ALCS Managerial Report Card: Dusty Baker

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m going to be grading each eliminated postseason manager on their decision-making. We spend the year mostly ignoring managers’ on-field contributions, because to be honest, they’re pretty small. Using the wrong reliever in the eighth inning just doesn’t feel that bad on June 22; there are so many more games still coming, and the regular season is more about managing the grind than getting every possible edge every day. The playoffs aren’t like that; with so few games to separate wheat from chaff, every last ounce of win probability matters, and managers make personnel decisions accordingly. What better time to grade them?

My goal is to evaluate each manager in terms of process, not results. If you bring in your best pitcher to face their best hitter in a huge spot, that’s a good decision regardless of outcome. Try a triple steal with the bases loaded only to have the other team make four throwing errors to score three runs? I’m probably going to call that a blunder even though it worked out. Managers do plenty of other things — getting team buy-in for new strategies and unconventional bullpen usage behind closed doors is a skill I find particularly valuable — but as I have no insight into how that’s accomplished or how each manager differs, I can’t exactly assign grades for it.

I’m also purposefully avoiding vague qualitative concerns like “trusting your veterans because they’ve been there before.” Playoff coverage lovingly focuses on clutch plays by proven performers, but Adolis García and Alek Thomas have been great, too. Forget trusting your veterans; the playoffs are about trusting your best players. Corey Seager is important because he’s great, not because of the number of playoff series he’s appeared in. There’s nothing inherently good about having been around a long time; when I’m evaluating decisions, “but he’s a veteran” just doesn’t enter my thought process.

One note: In the pitching section, I’m taking a more specific look at reliever matchups. This 2022 Cameron Grove study, which I’ve mentioned in a few prior report cards, measures a repeat-matchup reliever penalty. A forthcoming article, which I’ve reviewed, examines the issue without focusing on specific matchups, but rather looking at relievers pitching on back-to-back days or on short rest after heavy workloads. Both of these things are, unsurprisingly, bad for reliever performance. Managing the balance between starter and reliever over-work is really hard. I probably haven’t given enough credit to the necessity of balancing bullpen workloads against particular opposing batters in the past, but I’ll make a note of it going forward.

I’ve already covered the losing managers of the Wild Card round and the various division series eliminations. Today, it’s Dusty Baker’s turn.

Dusty Baker, Houston Astros
Batting: F
This section is usually a blow-by-blow of pinch-hitting selections. We’ll get to that, at least the few times that Houston used a pinch-hitter, but I’m going to tell you my complaints right at the start: Martín Maldonado played over Yainer Diaz a disturbing amount of the time, and Chas McCormick got shelved at the first sign of danger. I’ve spun those two decisions around in my head a lot while writing this, and I can’t get behind either of them.

Maldonado is an awful hitter. He’d tell you he’s an awful hitter. He bats ninth; clearly, the Astros understand he’s their worst hitter. Diaz made it all the way to a 50/50 playing time split by the end of the year, and the job should be his next season. In the playoffs, though, it was Maldonado who got almost all of the playing time. To some extent, that’s just Baker’s preference. But Maldonado was awful this year, even on defense. Yet he continued to play, and particularly to hit while the Astros trailed. With the team down five, he batted with a runner on base against the Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS. He led off three different innings of a tight 3-2 victory in Game 4. You can’t hide bad hitters; they just keep batting and batting, one out of every nine trips to the plate.

That usage continued into the ALCS. Facing a one-run deficit, Maldonado batted with the bases loaded in Game 1. He struck out and the Astros never threatened again. By the time Baker realized he needed offense and subbed in Diaz, it was too late. Baker was better in Game 2, though Diaz didn’t reward his trust (he too struck out with the bases loaded). That seemed to calcify Baker’s decision making; he ran Maldonado out the rest of the time and seemed reluctant to pinch-hit for him. Maldonado hit .143/.294/.143 the rest of the way, but drew every single start, and batted in key spots in Game 7. I wasn’t even mad when Baker called for sacrifice bunts from him – he’s just a bad enough hitter that the math works a lot of the time. There’s not much point in having a dynamic rookie like Diaz (127 wRC+ this year) if you’re going to staple him to the bench.

McCormick’s exile confuses me even more. He was a key cog in the offense all year, while Mauricio Dubón was a nice utility piece. But by Game 3 of the ALDS, Dubón was drawing the start in center. Both of them are plus defenders, so I can understand lineups like ALCS Game 1, when they occupied left and center against a lefty starter. But McCormick on the bench in favor of Dubón against a righty? That was pretty much standard by Game 3 of the ALCS. Baker went even further, moving Dubón to the top of the lineup against lefties by Game 5. He also pinch-hit for McCormick but not Dubón. In Game 6, McCormick didn’t play at all, while Dubón batted four times, all against righties.

Playing the hot hand, you say? Just one problem – Dubon wasn’t that good in the postseason, hitting .320/.308/.320, the emptiest empty-average line imaginable. McCormick went .286/.355/.393, a meaningfully better showing, and somehow got semi-benched for it. One of a manager’s biggest jobs is to funnel at-bats to their best hitters, and Baker failed to do so, instead seemingly relying on hitters he trusts, regardless of their production.

As for pinch-hitting decisions, the Astros didn’t have many. They didn’t carry much of a bench, and since they were forced to keep Diaz available to pinch hit for Maldonado, that mostly meant Michael Brantley on days where the opposition started a lefty, and occasionally Jon Singleton. What’s that, you say? Shouldn’t McCormick be listed here, since he bopped this year and was getting benched with regularity? He somehow never pinch-hit this postseason. I’m as surprised as you are. Overall, this was just a mess of a performance, and somehow the Astros ended up not playing two very good hitters from their 2023 roster for huge swaths of the playoffs.

Pitching: D+
The Astros don’t carry any lefty relievers, which actually gave Baker enviable leeway in deciding pitching matchups. Instead of feeling boxed into a choice – my lefty against your lefty – Baker could mix and match as he chose depending on leverage and familiarity. That multiple-looks-at-the-same-reliever penalty I mentioned is easier to mitigate when there are no specialists, no pitchers put on your roster specifically to face a single hitter.

Against the Twins, Baker didn’t have many decisions to make. The offense staked Justin Verlander to a big lead in Game 1, so he pitched a normal workload – six innings and 93 pitches – before departing for Hector Neris. Neris gave up a three-run homer to tighten things up, but that was okay, because Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly came in to hold the line. In Game 2, Baker might have let that laissez-faire attitude go too far. Framber Valdez came out looking rough, surrendering three runs and plenty of hard contact in the first two innings. When the nine and one hitters both reached to start the top of the fifth, it was probably time for him to go, but Baker stuck with him against a big stack of righties. Carlos Correa broke the game open with a two-run single, and Valdez finally hit the showers, but the damage was done.

With a 5-0 lead in Game 3, Baker let Cristian Javier pitch through a bases loaded jam in the fifth. I didn’t love it, but at least the bullpen was ready just in case. He escaped, and the Astros cruised to victory, but given how many relievers the Astros had stacked up, I thought that sticking with Javier was at best a slightly suboptimal decision. Hunter Brown and J.P. France were both ready for lengthy relief appearances, and Javier had walked five batters.

Game 4 showed that Baker might just habitually leave his starters in; José Urquidy was bad in the regular season and bad in the playoffs this year, and yet he got the top of the order for a third time in a two-run game. Edouard Julien mashed a homer, Jorge Polanco hit a fly ball right on the nose for an out, and Baker finally pulled Urquidy. To his credit, Baker then followed up with his three most trusted relievers to close out the series, but mixed and matched well enough that no pitcher faced a single batter three times.

Verlander opened the ALCS with a masterful performance, but it wasn’t enough. He went 6.2 innings and only allowed two runs, but he left with a 2-0 deficit and the Astros never managed to score. Given that, I don’t love using Neris and Abreu to handle the rest of the innings; with your team carrying a nine-man bullpen and not much leverage left in the game, this would be a good spot for lesser relievers, particularly in the first game of a seven-game set. Neris, for example, saw Marcus Semien and Corey Seager four times each this series and Mitch Garver three times. Those were the first three batters he faced in this game. Abreu saw Jonah Heim five times and Evan Carter and Nathaniel Lowe four times each; those are the three batters he faced in this one.

Valdez continued to scuffle in Game 2, giving up five runs by the first batter of the third inning, and this time Baker pulled him before Semien got a third look at him. He went to the low-leverage crew; Rafael Montero, France, and Phil Maton. They didn’t allow a run, while the Astros tacked on a few to tighten things up, which meant Baker again summoned the big dogs: Abreu got the eighth and Pressly the ninth. It was again a low-leverage spot, and indeed the Astros didn’t score enough runs to win, but I get why Baker did it. Going down 2-0 in the series hurts. But since he’d already been using his best relievers in losing situations, he was piling on work and giving batters looks in more plate appearances that didn’t really matter.

In Game 3, the Astros finally jumped out to an early lead, and Baker again let Javier run with it. He didn’t look like his usual dominating self, with only three strikeouts on the day, and Baker went to the old “one baserunner and you’re out” maneuver with a 5-2 lead in the sixth. Carter doubled with two outs, and just like that, it was time for Neris, Abreu, and Pressly. I’m into it – I just wish that wasn’t the third straight game where Neris and Abreu had appeared, and the second straight for Pressly.

In Game 4, surprise! Urquidy didn’t have it, coughing up five hits and three earned runs (two of them via home runs) in two-plus innings. The Astros carried Brown and France (both of whom are better than Urquidy and Javier in my mind, but look, that’s not what we’re litigating here), so this wasn’t a disaster. Ryne Stanek came in as a groundball specialist, Brown worked three scoreless innings, and the Astros scored enough runs to let the low-leverage ‘pen carry the day. This gave the high-leverage arms a much-needed break.

At this point, Baker was facing a tough optimization problem. He had three games left, and Verlander would only be starting one of them. The rest of his starters had been anywhere between inconsistent and bad in the playoffs, but he’d also used his high-leverage relievers quite a lot, which meant he wanted to preserve the bullpen as much as possible. Given that context, I like his decision to have Verlander face the top of the Texas order in the bottom of the sixth inning. He simply had to face a lot of batters to make Houston’s plans work. He gave up a three-run homer to Adolis García – bad luck, but what can you do – and departed when another batter reached. That meant the Neris/Abreu/Pressly group came out again, again with a two-run deficit. Pressly pitched quite a lot in this one thanks to Abreu’s ejection, but I think this made sense: in a 2-2 series, you can’t punt quite so easily as you would in Game 1.

By Game 6, Baker could no longer deploy his go-to strategy of using his best relievers even if the team was trailing by a few runs. Down 3-1, and with Valdez having labored through five innings, he went to Maton. But when the Astros tightened the margin to 3-2, Baker pivoted to Neris and Abreu again. Neither was particularly good; they surrendered four baserunners and an earned run over two innings of work. Down 4-2 heading into the ninth, Baker finally waved the white flag – correctly, in my opinion – and Montero and Stanek promptly gave up a five-spot to make the final score look a lot worse than the game felt.

That left only Game 7, but the pitching staff was truly gutted by this point. If you’re trying to get an idea of Baker’s circle of trust, it was basically just Neris, Abreu, and Pressly. I’d throw in “whoever started today’s game,” but Javier got shelled so quickly (three runs from the first six batters) that he didn’t last the first inning. That meant two-inning stints for Brown and Urquidy, as well as an attempted long stint from France, who gave up four earned runs in less than an inning of work.

I found it strange that Baker buried Brown, a solid young starter who had a bad two month stretch at the end of the season, in favor of Javier and Urquidy. The latter hadn’t pitched much down the stretch, and he’d been pretty bad when he did. Javier had a rough August and September himself. It seems like Baker just picked his veterans, a move I generally disagree with. Those veterans pitched so poorly that I don’t know how much managerial salvaging could be done here, even if Baker had more aggressively pulled them. It’s not like they put up a ton of innings even with his patience; non-Verlander starters combined for a 9.00 ERA and averaged 3.1 innings per start in the ALCS.

When it comes to managing the bullpen to keep his best pitchers a) fresh and b) protected from seeing the same guys over and over again, I don’t think Baker did particularly well. But I think this job was a lot harder than his hitting decisions. The way that playoff baseball works these days, you eventually have to lean on your mid-tier relievers. Maybe that’s in blowouts, maybe it’s in spots where they’re best set up to maximize their talents, but there are just too many outs to get with one or two ace starting pitchers and three top relievers. Baker tried to stick with that old plan, and when it failed, everything fell apart.

This is reportedly Baker’s last year managing the Astros, and if that’s the case, I’m sad to see it end this way. Like most in the sport, I love Dusty Baker, and I don’t know that he’s gotten enough credit for adjusting to the game’s current ideas around pitcher usage. But the rough edges of his managerial style stuck out more this year, and these playoffs were a rough reminder of the past.

In previous playoff runs in Houston, that wasn’t the case. Baker seemed to manage by the modern sabermetric book with just a few modifications, and did a particularly good job with his pitching staff. But with a different and less analytically inclined front office in place, with more tenured-but-fading veterans and more young players to juggle, some of the old tendencies came out again. It’s hardly the only reason the Astros lost – but it’s a good reminder that while plenty of managing happens behind the scenes, it’s still bad to bury good hitters and lean on an inflexible pitching plan.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

53 Comments
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Joe Joemember
4 months ago

To me, it looks like Crane basically neutered the GM and front office’s ability to impact the big league team by letting Dusty run the team the way he wanted to run the team. As an Astros fan, I really hope that Crane and his special assistants figure out that the Astros won in 2022, and generally played great despite Baker, and they return control of the team to the GM position (or hire a good POBO and turn the keys over to him).

David Klein
4 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Crane pretty much wants to be the gm and is Brown is at best second in command the only gm Crane seemingly truly trusted was Luhnow and you know.

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
4 months ago
Reply to  David Klein

Dusty Baker provided the Houston Astros two qualities they desperately needed in the wake of the revelations of their egregious cheating scandal – integrity and respect.

Those are more precious than titles, but he managed the Astros to an untainted World Series victory as well.

Dusty Baker is a poor Game 7 (or Game 5 with the Nationals – playing a worn out and broken Jayson Werth in LF over Howie Kendrick?) manager, but overall has been a credit to MLB and saved Houston from greater disgrace.

I thank him for a job well done and hope to attend his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, God-willing, one day.

kmosermember
4 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

One of the biggest problems is that Jim Crane has made Jeff Bagwell a special advisor to baseball operations. And, if you didn’t know, Bagwell has heavily criticized the use of analytics publicly on multiple occasions, usually during Astros broadcasts where he is a guest commentator. The Astros beat writer, Brian McTaggart, also just confirmed that Bagwell will be the one in charge of finding a new manager this offseason, so things aren’t looking great in Houston.

It seems as if Crane is having commitment issues after the Luhnow debacle, and maybe rightfully so, but he’s going about it the completely wrong way. I think it’s only a matter of time before the Astros become irrelevant again.

Dmjn53
4 months ago
Reply to  kmoser

It’s genuinely shocking that an organization would turn away from analytics, when just a short while ago they had arguably the league’s most progressive front office which led to an unprecedented run of success

ColonelMustard
4 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Agreed and it reminds me of what’s currently happening in Western societies.

Our traditions and cultures weren’t perfect but they helped the West achieve top dog status. We have allowed the critics to destroy and replace them with inferior ones. Now our universities are against free speech and meritocracy.

It all happened so quickly

Will H.
4 months ago
Reply to  ColonelMustard

Well, that is what happens when DeSantis is allowed to remove entire boards of public colleges and universities and replace them with people who don’t know anything about education (loss of meritocracy) while jettisoning everyone who dares to say anything he might disagree with (loss of free speech).

Or wait, did you mean something else by being against free speech and meritocracy? My bad.

ColonelMustard
4 months ago
Reply to  Will H.

Correct. I meant something else. You’re super sharp to realize that. It probably came to you after you reread my comment and noticed I never mentioned Florida or DeSantis. Well done!

What I meant was teaching the youth to be in favor of censorship and to view the world constantly through the lense of identity politics(incompatible with meritocracy) are both recent developments that go against American tradition.

Those traditions helped us rise to the top. Abandoning them is a poor choice that will backfire in our future. Much like the Astros abandoning their analytic approach that brought so much success.

adammember
4 months ago
Reply to  ColonelMustard

But you do realize that the rise of identity politics was a reaction to the normalization of boastful bigotry and unacceptance of anything that doesn’t align with “MY” beliefs, right?

ColonelMustard
4 months ago
Reply to  adam

I think much of the spread of identity politics is due to it being a useful way of dividing the citizenry.

Divide and conquer.

That’s why those in power inserted it into the public schools and support those views through mainstream media and big tech.

Richard Bergstrom
4 months ago
Reply to  ColonelMustard

Identity politics have been around for thousands of years, harkening back to caste systems and nobility vs peasants. This isn’t an American thing. Divide and conquer has also been around forever, even with this country being founded on pitting white indentured servants versus African slaves or not allowing women to vote or turning neighbor against neighbor with communist scares and homosexual scares… each of which were enacted not by the minority but by the majority..

The difference these days in identity politics is that those without power are able to get more of a voice, are able to raise more awareness, and might even get a seat at the table. That’s a good thing.

But to equate identity politics to a downturn in baseball analytics instead of, oh I don’t know, the general derision of scientists and news/fake news in recent years is weird thinking. Or to think censorship/cancel culture is something that’s only a recent invention and was something only done by a minority is also weird thinking.

baubo
4 months ago
Reply to  kmoser

Totally spitballing here but I feel that perhaps one of Luhnow’s best skills in retrospect was to keep Crane from meddling too much. After Luhnow left it feels like there was no clear organizational structure anymore and there’s so many random voices that are all involved in making decisions.

The core of the Astros organization is still incredibly strong at this point that even with such a cluster—k at the top, they are going to win a lot of games and may still be able to win a title next year. But at the same time, if they don’t get their stuff together real quick, there’s also a very strong possibility this is the last harrah for this core

Last edited 4 months ago by baubo
Joe Joemember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I think it is a combination of Crane no longer being willing to trust a GM completely after the sign stealing scandal, and it is cooler to hang out with Bagwell than the GM. Of the punishment for the sign stealing scandal, the unintended punishment of Crane no longer trusting his front office is by far the biggest.

Dmjn53
4 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

This sounds too much like Jim Irsay and Jeff Saturday

TheFightingBurkhardtsmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

the similarities go deeper – Irsay also rarely meddled when Polian was running the show.

Polian much like Luhnow is an ornery weirdo. But he got shoved aside I still believe due to waht started when they sat their starters when they were 14-0. Irsay “took his team back” and the Colts have been a relative mess ever since.

Joe Joemember
4 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Crane and Bagwell are the ones leading the manager search per MacTaggert at MLB.com. Please excuse me as I act like Phil Maton after his little brother got a hit off him.

Edit: kmoser beat me to it.

Last edited 4 months ago by Joe Joe