Managing it all
Entering his 46th year in pro baseball, Piniella knows his place in dugout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Lou Piniella stood down the third-base line on still another perfect Arizona morning this week, a bat in his hand and no more than the usual worries for a Cubs manager.
Ted Lilly's shoulder, his No. 5 spot in the starting rotation, rounding out his bullpen, getting run out of town. But whether Piniella is managing his last season in a Cubs uniform or not, there is no sign of a stutter in what he is doing here.
Tactically, he speaks of his coaching philosophies as you would not necessarily expect from a man entering his 46th year in professional baseball.
"I let the guys play, and I let the coaches coach," Piniella said.
To those who think the 66-year-old passed his prime in the early 2000's, such a statement may provide perfect fodder that he has vacated the premises. But then, that would be foolish. And it would be wrong.
"Tactically, I like to take chances," said Piniella, his eyes dancing as he gently swings the bat. "I like an aggressive style of game. If we're hitting the ball well, I don't believe in us running ourselves out of innings. I want to give these guys a full opportunity to make three outs with the bat. If we're not scoring runs, and we're struggling somewhat, then we can do a little bit of squeezing, a little more hit and running, those sort of things, optional steals. I let these guys play. I recognize fully as a manager, the players win and lose baseball games on the field."
Piniella has been and remains one of the most devoted managers in the game in terms of utilizing the abundant statistical data that now shapes most decisions in a major league contest.
"If I had to go gut or numbers, I like numbers," he said. "I like percentages. I believe fully that this is a percentage game, and the more I keep percentages on our side, the better chance we have to win as a team. And I know that at times you have to go against the grain a little bit to keep everybody honest. But it's a percentage game, and that's why they keep percentages. I would say I use numbers 80 to 85 percent of the time."
That said, Piniella has been known to spread out a handful of different lineups and ask everyone from his coaches to the team broadcasters for their opinions. But during a game, there is little time for debate.
"He wants a quick response," said Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell, who pares down the abundant statistical date to the pertinent information Piniella wants. "He doesn't want to say, 'What do you think?' and for you to go, 'Well, uhh.' He wants you to be quick. Yes or no. He doesn't want you to be indecisive."
Piniella estimated that he has relied almost exclusively on matchups and statistical tendencies for about the past 12 years.
"Numbers don't lie," said Piniella, once described by a friend as "math professor brilliant" for his analytical abilities. "I use [numbers] to rest people, I use them for spot starts, I use them to bring a relief pitcher into the game. If I see that we're playing a team that two of my relievers pitched well against, I'll rest them for that series and try to get away with keeping them nice and fresh. So there are a lot of ways to use these numbers, it's not only to put out lineups. If a particular pitcher struggles against a team and I can juggle to give him a start against another team, we do that. So we do everything that we can to keep the numbers on our side."
Piniella said he remembers sitting next to Billy Martin when he was being groomed as the future Yankees manager, and absorbing as much knowledge as he could. Cubs pitchers Lilly and Ryan Dempster have said they love sitting next to Piniella in the Cubs dugout to hear him think aloud.
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"Remember, I have the advantage of sitting here and seeing how every hitter attacks or adjusts or takes every pitch," Piniella said. "I was a hitter up here for 17 and a half years, so I have a pretty good idea of how hitters think and don't think. Some of them don't think, they just swing.
"And then we have some definite ideas of how to pitch different hitters if they're hitting in the .250 range, if they're hitting in the .280 range, if they're hitting .315 or .320. There's a reason why some guys are hitting .315 and others are hitting .280. Whatever it is, you can't pitch them the same."
Dempster once explained how talking to Piniella revealed simple ways of approaching pitching that had not occurred to him before.
"Like facing a guy who's hitting .330," Dempster said. "Well, that's a guy you probably have to pitch inside a little bit more because he's handling the ball away so well. If you think about it, the hardest pitch in baseball to hit is the fastball down and away. If you're hitting .250, you're probably not handling that pitch because guys are throwing it there and you're not getting your hits.
"But a guy who's hitting .330, he's hitting that pitch, he's covering that pitch away, so you might need to pound him more inside. Whereas a guy who's hitting .250, why come inside when that's probably the only pitch he can hit? When Lou said that, I was like, 'Yeah, you know you're right.' You can't just sit there and throw the pitch down and away or inside all the time, but just the general philosophy of it really made a lot of sense to me."
Asked who among his players were the best "thinking hitters," Piniella responded, "I would think our third baseman [Aramis Ramirez] is probably the most in that category, and that's why he's had a lot of success."
"We got [hitting coach] Rudy [Jaramillo] in to help, and hopefully he will," Piniella said. "He's had success everywhere else and it's not only the hitting mechanics, it's getting inside the hitter's head and having him think more fully. So we'll see. Look, the smarter you are up there, the more productive you're going to be. No question."
Numbers don't lie. I use [numbers] to rest people, I use them for spot starts, I use them to bring a relief pitcher into the game. If I see that we're playing a team that two of my relievers pitched well against, I'll rest them for that series and try to get away with keeping them nice and fresh. So there are a lot of ways to use these numbers, it's not only to put out lineups.” -- Cubs manager Lou Piniella
Piniella has always been particularly hard on his catchers, but Geovany Soto says he kind of likes being abused by the big guy.
"He puts a lot on the catcher, and he'll get rough on you, but I see that in a positive way because it means you're his guy, you're the guy he trusts," Soto said. "So for me, I have a big responsibility, and I accept it. I like being that guy, and to be honest, it's kind of hard but it keeps it edgy."
Cubs assistant coach Matt Sinatro has been with Piniella for 18 years, said while Piniella is much more patient than he has been in the past, he has also "never seen anyone take a loss harder." And though he doesn't knock over postgame spreads in anger the way he once did with some regularity, Piniella's anger has a purpose.
"He doesn't do it for show," Sinatro said. "When that happens, he's ticked off. But one thing about him, he has a fine knack for having a meeting to turn things around, he really does. We don't have many meetings at all but when we have one, there's a reason for it."
Entering his fourth season with the Cubs and the last year of his contract, Piniella must defend himself against the Cubs' playoff lapses despite a track record that includes three straight winning seasons for the first time here since Leo Durocher was manager.
The Cubs had a 31-and-a-half-game turnaround in Piniella's first two seasons from the 96 games lost the year before he arrived, and made it to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. But two straight first-round sweeps began the anti-Lou sentiments.
He said recently that it is too early to discuss a contract extension, but if he does leave, it won't be because the job has beaten him down. The unique requirements of being the Cubs manager are finally clear to Piniella and, apparently not at all disagreeable.
"I have a good understanding of what it entails and what the barometers are and what the expectations are and how the media handles a situation," he said. "It takes a little bit. This is a major market. The Cubs are a very newsworthy team. There has been a draught here in terms of winning a championship and that always has a way of getting into the equation.
"But I understand the whole thing. And what we want to do here is win as many games as we can and get in the postseason and gives ourselves a chance there. But yeah, I understand the total Cubs aura, mystique, and I'm very comfortable with it."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.