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Sweet Lou And Cooperstown

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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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