Dusty Baker is a Fascinating, Counterintuitive Choice to Manage Astros

When commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report regarding the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing efforts and handed down one-year bans to both manager A.J. Hinch and president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow, he also took aim at the culture within the Astros’ analytically-inclined organization, calling it “insular” and “problematic.” In desperate need of rebranding as they move forward, the Astros have taken the first step towards that end by hiring Dusty Baker to succeed Hinch — who, along with Luhnow, was fired by owner Jim Crane almost immediately after the report was released — as manager.

The choice of Baker certainly offers a contrast to the recent past, given the 70-year-old skipper’s old-school reputation, but that’s not to say it’s a bad one. At the helm of a team that will face constant scrutiny and considerable hostility, Baker’s strengths — many of which fall outside the realm of the quantifiable — include the respect he commands in the clubhouse and when dealing with the media, particularly amid controversy, all of which should serve him well. That said, he’s been positioned as an easy fall guy if things don’t go well. After all, the Astros came within one win of a championship last year, and they still have a strong roster despite the departure of free agent Gerrit Cole, so any outcome short of a trip to the World Series will represent a step backwards. The fact that he’s been hired before the team has replaced Luhnow sets up a potential clash down the road, in that the incoming general manager or president of baseball operations might prefer to hire their own manager. The length of Baker’s contract — one year plus a club option — spells that out explicitly.

Baker, who turns 71 on June 15, hasn’t managed since the end of the 2017 season, when he parted ways with the Nationals, who opted not to renew his contract. His departure from Washington was sudden and rather stunning, as he’d led the team to back-to-back NL East titles and seasons of 95 and 97 wins, but each time the Nationals lost five-game Division Series to lower-seeded teams. Baker’s teams went 0-5 in one-run games across those two postseasons, including both Game 5s, during which they surrendered early leads — all of which put his in-game decisions squarely in the crosshairs, fairly or unfairly. In his final game at the helm, for example, he took the fall in part because Max Scherzer — who was about to win his third Cy Young award — allowed four runs in a messy inning of emergency relief.

Back in October, Baker went through two rounds of interviews for the Phillies’ managerial opening that was filled by Joe Girardi. While the Mets reportedly considered reaching out to him twice within the past year — first when they were considering replacing Mickey Callaway in May, and then when they suddenly needed to replace Carlos Beltrán after his role in the sign-stealing scheme came to light — he never actually heard from the team. To get the Astros’ job, he beat out four other experienced managers (Brad Ausmus, Jeff Banister, John Gibbons, and Buck Showalter) and four first-time hopefuls (current Astros bench coach Joe Espada, plus Mark Kotsay, Eduardo Pérez, and Will Venable).

Baker was the most experienced of those nine candidates, and the owner of the longest track record of success from among that group. In 22 years of managing, he’s compiled a career record of 1863-1636 (.532); he’s 15th all-time in wins, losses, and games managed, and 23rd in games above .500. With seven division titles and two Wild Card appearances, he’s tied for fifth all-time in postseason appearances, with Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa the only skippers ahead of him from the Divisional era (1969 onward). Along with Billy Martin and Davey Johnson, he’s one of three managers to pilot four separate franchises to the postseason, having done so with the Giants (1997, 2000, ’02), Cubs (’03), Reds (’10, ’12, ’13), and Nationals (’16 and ’17).

For all of that, Baker’s teams have won only three of the 12 postseason series in which he’s managed, and are just 2-6 in winner-take all games. He’s never won a World Series; among all managers, only Gene Mauch spent more games in the dugout without doing so. All of that is part of the litany when it comes to Baker’s career; his stuff hasn’t worked in the playoffs any better than Billy Beane’s.

For the team that has spent the past eight years at the forefront of the latest wave of the analytical revolution (to use the term from Manfred’s report), the choice of Baker, who has spent the better part of the past two decades as a whipping boy for statheads, certainly marks an effort to rebrand. That he’s been hired less than three weeks since the dismissals of Hinch and Luhnow, before the latter’s successor has been hired, suggests he might have freer rein than his predecessor when it coms to decision-making, though it’s probably more accurate to regard this partnership as a work in progress. Given Baker’s age and reputation, it’s also worth noting that he’s spent the past couple of years working on his own rebranding in an attempt to counter the notion that he’s too far out of step for today’s game. From a wide-ranging August 2018 interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal (emphasis in original):

Baker starts by talking about the “misconceptions” of him as a manager.

“Dusty don’t believe in sabermetrics.” What are you talking about, man? I don’t believe in it 100 percent. There ain’t no 100 percent of nothing. There are no absolutes. We were using it before it had a name. You’ve seen me study. What do you think, I was just writing something down?

And from an October 20, 2019 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, shortly after he interviewed for the Phillies’ job:

“I think the best clubs combine analytics and scouting together,” the 70-year-old said. “I don’t think you can really do a true job just using one. I think you have to use both.”

…“A lot of people have said, ‘Dusty isn’t into analytics.’ Well, I was into analytics years ago,” Baker said at the MIT [Sloane Sports Analytics Conference] panel. “It just didn’t have a name for it.”

…“What sabermetrics has done for me, it’s allowed me to ask questions so I don’t have to do all the research on my own,” Baker said. “Nowadays, everything is at your disposal. You just have to research it, find it… The key thing is that you have to have the players. That’s number one. You have to have the players to enact what you’re trying to do.””

Stathead or no, some of Baker’s critics can never get past his reputation for overworking pitchers during his days in Chicago, given the subsequent arm troubles of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but the record shows that he changed with the times. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out when the Nationals hired him in November 2015, Baker oversaw 24 starts of 120 pitches or more during his six years (2008-13) with the Reds, a lower total than for the Prior-and-Wood 2003 Cubs, and one that ranked just 10th in the majors. During Baker’s Nationals tenure, he oversaw five such games in two years, the most in the majors, but that hardly constitutes an epidemic, particularly given that four of the five were of either 120 or 121 pitches. Baker hasn’t mangled every good young pitcher he touched, either, as the likes of Carlos Zambrano, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Mat Latos can attest.

Baker changed with the times when it came to sacrifice bunting by non-pitchers as well. His Cubs were fourth in the NL during his four years there (2003-06), with an average of 44 per year. His Reds led the NL with an average of 52 per year. Yet with the more analytically-inclined Nationals, his squad tied for the third-fewest in the league, averaging just 13 per year.

The case for Baker’s evolution when it comes to lineup construction — the foible of his that’s driven this scribe up the wall for a decade and a half — is less favorable. Too often, he’s settled for speedy players with low on-base percentages atop the order, a paradigm that reigned during his playing days in the 1970s and ’80s and has persisted in his presence, at least some of the time. During his four years with the Cubs, the team’s leadoff hitters combined for a .326 on-base percentage, 12th in the NL; Juan Pierre (736 PA with a .333 OBP) and Corey Patterson (424 PA with a .301 OBP) were used egregiously in that capacity, though Mark Grudzielanek, Jerry Hairston, Todd Walker and Kenny Lofton, who together accounted for about 100 more PA than that pair over the four years, were much better, ranging from .344 to .384. Baker’s Reds ranked 13th with a .325 OBP, with Drew Stubbs (869 PA, .320 OBP), Brandon Phillips (639 PA, .324 .OBP), Zack Cozart (471 PA, .262 OBP), Willy Taveras (368 PA, .275 OBP) representing some bad choices, but Shin-Soo Choo (669 PA, .432 OBP), Chris Dickerson (274 PA, .363 OBP) and Hairston (248 PA, .388 OBP) doing quite well. Baker’s Nationals were dead last with a .312 OBP, with Trea Turner all right (723 PA, .343 OBP) but Ben Revere (262 PA, .276 OBP), Michael A. Taylor (158 PA, .247 OBP) and Brian Goodwin (151 PA, .285 OBP) dreadful.

Of course, the biggest key to mitigating that particular quirk is to avoid giving Baker any low-OBP speedsters that would tempt him, so perhaps it’s for the best that Jake Marisnick (.289 OBP and a team-high 10 steals) is gone. The Astros are returning just one regular who had an OBP below .343 in Josh Reddick, and he’s no threat to wind up atop the order given his lack of speed and the presence of a high-OBP regular for the leadoff spot in George Springer.

Speaking of Reddick, it’s worth watching how the battle between him and 23-year-old Kyle Tucker goes when it comes to playing time in right field. Baker’s reputation for resisting playing the youngsters is at least somewhat outdated given the successes of Taylor and Turner on his watch in Washington, and before that, those of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in Cincinnati. Also worth watching is his bullpen management, which has left something to be desired over the years. At FiveThirtyEight in 2016, Rob Arthur and Rian Watt found that from 2000-16 he was among the game’ worst at aligning his best relievers with the highest-leverage spots.

The job of manager has changed considerably over the past decade, with more emphasis on the leader-of-men aspects and less on the tactical ones, particularly given the additional information and input from front offices that’s supposed to help mitigate a manager’s blind spots. Without knowing who will succeed Luhnow, it’s difficult to know how Baker’s relationship with the GM and his staff will play out, though presumably we should find out more about that soon.

What we do know is that Baker is well-equipped to provide the calm at the center of the storm. He’s earned a reputation as a players’ manager, one who can shore up the clubhouse chemistry. He managed Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa at the height of the PED allegations surrounding them, and has shown time after time that he has his players’ backs. He got along well with Bryce Harper. He’s a fascinating personality with a wide range of interests and a depth of experience unlike any other manager. There’s nobody else in the game who can claim to be a former Marine who smoked pot with Jimi Hendrix, was mentored by Hank Aaron as he was breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, inadvertently invented the high five, started a winery, and managed a World Series. The way that he’s been welcomed back to the game by veteran scribes in the two days since the first report of his hiring surfaced already illustrates the manner in which he and his back story can deflect attention away from a team’s ailments and misconduct. The Astros need to atone for their sins, but at a time when the game seems to be growing more impersonal, coldly calculating, and less colorful — in both senses of the word — who among us is so hard-hearted that they don’t want to see ol’ Dusty, as human-element as they come, write a better ending to his storied career?

Baker and the Astros are in a situation unlike any that’s come before, though perhaps Kid Gleason, who piloted the Chicago White Sox through the fixing of the 1919 World Series and its aftermath, could relate. The reasons why this odd and counterintuitive pairing might not work out are clear. He inherits a team that’s primed for regression, and is the midst of transition if not disarray. Neither its commitment to remaining on the cutting edge nor his ability to keep up is clear, and he lacks the security of a long-term deal to protect him. Yet those very reasons are also what make this such a bold and fascinating move. For as much anger as the Astros deserve and will receive as they tour around the league, this work in progress is a must-see.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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4 years ago

Please explain why this is clear this won’t work out using players who did not retire during the Bush administration