber managing.

Devil Rays: Obviously, he was the wrong manager for this job — working with young players, and especially young pitchers, has never been his strong suit — and he did nothing with a team that didn’t have a lot to work with in any case. The only other thing to add is that Piniella’s advocates make a big deal of his raw win total, but when evaluating that you have to take into account the roughly 200 wins here, which don’t constitute any actual value. Take those away, and he’s about even with the late Ralph Houk, who has two World Championships but doesn’t exactly have a long line of Hall of Fame advocates.

Cubs: A classic manager’s pattern here — improved the team considerably in his first two years, followed this up with one disappointing season and one catastrophe. This is the kind of thing a good manager does, but that’s it.

Another way of looking at it is that the clear Hall of Fame managers of this era are Cox, LaRussa and Torre, and Piniella’s record is vastly less impressive than any of them, especially the first two. I’ll bet Scioscia and Francona will have more impressive cvs when all is said and done too. Piniella is more like Jim Leyland, who I don’t see getting a lot of Hall of Fame support — and I’d vote for Leyland first. Dusty Baker may finish with a better record. I don’t see a Hall of Fame manager here.

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  1. Tyler says:

    No way is Lou a hall of fame manager. Despite Jay Buhner being way past his prime and injured for most of the entire 2001 season, Lou still started Jay throughout the playoffs. The team that won 116 games never got a chance to play in the playoffs because its manager was busy using a different lineup.

  2. Woodrowfan says:

    good manager, no way Hall of Fame though…

  3. Rich C says:

    If anything, I think you’re giving sweet Lou too much credit – I think he’s quite similar to Dusty Baker as a manager. Baker has also had a lot of success with hitters but has never met a young arm he wasn’t willing to torch. I would argue that Leyland has been a more successful manager, and will get more HOF support when he retires, though I probably wouldn’t vote for him (if I had a vote, that is).

  4. Mark Centz says:

    Can’t argue with your reasoning or your conclusion, but two items not addressed deserve to be a part of his legacy- his showmanship and the winning attitude he brought ever-so-briefly to the shores of the Salish Sea. The former is well known, but that it appealed to a fanbase that is still better known for our calm demeanor than our enthusiasm was good for more than the box office at a time when the M’s were ever on the brink of moving elsewhere, and the latter was no small achievement for similar reasons, the prior ownership making money by being a farm team for the rest of MLB meant that fans rarely had the opportunity of believing in even next year. An attitude well-planted when a car salesman named Selig moves your team away during the magic time of spring training, when hope is supposed to reign. Lou will always be loved here for that attitude, whether his numbers affirm his place or not.

    • I definitely don’t mean to underestimate the importance of a good manager. I’ll have a more general post about this later, but I can’t imagine someone looking at the history of the Mariners and then arguing that it makes no difference if your team is being run by Bill Plummer or Lou Pinella (and we won’t even mention Maury Wills.)

  5. Mary Rosh says:

    Most of the Piniella hagiographies I heard wanted to combine his playing and managing and then saying Lou should make the Hall for this combination, which is not how the Hall is generally set up.

    So, as I am sure you all want to know, I think Lou is not a Hall of Famer

    • Yeah, I don’t get that at all. It’s one thing with Torre, whose case as a player might actually be better than his case as a manager. But I wouldn’t buy it even for Baker, who was a far better player than Pinella.

      • Actually, his case as a player is strikingly similar to his case as a manager– very good, but not great. Rookie of the Year and an All-Star selection; played on 3 WS winners. He was .291 lifetime, with 102 home runs and 766 RBIs. He was, in other words, a solid contributor, but never the best player on the good teams he played for.

        There is no shame in that– I’ve enjoyed watching him play and manage over the years, just as I’ve enjoyed watching any number of similar, or even better players who aren’t all-time greats. The HOF buzz comes from the fact that he gets along well with the media, not from his credential

  6. elm says:

    I have a sweet spot for Lou (pun not initially intended, but left in even after I realized its existence) as he was one of the more popular players on the Yankees when I first started becoming a ware of baseball. One of my earliest baseball memories was when I went to my first baseball game in ’82 or ’83. When Pinella came up to bat, everyone in the crows yelled “Lou!” and I turned to my father and said, “Why are the booing him?”

    That said, he’s not a HOFer. (Even if you combine his playing and managing: he was a fine player, but he had barely 100 HRs, only a .333 OBP, made only one AS game, and never even sniffed a major award other than his RoY award. You want to take a guy who was a fringe HoFer as both a player and manager and say the two combined gets him in, I might be OK with that. Pinella ain’t even near the fringe as a player.)

  7. John says:

    That as puzzling, previous post didn’t post. At any rate, I have nothing constructive to contribute to the discussion, but you’ve misspelled “Piniella” throughout the post.

  8. mch says:

    Like elm, I have a soft spot for the booing sound of Louououou filling Yankee stadium. Also for some of the most beautiful games of baseball ever, even on TV, with Lou’s Mariners against the Yankees. Not HOF stuff, to be sure. But some great memories.

  9. James E. Powell says:

    The 1990 series was a great achievement, but I am not so sure it was Lou’s. Cf. 2002 Angels. Sometimes, teams just get hot at the right time.

  10. Ken Houghton says:

    The 1990 Series–and the playoff win over Pittsburgh–was a great accomplishment.

    But the sweep should be credited appropriately: not to the manager (viz. 1976), but rather to the earthquake, which meant that Rijo got to pitch twice and Browning was actually rested for Game 3.

    Also, if you look at the future of that team, it starts to look more Bakeresque. Rijo, Tom Browning, Rob Dibble, even Randy Myers: you’re not talking Nolan, Gullett, and Eastwick-McEnaney/Clay Carroll so much as what should have been the nexus of a few major contenders. Until arms start falling off.

    • Woodrowfan says:

      Wasn’t the earthquake in 1989???

      • Mary Rosh says:

        yes, it was the Giants and A’s series.

        In 1990 Browning’s wife was pregnant and they thought he had left the stadium as his wife left in about the 5th to go have the baby. They put out an APB to get Browning back in case they needed him in extra innings. Rijo pitched the first and fourth games with 3 days in between

        • Woodrowfan says:

          I remember it well. I’ve been a Reds fan since I was a little kid in the 60s. My wife and I got married on 10-20-90, the day the Reds won. We watched the first two games while getting the house ready for our families to arrive. I watched game 3 at the home of one of my groomsmen and we had our reception during game 4. Since my family is mostly from Ohio, the DJ kept us all up to date on the game inning by inning. And my bride let me watch the last inning in our hotel room (I love my wife!) although we were so tired from dancing anyway…….

  11. Steve S. says:

    Mariners: Here’s where the case has to rise or fall…In 1998, this was good enough to finish 11.5 games behind

    This of course doesn’t make the case for Piniella being an underachieving manager, but rather for how nearly irrelevant managers are. In 1998 Piniella penciled the names of Griffey and Rodriguez and Edgar and the rest into the lineup card as many times as they could answer the bell. Nobody in history would have managed that team any differently. Piniella had no control over the inadequacy of the other two thirds of the roster, and he had no control over Randy Johnson being traded midseason or that he pouted and pitched relatively poorly the half season he was there.

    I wouldn’t ask why Piniella deserves to be in the HOF but why managers get in there in the first place. Just doing the job for several decades without blowing your own brains out seems to be the main qualification.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Nobody in history would have managed that team any differently. Piniella had no control over the inadequacy of the other two thirds of the roster

      This is really silly. You’re telling me there’s no difference in the way in which John McNamara and Earl Weaver used their bench? That it doesn’t matter whether Dallas Green or Bobby Cox is running a pitching staff? That’s nonsense. Plenty of managers regularly get good performances out of pitchers with good arms but limited accomplishment; Piniella just isn’t one of them. And on the other hand, his hitters did overachieve as a group quite consistently.

      • Steve S. says:

        This is really silly. You’re telling me there’s no difference in the way in which John McNamara and Earl Weaver used their bench?

        Really silly is right. What exactly could Piniella have done differently with that ’98 team?

        Plenty of managers regularly get good performances out of pitchers with good arms but limited accomplishment; Piniella just isn’t one of them.

        Looking up and down that ’98 pitching roster I’m not sure I see who you’re talking about. Do you think Piniella ruined the once promising career of Ken Cloude? If so what’s your evidence?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Cloude was, in fact, a good prospect; he picthed well at Tacoma in ’97, almost a K an inning with decent control, and was very good in the low minors. Plenty of pitchers with those kind of credentials have pitched well. And then look at the bullpen! What in, say, Ayala’s previous record suggested he should have an ERA+ of 64? If it were just one year were a lot of pitchers didn’t pitch up to their ability, that’s one thing, but it’s persistent. Compare with Oates got out of his players based on expectations and what Piniella did, the former clearly comes out ahead. Especially in the pen, the arms he had going into the year (apart from Wetteland) aren’t significantly more impressive, but he got a lot of good to excellent performances while virtually everyone in the Mariners bullpen got the crap beat out of them.

          At least you seem to have stopped defending your more general claim that who manages the team is essentially irrelevant…

          • Steve S. says:

            Cloude was, in fact, a good prospect; he picthed well at Tacoma in ‘97, almost a K an inning with decent control, and was very good in the low minors. Plenty of pitchers with those kind of credentials have pitched well.

            And plenty more have disappeared off the face of the earth. Are you suggesting Piniella ruined him and if so based on what evidence?

            More importantly, you should address the simple fact that you can’t paint the 1998 Mariners as underachievers without mentioning the Randy Johnson situation (and speaking of Johnson, he morphed from young, wild, and inconsistent into Hall of Famer while Piniella was manager).

            What in, say, Ayala’s

            Oh my god. You said the A-word in a Mariners thread. That’s a Godwin offense.

            At least you seem to have stopped defending your more general claim that who manages the team is essentially irrelevant…

            No, what gave you that idea?

  12. LosGatosCA says:

    Your post is spot on. In every detail.

    However . . . Lou played on two WS champion Yankee teams.

    And as we all know, NY darlings (except Ron) get the ‘intangibles’ treatment. It’s as valuable as going on to a successful broadcast career in making you a HoF candidate if your playing career was not fully qualifying (we’re looking at you Dan Dierdorf – in football).

  13. c u n d gulag says:

    Diehard Yankees fan. Loved “Sweet Lou” as a player and a manager.
    But sorry, Lou, no soup for you…

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