2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Lou Piniella

Lou Piniella
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This post is part of a series covering the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot, covering candidates in those categories who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. For an introduction to the ballot, see here. The eight candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 3, and anyone receiving at least 75% of the vote from the 16 committee members will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21, 2024 along with any candidates elected by the BBWAA.

2024 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Manager Lou Piniella
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Lou Piniella 3548 1835-1713 .517 122 7 1 1
AVG HOF Mgr* 3662 1968-1674 .540 294 7 6 2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* Average based on the careers of 21 enshrined AL/NL managers from the 20th and 21st centuries

Lou Piniella

Lou Piniella spent even more years managing in the majors (23, between 1986 and 2010) than he did playing the outfield (18, between 1964 and ’84). To both, “Sweet Lou” brought a flair for the dramatic and a fiery intensity — his dust-kicking, hat-stomping, base-throwing tirades became the stuff of legend — as well as tremendous baseball acumen. Like fellow Contemporary Baseball candidate Davey Johnson, he won championships in both phases of his career, but his failure even to reach the World Series a second time as a manager cast a long shadow on every successive stop. Unlike Johnson, however, he came close to election, missing by just one vote on the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot from which Harold Baines and Lee Smith were elected.

A native of Tampa, Florida, Piniella was signed by Cleveland as an amateur free agent in 1962. Before getting a foothold in the majors, he passed through the hands of the Washington Senators, Baltimore Orioles (for whom he played four games in 1964), Cleveland (again, with a brief 1968 cameo) and Seattle Pilots. He spent spring training with the expansion Pilots, where he caught the attention of Jim Bouton, who memorialized the rookie’s’s hot temper (and baseball’s wonderful terminology for such a case) in Ball Four by writing, “Lou Piniella has the red ass.” More, from less than a week later:

“Piniella is a case. He hits the hell out of the ball. He hit a three-run homer today and he’s got a .400 average, but they’re easing him out. He complains a lot about the coaches and ignores them when he feels like it, and to top it off he’s sensitive as hell to things like Joe Schultz not saying good morning to him. None of this is supposed to count when you judge a ballplayer’s talents. But it does.”

The Pilots ended up trading Piniella to the AL’s other expansion team, the Kansas City Royals, on April 1. Piniella pulled himself together, winning AL Rookie of the Year honors with the Royals in 1969. A high-average contact hitter who didn’t have a ton of patience or power (as his .291/.333/.409 line suggests), he was particularly potent as a lefty-masher. He made the AL All-Star team in 1972, and after being traded to the Yankees in December ’73, he would contribute to four pennant-winning teams, including their ’77 and ’78 championships.

His reputation preceded his arrival in the Bronx. “Yes, I had a bad temper,” Piniella said in 1974, his first spring as a Yankee. “I guess I was trying to succeed too much. I probably was trying to exceed my capabilities and was expecting perfection all the time. When I couldn’t reach it, I’d get mad at myself… Last year, they had a wire mesh screen around the water cooler at the new park in Kansas City so I couldn’t kick that one.”

A left shoulder ailment limited Piniella’s playing time late in his career, so he became the Yankees’ hitting coach under manager Yogi Berra in 1984 while still a reserve outfielder. By mid-June, he decided to retire as a player so as to take over first base coaching duties as well. In 1986, he became the team’s manager, that during an era when owner George Steinbrenner was eating managers for breakfast and lunch. Billy Martin, in his fourth of five stints managing the Yankees, had gone 91–54 in guiding the Yankees to second place in relief of Berra in 1985, but he was fired yet again, this time after an infamous late-September brawl with pitcher Ed Whitson. With 25-year-old Don Mattingly hitting a sizzling .352/.394/.573 in the follow-up to his MVP-winning campaign, Piniella’s Yankees won 90 games in 1986 but finished second, 5.5 games behind the Red Sox.

After New York slipped to fourth despite winning 89 games in 1987, general manager Woody Woodward resigned. Steinbrenner rehired Martin for the final time and “promoted” Piniella to general manager. The job was not a fit. “After 25 years in uniform, I wasn’t used to the office aspects of it, the confinement,” he told The New York Times. “I enjoy the baseball part of it very much. When I talked to other general managers about talent, I enjoyed that aspect.”

Piniella resigned as GM on May 29, 1988, downplaying rumors of clashes with Martin over personnel, though within the organization there was awareness of the friction. Less than a month later, with the team in a slide, Martin ran out of rope via a series of alcohol-related incidents, including one that left him with 40 stitches following an altercation in a topless bar in Texas. Steinbrenner fired him for the fifth and final time, and Piniella returned to the dugout. After the Yankees went just 45–48 under him en route to an 85–76 finish, Steinbrenner fired Piniella with two years remaining on his contract, the first of which he spent in the Yankees’ TV booth.

In November 1989, Piniella escaped from New York to become the manager of the Reds. Replacing Pete Rose, who had just received his lifetime ban for gambling, he inherited a team diven by stars Barry Larkin and Eric Davis as well as the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble, and Randy Myers. His first year in Cincinnati was the most successful one of his managerial career: the Reds went 91–71 and won the NL West (the Senior Circuit’s screwed-up geography somehow had both Cincinnati and Atlanta in the West and St. Louis and Chicago in the East) and the World Series, the last by sweeping the heavily favored A’s, the defending champions.

The Reds collapsed to just 74 wins in 1991, and despite rebounding to 90 wins in ’92, Piniella resigned at season’s end, just weeks after brawling with Dibble. His departure owed less to the fight than to owner Marge Schott’s lack of support when he was sued for defamation by umpire Gary Darling. Following the reversal of a home run call in a 1991 game, Piniella had publicly proclaimed that Darling was biased; Schott refused to pay for a lawyer, forcing Piniella to do so out of his own pocket. The suit was eventually settled out of court, and Piniella issued a statement of apology, retracting his comments and praising Darling and umpires in general. “But I got no backing,” he said of Schott, who by the time of his comments had been suspended for a year due to racially insensitive remarks. “It got in my craw. That was the big thing.”

Piniella wasn’t out of a job for long. In November 1992, he reunited with Woodward in Seattle, where the Mariners had finished with a winning record just once in 16 years. With young Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and later Alex Rodriguez, he oversaw the most successful stretch in franchise history. The Mariners went 82–80 under Piniella in ’93, the first of seven times in 10 seasons (through 2002) that they’d post a winning record. They made the playoffs four times on his watch but have done so just once since then.

Piniella’s 1995 team overcame a 12.5-game deficit to finish the lockout-abbreviated season tied with the Angels atop the AL West. The Mariners won the one-game tiebreaker, then beat the Yankees in a thrilling five-game Division Series that ended with Martinez bringing Griffey home with the winning run via The Double. The excitement of the moment helped generate the groundswell of support that secured the Mariners a new taxpayer-funded stadium within a week of the series’ end. Piniella won the first of his three Manager of the Year awards that year.

He took the Mariners back to the playoffs in 1997, 2000 (after Johnson and Griffey had been traded in advance of their free agency) and ’01 (after Rodriguez had departed via free agency). Fueled by the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 Mariners tied the major league record with 116 wins, and Piniella garnered his second Manager of the Year award. Yet his Mariners teams never advanced past the ALCS, falling at the hands of the Yankees in both 2000 and ’01. Often, they were limited by horrible bullpens, and Piniella made matters worse; the 1997–99 units all finished with ERAs of 5.44 or above and totaled an AL-low 0.7 WAR over that span, squandering the last years of the Johnson/Griffey/Rodriguez nucleus.

After winning 93 games in 2002, Piniella, who still had one more year under contract, decided he wanted to go home to Tampa to help care for his ailing mother. The Mariners obliged by trading him and infielder Antonio Perez to the Devil Rays in exchange for outfielder Randy Winn, who was coming off his lone All-Star season. Though Piniella guided the expansion team to its first 70-win season in 2004, the Devil Rays weren’t able to progress further, and he became frustrated by the team’s minimal payrolls. After agreeing to a buyout with one year remaining on his deal, he became the manager of the Cubs in October 2006, succeeding Dusty Baker.

With a cast led by Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Zambrano (a man with an infamous temper of his own), Piniella’s Cubs won back-to-back NL Central titles in 2007 and ’08. He won his third Manager of the Year award in the latter year after leading the Cubs a league-high 97 wins, but in both of those seasons, his squads were swept out of the Division Series. The Cubs declined to 83 wins in 2009, and in August of the following year, with the health of his mother again in mind, he stepped down for the final time.

Because he managed for 21 full seasons plus two partial ones, Piniella ranks high in managerial counting stats. He’s 16th in games managed, fifth behind the still-active Bruce Bochy, Baker, Gene Mauch, and Terry Francona among skippers outside the Hall. Piniella is 17th in wins, trailing only Baker, Bochy, Francona, and Mauch among those not enshrined, and tied for 16th with seven playoff appearances, a total aided by a career spent mostly in the Wild Card era; even so, 10 contemporaries have as many or more such appearances. Due in part to his time in Tampa Bay, he’s a modest 122 games above .500, tied for 43rd all-time; even if you wave off his time there (200–285, .412), he’d rank just 28th.

It’s worth noting that a low winning percentage isn’t itself disqualifying for the Hall of Fame; many a great manger has found himself stuck in a noncompetitive situation for years at a time but offset that with their success. Connie Mack (.486) and Bucky Harris (.493) are in the Hall despite sub-.500 records, Wilbert Robinson is right at .500, and Casey Stengel finished at .508. But Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series, all with the Yankees after years piloting mediocre NL teams. Mack won nine pennants and five World Series between teardowns of the team he owned, and Harris won three pennants and two World Series. Robinson’s total of two pennants without a championship is something of an outlier in this context, but he was a larger-than-life personality for a team that was often severely outmanned.

Anyway, the positives for Piniella’s case boil down to his longevity, a championship in Cincinnati, a memorable run that legitimized major league baseball in Seattle, and one hell of a highlight reel for his tantrums. His playing career, with 12.4 bWAR, doesn’t add much of a bonus if one wants to think along those lines; if we start playing that game, he loses ground to managerial giants like John McGraw, Stengel and contemporary Joe Torre, to name just a few. Piniella’s positives are offset by his lack of postseason success beyond 1990 — his teams won just three series in his final 18 full seasons — and a comparatively unexceptional winning percentage. Even if you exclude his lost-cause Devil Rays stint, his .533 would rank 33rd among managers with at least 1,500 games.

Ultimately, Piniella’s case as a Hall of Fame manager rests more on longevity, which fellow candidates Johnson and Cito Gaston lack, than it does sustained success. As I wrote when he stepped down in 2010, “In a world where [Whitey] Herzog and [Dick] Williams — two innovators who won multiple pennants and made the playoffs more frequently without benefit of the wild card — needed a quarter of a century to gain election via the Veterans Committee, I just don’t see how Piniella has got enough to get into Cooperstown.” Despite my own affinity for him, that feeling is even stronger as I eye the possibility that Baker, Bochy and Francona, all much more decorated, could be elected when this ballot cycles around in three years.

That said, I’m not the one with the vote, and Era Committee members have generally supported Piniella. He received seven votes on the 2017 Today’s Game ballot from which John Schuerholz and Bud Selig were elected, then 11 two years later. Since then, three of the four candidates who fell one vote short in an Era Committee vote — Ted Simmons, Marvin Miller, and Tony Oliva — were subsequently elected, with Dick Allen again falling short by one vote. On a ballot that lacks any slam-dunk candidates, he might be the most likely honoree, or at least second behind Joe West, the longevity king among umpires. Maybe the two can have a full-blown argument as part of their induction speeches.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 months ago

I’m 30, so unfortunately the only Pinella I remember is the caricature of the old grumpy hardass manager that he became at the end of his career

Mitchell Mooremember
5 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Perhaps Jay was not clear enough, but Piniella didn’t become a caricature of the old grumpy hardass manager at the end of his career. He was so from the beginning.

5 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

Even as a young player on the Royals