Breaking down Today's Game Hall of Fame ballot, Part 3: The managers
- Lou Piniella and Davey Johnson will get a new shot at a plaque in Cooperstown, but does either veteran skipper have a Hall of Fame case?
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2017 Today’s Game Era Hall of Fame ballot, which will be voted upon by a 16-member committee of writers, executives and Hall of Fame players on Dec. 4 at the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., with the results to be announced that night at 6 p.m. ET. For a detailed introduction to the Today’s Game Era ballot, please see here.
Three years ago, when the Expansion Era Committee considered a slate of 12 candidates whose greatest contribution to baseball came from 1973 onward, only managers Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre—a trio who rank third, fourth and fifth all-time in wins, with 17 pennants and eight championships between them—mustered the necessary 75%. By comparison, the two skippers on the Today’s Game slate are much less accomplished. Both Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella stepped into managerial roles after lengthy and impressive major league careers. Each won a championship early: Johnson was 43 when the Mets beat the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, and Piniella was 47 when the Reds swept the Athletics in '90. But neither could repeat the feat despite leading powerhouse teams into the playoffs, and both spent the remainder of their careers trying in vain to replicate that early success.
Six postseason appearances, one championship
A fine player in his day, Johnson spent parts of 13 seasons in the majors (1965–75, '77–78) with the Orioles, Braves, Phillies and Cubs, making four All-Star teams and winning three Gold Gloves. He was a key part of four pennant winners in Baltimore, including the 1970 world champions, and after being traded to Atlanta, he set a single-season record for home runs by a second baseman (42, plus one as a pinch-hitter).
It was in Baltimore that the seeds of Johnson's career as a manager took root. A graduate of Trinity University with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, Johnson devoured Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball, a proto-sabermetric tome, and persuaded Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger to let him use the IBM mainframe of the National Brewery (of which Hoffberger was chairman), which he programmed to test his theories about baseball. Johnson came to appreciate the importance of on-base percentage, though his printed-out presentation of his "Optimization of the Baltimore Orioles Lineup"—via which he argued that he should bat higher in the order—found its way into Earl Weaver's trash can. The second baseman nonetheless absorbed plenty from the statistically-inclined Hall of Fame skipper, including his disdain for bunting in favor of swinging for the fences.
After his final season in the majors, Johnson spent half a season as player-manager in the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1979, then was hired to manage the Mets' Double A Jackson affiliate in '81. When he moved up to Triple A Tidewater in 1983, he introduced the use of a computer to minor league baseball and took the computer with him to the Mets the following year. He was decades ahead of his time in using statistical databases to figure out probabilities and optimize his lineup, and thanks to his experience as a player, he avoided much of the stigma that would later surface against the so-called Moneyball backlash, though his players didn't necessarily love knowing that their boss was using a computer.
Fortunately, the Mets had talent, and Johnson got a lot out of them, at least until their hard-partying ways caught up. From 1984 to '89, they never finished lower than second place in the NL East, winning at least 90 games in all but the last of those years. Johnson guided them to a .588 winning percentage overall until being let go roughly one-quarter of the way through the 1990 season. New York's 1986 squad—featuring Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter et al.—won 108 games (tied for the NL's highest total since 1910) and beat the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game World Series. But the '88 team, which also won the NL East, was upset by the Dodgers in the NLCS.
After being fired by the Mets, Johnson made four more stops in his career: the Reds (1993–95), Orioles ('96–97), Dodgers ('99–2000) and Nationals ('11–13). In only one full season did his teams finish below .500 or lower than second place: The '99 Dodgers went 76–86 and finished third. Still, Johnson had trouble staying in one place. Though he led the 1995 Reds to the NL Central flag, he didn't get along with owner Marge Schott, who fired him in part because she disapproved of his living with his fiancée before marriage. Johnson took the Orioles to back-to-back postseason appearances but clashed with owner Peter Angelos to the point that he resigned on the same day that he was recognized as the 1997 AL Manager of the Year. The Orioles, who won 98 games that year, wouldn't return to the postseason until 2012.
After his stint in Los Angeles, Johnson stayed away from the majors until 2006, when he joined the Nationals as a consultant under general manager Jim Bowden. Johnson became a senior consultant to GM Mike Rizzo in 2009, then made a surprising return to the dugout in mid-'11 at the age of 68 after the unexpected resignation of manager Jim Riggleman. He piloted the team—featuring 19-year-old NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper and phenom Stephen Strasburg, who was controversially shut down in mid-September—to 98 wins and its first postseason appearance since relocating from Montreal. Though he would again win Manager of the Year honors, the Nationals squandered a two-run lead in the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals. Washington won 86 games in 2013 but missed the postseason, and the 70-year-old Johnson was kicked back upstairs into an advisory role.
Hall-wise, Johnson's career is short relative to those enshrined purely as managers; among those from the 20th and 21st century, only Whitey Herzog and Billy Southworth managed fewer games, and both won at least three pennants, where Johnson only won one. His 1,372 wins rank 31st all time, but his .562 winning percentage is 13th among those who managed at least 1,000 games (eighth if you limit the field to those who did so after the 19th century). Including all comers, he's 15th in games above .500, the only man among the top 19 outside of Cooperstown. The big knock, however, is the postseason, and in particular the way that both his '88 Mets failed to beat a team against whom they'd gone 10–1 during the regular season and the way that the 2012 Division Series slipped away from the Nationals. He would be the only post-19th century manager recognized despite having won just one pennant.
Seven postseason appearances, one championship
"Sweet Lou" Piniella spent 18 years as an outfielder in the majors (1964, '68–84), passing through the hands of the Indians (twice), Senators, Orioles and Pilots before winning AL Rookie of the Year honors with the Royals in 1969. A high-average hitter who didn't have a ton of power, he was particularly potent as a lefty-masher on four pennant-winning Yankees teams, including the 1977 and '78 world champions. He also was notoriously hot-tempered, a trait that followed him into his managerial career.
Piniella became the Yankees' hitting coach in 1985, the year after his playing career ended; the following season, he took over as manager during the era when owner George Steinbrenner was at his most tempestuous. Billy Martin (in his third of five stints as Yankees manager) had gone 91–64 in relief of Yogi Berra as the Yankees finished second, but he was axed after a brawl with pitcher Ed Whitson in late September. Piniella's Yankees won 90 games and finished second in 1986, then slipped to fourth despite winning 89 games the following year. After GM Woody Woodward resigned following the 1987 season, Piniella spent half a year as GM, then returned to the dugout in May when Martin was canned again; Piniella himself was axed after that team finished with 85 wins. He had two years remaining on his contract, the first of which he spent in the Yankees' TV booth.
Piniella returned to the dugout via the Reds, taking over as manager in November 1989 after Pete Rose received his lifetime ban for gambling, and his first year was his most successful. Driven by stars Barry Larkin and Eric Davis as well as the "Nasty Boys" bullpen, the Piniella-led Reds went 91–71 and won the NL West and the World Series, the last by sweeping the heavily favored A's. Piniella resigned at the end of a 90-win 1992 season, just weeks after brawling with reliever Rob Dibble, though the bigger reason was Schott's lack of support when umpire Gary Darling sued him for defamation after Piniella claimed, following the reversal of a home run call, that Darling was biased.
Piniella reunited with Woodward in Seattle, where the Mariners had finished with a winning record just once in 17 years. With young Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and later Alex Rodriguez, he oversaw the most successful stretch in franchise history. The Mariners finished above .500 in seven of his 10 seasons (1993–2002), making the playoffs four times; they have yet to return since he left. His 1995 team overcame a 12 1/2-game deficit to tie the Angels atop the AL West, won a one-game play-in and then beat the Yankees in a thrilling Division Series; the excitement of the playoff run helped spur the construction of Safeco Field. Piniella took the team back to the playoffs in '97, 2000 and '01, tying the major league record with 116 wins in the last of those seasons. Yet his teams never got past the ALCS, falling at the hands of the Yankees in 2000 and ’01. Often, they were limited by horrible bullpens, and Piniella tended to make matters worse; the 1997–99 units all finished with ERAs of 5.44 or above, squandering the last years of the Johnson/Griffey/Rodriguez nucleus. Piniella’s dust-kicking, hat-stomping, base-throwing tirades became the stuff of legend.
After winning 93 games in 2002, Piniella, who still had one more year under contract, wanted to go home to Tampa to help care for his ailing mother. The Mariners agreed to let him depart, trading him to the Devil Rays for two players. Though he guided the expansion team to its first 70-win season in 2004, the Devil Rays made no further progress, and he became frustrated by the team's minimal payrolls. He agreed to a buyout with one year remaining on his deal and became manager of the Cubs after the 2006 season. Though he guided Chicago to back-to-back division titles in 2007–08—winning Manager of the Year honors in the latter year as he led the team to the league's best record—the team was swept in the Division Series each season. He retired midway through the 2010 season, again with the health of his ailing mother in mind.
Because he piloted for 21 seasons plus two partial ones, Piniella ranks high in managerial counting stats. Among those outside the Hall, he trails only Gene Mauch in games managed (he’s 13th with 3,548) and wins (he’s 14th with 1,835), though Cooperstown-bound Bruce Bochy will surpass him in both categories next season. Piniella is 13th in losses (1,713) as well, with Bochy and Jim Leyland the only unenshrined mangers ahead of him. Due in part to his time in Tampa, he's just 122 games above .500, 41st all-time. Even if you wave off his time there (200–295), he'd rank just 25th.
Between that and the postseason disappointments—most notably the failure to win at least one more pennant—I don't see a strong case. As I wrote in 2010: "Put his notorious temper tantrums on a highlight reel, and I'd buy the DVD to watch on cold winter nights. Ultimately, his case as a Hall of Fame manager rests more on longevity than it does sustained success. 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."