August 24, 2010
Sweet Lou Piniella bid a tearful farewell to baseball on Sunday, bringing a close to his 47 years in professional baseball, 23 of which he served as a big league manager.
It was a very successful career, and Piniella retires with an overall record of 1,835-1,713, making him the 14th-winningest manager in baseball history. Nine of the 13 men ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame while the three others — Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox — are shoo-ins for induction. (The odd-man out is Gene Mauch, who finished 135 games below .500 and logged only two postseason appearances in 26 years in the clubhouse.)
Piniella won one World Series title with the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, led the 2001 Seattle Mariners to a record 116 regular-season wins and guided six other playoff teams with the Mariners and Chicago Cubs.
Piniella's case for Cooperstown: Fangraphs' Jack Moore thinks he belongs, writing:
Between his seven playoff appearances, .517 winning percentage, World Championship ring, and most importantly, the longevity and visibility of his career, I have little doubt that Piniella will take a place in Cooperstown.
John Perrotto at Baseball Prospectus agrees, noting the difficulty of many of his assignments:
Piniella is the only manager ever to take the Mariners to the postseason, led a Reds team that had gone 75-87 and endured the Pete Rose lifetime ban the season before to a World Series title and won NL Central titles in his first two season with the Cubs in 2007 and 2008.
Piniella's playing career was less distinguished, but it's also worth mentioning, because the Hall of Fame explicitly instructs the Veterans Committee to consider every role within the game that a candidate has held. After winning the 1969 Rookie of the Year and being named a 1972 All-Star with the Kansas City Royals, he went to New York and won two rings as a platoon outfielder with the 1970s Bronx Zoo Yankees. He amassed 1,705 hits over an 18-year career. As ESPN recently reported, that makes him just the second manager ever with 1,700 hits as a player and 1,700 wins as a manager. (Joe Torre is the other.)
ESPN's Buster Olney thinks Piniella as player-manager should earn him induction:
As a player, he wasn't a Hall of Famer, with 1,705 hits, and if he were judged solely as a manager, he probably wouldn't be good enough. But the body of work absolutely is enough.
Still, Piniella will be remembered most for his 1990 champion Reds, whose Nasty Boys bullpen had one of the all-time great baseball names, and his 2001 Seattle Mariners, who tied the all-time record with 116 regular-season wins. His reputation within the game was so strong that, in 2002, the Tampa Bay Rays traded Randy Winn(notes), their All-Star representative that year, just to have Lou manage their team. He won three Manager of the Year awards, tied for second-most, behind only Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. (The award was created in 1983.) He won 90 games in four different cities, from the 1986 Yankees to the 2008 Cubs. Longevity, consistency, and excellence: Sweet Lou was a good manager for a long, long time.
Piniella's case against Cooperstown: Piniella was something of a compiler. Only three of his 23 teams won more than 91 games and he won only one pennant. Though he took seven teams to the playoffs, he won only five playoff series — the 1990 NLCS and World Series, the 1995 ALDS, the 2000 ALDS, and the 2001 ALDS. Of the 55 managers with at least 1,000 wins, he is one of only 19 who failed to win more than one pennant, and his .517 winning percentage is 33rd of those 55 — one point behind Jack McKeon, who similarly won one pennant and one World Series. Bobby Cox is ample proof that even a great manager can be held to just one championship, but Cox has won four more pennants, notched eight more playoff appearances, and won 661 more games than Piniella.
Piniella's best-known managerial tendency was his colorful, cartoonish approach to getting ejected; there are 66 video results on Google for "Lou Piniella ejection." The ejection I just linked to, on June 2 in 2007, was credited by Chris Jaffe with having turned around the Cubs' season, prompting a 29-13 finish. But no one's going to argue that the reason to induct Piniella is that it was funny to watch him get ejected.
He certainly used his ejections to good effect, but, says Jaffe, "He was more motivator than strategist." In Jaffe's book "Evaluating Baseball's Managers," which quantifies the effect various managers had on their teams, Piniella finishes third of all time in getting the most out of his hitters, but dead last at in-game tactics, and virtually even overall. Contrary to Lou's reputation as a turnaround artist, which prompted his hirings in Tampa Bay and Chicago, a Lou Piniella team could not be expected to be much more successful than it would have been with anyone else at the helm. The Devil Rays learned this the hard way, after Lou guided them to two last-place and one fourth-place finishes.
There's little doubt that Piniella was an above-average manager. But he wasn't much above average, as indicated by both his won-loss percentage and his performance in Jaffe's book. He was one of the most colorful figures in the last half-century of baseball.
But in my view, he wasn't a Hall of Famer.
What do you think?