Lou Piniella, 2010
"A good ball club" - Yogi Berra, when asked about what makes a good manager.
Recent history has shown what a good baseball team can do to the perception of a manager.
Dusty Baker suddenly has his "magic" back now that the Reds have stocked up with great young talent, and veterans that still have the skills like Scott Rolen.
Joe Torre is suddenly just another guy now that the Dodgers consist of a mediocre roster.
Joe Girardi went from a failure in 2008 to a great manager again in 2009.
Terry Francona went from a failed Phillies manager to a great Red Sox manager.
Even the legendary Casey Stengel, winner of 7 World Series with the Yankees, was 756-1146 (yes, a sub 40% win percentage) without those legendary teams.
Going back to 2010, fans have laid witness to the ultimate destruction of Lou Piniella's mystique.
Piniella's reputation was ultimately built on two seasons, his 1990 World Series winning Reds season, and the 2001 Mariners in their excellent 116 win season. Ultimately, though, it is the players who made those seasons happen, not the manager. If team success is the definition of the manager, then what happened in his time with the Yankees, Rays, and Cubs?
Let's look closer at the last two teams on that list, the two that ultimately defined Piniella's abilities once he was stripped of rosters brimming with All Stars.
The Rays obviously saw no success under Piniella, and it was in fact the only stop he ever made where he ended up without a winning record. While those Tampa Bay teams were horrible and blaming Piniella would be totally unfair, it does clearly show my initial point: Managers are not miracle workers, which is something that seems to prevail in some groups about Lou.
The self-destruction has really occurred, however, during his time with the Cubs. After success was found in his first two seasons (mostly due to the fact that he is not Dusty Baker), things began to go downhill in a hurry in 2009.
His most apparent failure in 2009 was in the case of Alfonso Soriano. Soriano, a massive investment for the Cubs, was struggling and was most likely injured. Rather than managing his players and identifying the injury, he continued to play Soriano until early September, when he reported that he was to undergo knee surgery. All the while, Sam Fuld and his .409 OBP could have helped the Cubs bridge some of that gap to the Cardinals in 2009, instead of Soriano and his -0.9 WAR (according to baseball-reference.com). He also elected to use Kevin Gregg instead of Carlos Marmol in the closer/relief ace role for most of the season. While Marmol had obvious control problems, his ability to get strikeouts and not give up home runs made him a better option for the role anyway. Gregg, meanwhile, ended up blowing almost a quarter of his save chances.
2010, however, has seen Piniella absolutely implode as manager.
This season, Geovany Soto, with a 138 OPS+, has proven to be Chicago's only elite offensive option at any position (though Starlin Castro has been a good hitting SS in his rookie season). One would think a team's best player would be assured to see the field as often as possible.
However, Soto has only played in 88 of the Cubs 124 games to date. While Soto has missed most of August on the disabled list, Piniella was giving away valuable plate appearances from Soto to Koyie Hill before the fact. Hill rewarded Piniella's faith with a 31 OPS+ (.504 OPS).
More bizarrely, and the issue I criticized the most, was moving Tom Gorzelanny to the pen in favor of, more than likely, Carlos Silva and Carlos Zambrano. Gorzelanny had, at the time, been more than likely the best pitcher in the Cubs' rotation, with a 3.66 ERA, 2.65 K/BB ratio, and 1.355 WHIP. Thanks to horrendous run support, however, he was 2-5 overall, and the Cubs were 2-7 in his starts. Silva, on the other hand, had been the recipient of amazing run support, and had a perfect 7-0 record. While he was doing a fantastic job of avoiding walks, one could not help but notice his .269 BABIP through May, and remember his struggles in Seattle, and not assume regression. Needless to say, Silva's ERA from May-on has been almost 5.00. Zambrano, in turn, did nothing in 2010 to justify more innings than Gorzelanny, outside of possessing a huge contract. In the number one job of a manager, putting the right guys on the field to help your team win as much as possibly, Piniella completely failed in 2010.
Am I going for the role of devil's advocate and saying Piniella is a terrible manager? No, it would be completely unfair to discredit the man over a few bad seasons at the tail end of his career. However, I do not believe by any stretch of the imagination that Piniella is a strong manager.
Ultimately evaluating a manager is difficult. Some decide to simply look at the success of his teams and leave it at that. But how much impact does a manager have over the quality of players at his disposal? Simply put, not a ton.
Evaluating by team record also undersells those managers who were not fortunate enough to inherit terrific rosters. Gil Hodges, the manager of the Miracle Mets of 1969, whom I consider an excellent past manager, had a losing career record, for example.
So what is my ultimate view of Piniella? The same with almost all managers: just another former ballplayer who ended up as a manager. He was not worse than normal, nor was he better. He just was.