Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #95 Lou Piniella

Al Bello

One of the fan favorites on the championship Yankees teams of the ‘70s, “Sweet Lou” impressed and made the trade to get him look like a steal.

Name: Lou Piniella
Position: Outfielder (LF/RF)
Born: August 28, 1943 (Tampa, FL)
Yankee Years: 1974-84
Primary number: 14
Yankee statistics: 1,037 G, .295/.338/.413, 178 2B, 20 3B, 57 HR, 110 wRC+, 9.3 rWAR, 8.6 fWAR

Biography

Minor league journeyman

One of the heroes of the great Yankees playoff and championship teams of 1976-81, Lou Piniella's career did not begin in any way that could be remotely construed as a success. After playing some college ball near home at the University of Tampa in the days just before the implementation of the MLB Draft, Piniella was signed by the Cleveland Indians in June of 1962. He was a couple months shy of 19 when he signed, and it took him six long years with five different teams before becoming a major-league regular.

Piniella was not in Cleveland's organization for long; after one year at .270/.292/.428 in 70 games with the Class D Selma Cloverleafs, he was selected by the Washington Senators in a November draft similar to the Rule V draft. He was promoted to Class A and hit .310 with a .465 slugging percentage in 143 games for the Peninsula Senators of Hampton, Virginia, but again he was sent away after just one season. Traded to the Orioles as a player to be named later for righty starter Buster Narum, Piniella actually made his MLB debut in early September of that year since the Orioles needed an outfielder for a few games. As a pinch-hitter, he grounded out to second base in his first at-bat on September 4, 1964 against the Angels. It would be four years until his next MLB plate appearance.

The 21-year-old split time between the Florida Instructional League and the Double-A Elmira Pioneers in '65, then found himself traded yet again during the next spring training. Piniella returned to the Indians in a deal for unspectacular catcher Camilo Carreon, and he reported to Triple-A Portland. He languished there for three years, only receiving one September call-up in '68 despite hitting .303/.336/.434 for Portland from '66-'68. Cleveland management simply seemed uninterested in giving Piniella a chance. When he finally was called up in September '68, he made just six plate appearances with no success. Looking back on those frustrating days, Piniella recalled "I had real good years, but every time I reported for Spring Training with the Indians, they'd send me back to the minors. I was really getting disgruntled."

An opportunity emerged prior to the '69 season, as Major League Baseball added four expansion teams: the San Diego Paders, the Kansas City Royals, the Montreal Expos, and the Seattle Pilots. At age 25, Piniella decided that he would quit baseball if he was not selected by any of the teams in the expansion draft; he was done dealing with the Cleveland organization. Fortunately, Piniella was taken by the Pilots in mid-October of '68, which meant he would get the to stay in the Northwest, where he was well-known and liked for his feats in Portland. Piniella reported to spring training with Seattle manager Joe Schultz, and it appeared as though Piniella's first legitimate chance in the majors would come around where he now called home. Piniella's time with the Pilots and eventually-iconic angry antics on the field led to him ironically being nicknamed "Sweet Lou," as noted by pitcher Jim Bouton in his controversial book, Ball Four.

Piniella the Pilot was not meant to be, though. Near the end of spring training on April 1st, Piniella was sent away for the fifth time in his young career, this time to the Royals in exchange for outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar. Piniella was again irked to be dealt, but Royals GM Cedric Tallis (who later served in that position with the Yankees) assured him that if he showed he could play, he'd start for the Royals. Former Yankees great and Royals manager Joe Gordon agreed, noting "We think Piniella can help us a lot, and certainly we needed more right-handed punch." The Hall of Famer's confidence would be rewarded.

Rookie of the Year and a new challenge

The first game in Royals history was a scintillating 4-3 victory in 12 innings, and Piniella set the tone for the season with a four-hit game against the Minnesota Twins, who went on to capture the AL West that year. Like the vast majority of expansion teams, the Royals struggled in their first year and lost 93 games, though they finished five games ahead of the soon-to-be bankrupt Pilots team that sent Piniella away. Piniella was a few years older and less heralded than his rookie competitors, but that did not stop him from hitting .282/.325/.416 with 21 doubles, 11 homers, and a 105 wRC+. BBWAA writers were impressed, and at the end of the season, Piniella was named the American League Rookie of the Year, beating out three other competitors by a few votes.

Now established as a big-leaguer, Piniella was a Royal for the next four seasons, which turned out to be bizarre given the clash of team success and Piniella's personal success. When Piniella excelled in '70 and '72 with a 109 and 136 wRC+, respectively, the Royals were under .500. When Piniella struggled in '71 and '73 with disappointing negative-WAR seasons, the Royals had their first two winning seasons. The contrast was most apparent in the '72 and '73 campaigns. The former was likely Piniella's finest year, as he played in a personal-best 151 games and hit .312/.356/.441 with an AL-best 33 doubles. He finished second to Twins Hall of Famer Rod Carew's .318 for the batting title, was worth 3.7 fWAR, and was named an All-Star for the only time in his career. The Royals were a mediocre 76-78, but the next year was their best yet, as rookie manager Jack McKeon had them in first place in mid-August over the defending World Series champion Oakland Athletics thanks to a 70-51 start. The team wilted down the stretch and went 18-23 to finish six games behind the A's, but it was an impressive season of contention for a recent expansion team. Yet Piniella had one of the worst years of his career, ending with a .250/.291/.361, 76 wRC+ dud with an ugly -2.4 fWAR.

Seeking an opportunity to buy low, Yankees GM Gabe Paul offered veteran righty reliever Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella and righty pitcher Ken Wright (who was a non-factor). Although underrated at the time, it turned it to be one of Paul's brilliant moves to rebuild the mediocre Yankee teams of the early '70s to champions in just a few years. Like the relatively quiet trades to acquire Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, and Willie Randolph, the Piniella deal brought a terrific pay-off at merely the cost of a reliever. Additionally, Piniella's decade as a vagabond was over; he stayed in a #14 Yankee uniform for the next 15 years.

A championship player

Piniella continued his pattern of up-and-down years during his first two seasons with the Yankees under manager Bill Virdon. He struck up a close friendship with catcher and eventual captain Thurman Munson, and he rebounded from his awful '73 to hit .305/.341/.407 with 26 doubles and a 114 wRC+ in '74, a three-win season by WAR. The Yankees contended for the AL East and even held first place for most of September, but the Orioles passed them and took the division by two games over the 89-win Yankees. The next year was a disaster for Piniella, who hit .196/.262/.226 with a 38 wRC+ and -1.7 fWAR in an injury-plagued season. Virdon was fired around the end of July and replaced by the fiery Billy Martin, who Piniella would later describe as a managerial mentor.

For the next three seasons, Piniella finally ditched his annual inconsistencies and hit .309/.351/.450 with a 127 OPS+ over 333 games. He frequently found himself in the middle of the action for the Yankees, who finally returned to the playoffs after a 12-year drought with three consecutive division titles and AL pennants, whether it was through terrific home run robberies in the World Series (at 0:42) or bench-clearing brawls with Carlton Fisk and the Red Sox (at 0:15). In one of his most memorable Yankees moments, he was stuck in sunny right field at Fenway Park during the one-game playoff for the AL East crown in '78. The Red Sox had the tying run on first base in Rick Burleson with one out in the ninth trailing 5-4 with Hall of Fame Yankees closer Goose Gossage on the mound. Jerry Remy hit a flare to right in front of Piniella, who was blinded by the sun and had no idea where the ball was (at 2:00). He stuck out his glove and luckily had the ball bounce into his glove. Burleson did not move to third though, as he appeared confused and Piniella's throw to third was right on target, so he stayed at second. A fly ball by Jim Rice to right field in the next at-bat might have scored Burleson with the tying run if he had been on third, but the lead was preserved and the Yankees won.

Piniella hit .286/.290/.333 over 29 playoff games from '76-'78 He was no home run hitter, but he had an uncanny knowledge of the batter's box. Teammate Ron Guidry explained it well when discussing a walk-off single Piniella hit in Game 4 of the '78 World Series: "Lou was one of those hitters that you just love listening speak about hitting. I remember in about the second or the third inning, Lou told Munson 'If I have to face [Bob Welch] out of the bullpen, he always throws me high fastballs away. If we need something, he's in, and you're on base, the first ball that I see is going to right field.'" True to his word, Piniella got that high fastball from Welch and singled Munson in to win the game and knot the series at two games apiece. "Sweet Lou" was certainly a vital part of those two-time championship Yankee teams.

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Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images

One career ends and another is born

Piniella had a tough season in '79 as his play declined somewhat and he lost his close friend Munson to an airplane crash on August 2nd. He was one of the eulogists at Munson's funeral and gave an emotional speech: "We don't know why God took Thurman away from us. Nobody really knows that, but we all know that as long as all wear Yankee uniforms that Thurman will never be too far from us. He'll be right with us."

The righty outfielder stayed surprisingly productive as a part-time player from 1981-84 as his career wound down in his late thirties. Piniella hit .295/.346/.428 with 39 doubles, 14 homers, and a 117 OPS+ in 710 plate appearances over those four seasons. He retired in mid-June of '84 due to a chronic shoulder problem at age 40, and immediately became manager Yogi Berra's hitting and first base coach. He stayed on as hitting coach through the next year and a half (and a managerial change in early '85 to Billy Martin) before owner George Steinbrenner decided to take a chance. Martin was fired after the '85 season despite a 97-win year because of a fight with pitcher Ed Whitson, so Steinbrenner needed a new manager. He tabbed Piniella even though he had no previous managerial experience.

It turned out to be a fine move, as Piniella guided the '86 Yankees to a 90-win season and second-place finish, 5 1/2 games behind the eventual AL champion Red Sox. They won 89 games in '87 but finished fourth behind the Tigers that year, and Steinbrenner decided to bump Piniella up to the GM position and bring back Martin to manage. Piniella had a short stint at GM, as Steinbrenner fired Martin yet again midway through the '88 season for what would be his final time. Piniella replaced Martin in the dugout but only had a 45-48 record the rest of the way. As he was wont to do those days, Steinbrenner could not accept the fact that it was perhaps Piniella's dismal pitching staff's fault for the mediocre finish, and he was fired in favor of Dallas Green.

Despite rumors of offers from the Mariners and Blue Jays to manage, Steinbrenner would not release Piniella from his personal services contract in the '89 season, so Piniella split time between the broadcast booth and as an occasional hitting instructor. Steinbrenner offered him the managerial reins yet again after firing Green in mid-August, but Piniella had quite enough of managing under "the Boss," so he declined. After the season, Piniella again received managerial offers, and this time, Steinbrenner finally let him go. Piniella was hired by the Cincinnati Reds to manage them a few months after then-manager Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling. He rallied the talented group though, and they went from 75-87 and franchise disarray in '89 to 91-71, a wire-to-wire NL West championship and they won the World Series in a stunning sweep over the star-studded A's, making Piniella a World Series champion manager.

Piniella managed 19 more years in the majors, most notably with Ken Griffey Jr .'s Mariners from 1993-2002 in the same city that dealt him away many years ago as a Pilot. "Sweet Lou" took a team that had never experienced much success and brought them their only four playoff appearances in franchise history, winning three AL West titles and an AL-record 116 games in 2001. He could never quite get them to the World Series though, as they lost in the ALCS three times, to the '95 Indians and the 2000-01 Yankees. An infamous three-year stint back home in Tampa with the Devil Rays "highlighted" by a 70-win, non-last place finish in '04 was followed by three successful years with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs won back-to-back NL Central titles in '07 and '08, the first time they had made the playoffs in consecutive years in a century, but the hapless Cubs were swept out of the Division Series each time. Piniella called it a career in late August of the 2010 season, ending at 1,835 victories, 14th-most in MLB history.

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Credit: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images

Although statistics don't like him very much and he can be both dull and awkward in the YES broadcast booth, there's no denying that Piniella was a big part of some of the greatest teams the Yankees have ever seen. Just get him out of booth and let us enjoy his otherwise-superlative Yankees career.

Andrew's rank: N/A

Tanya's rank: N/A

Community's rank: 64.67

Avg. WAR rank: N/A

Season Stats

Year

Age

Tm

G

PA

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SB

CS

BB

SO

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

OPS+

TB

rWAR

fWAR

1974

30

NYY

140

567

518

71

158

26

0

9

70

1

8

32

58

0.305

0.341

0.407

0.748

116

211

3.4

3.0

1975

31

NYY

74

221

199

7

39

4

1

0

22

0

0

16

22

0.196

0.262

0.226

0.489

40

45

-1.7

-1.7

1976

32

NYY

100

351

327

36

92

16

6

3

38

0

1

18

34

0.281

0.322

0.394

0.716

111

129

1.1

0.9

1977

33

NYY

103

369

339

47

112

19

3

12

45

2

2

20

31

0.33

0.365

0.510

0.876

138

173

1.4

1.7

1978

34

NYY

130

513

472

67

148

34

5

6

69

3

1

34

36

0.314

0.361

0.445

0.806

129

210

3.7

3.0

1979

35

NYY

130

491

461

49

137

22

2

11

69

3

2

17

31

0.297

0.320

0.425

0.745

101

196

0.0

0.1

1980

36

NYY

116

355

321

39

92

18

0

2

27

0

2

29

20

0.287

0.343

0.361

0.704

96

116

-0.2

-0.3

1981

37

NYY

60

174

159

16

44

9

0

5

18

0

1

13

9

0.277

0.331

0.428

0.759

120

68

0.7

0.9

1982

38

NYY

102

283

261

33

80

17

1

6

37

0

1

18

18

0.307

0.352

0.448

0.801

121

117

1.0

0.8

1983

39

NYY

53

160

148

19

43

9

1

2

16

1

1

11

12

0.291

0.344

0.405

0.749

110

60

-0.1

0.1

1984

40

NYY

29

93

86

8

26

4

1

1

6

0

0

7

5

0.302

0.355

0.407

0.762

115

35

-0.1

0.1

NYY (10 yrs)

1037

3577

3291

392

971

178

20

57

417

10

19

215

276

0.295

0.338

0.413

0.751

111

1360

9.3

8.6

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

B-Ref Bullpen

Chass, Murray. "Piniella Rejected Steinbrenner Offer," New York Times, 21 Aug. 1989. (link)

MLB Networks' "Prime 9" Piniella Moments

"Piniella Retiring Due to Torn Rotator Cuff," Daily Times, 14 Jun. 1984. (link)

Sharp, Eric. "Anita Piniella says Lou Deserved Award," The Evening News, 26 Nov. 1969. (link)

"Royals Make Trade to Get Bat Power," The Nevada Daily Mail, 2 Apr. 1969. (link)

"White Sox, Yankees Oust Managers," The Los Angeles Times, 8 Oct. 1988. (link)

Other Top 100 Yankees

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