The Nationals were psychologically prepared to replace Matt Williams with Bud Black. But according to reports, they were less financially prepared to do that, so now they’re actually replacing Williams with Dusty Baker. For the organization, it’s something of an embarrassing turn, not because they ended up with Baker, but because they acted too cheaply to get their first choice. But, whatever, that’s already in the past. What matters now is Baker. And few managers and managerial candidates can provoke so strong a fan reaction. When it comes to Dusty Baker, people have feelings.
For sure, there are those who point to his record, his experience and history of winning. He’s a proven manager, which Matt Williams most certainly was not. Yet Baker also has another reputation. When word started to spread that he was going to Washington, a common response was that it would be bad news for the pitching staff. Baker is forever followed by references to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and it’s the sort of thing he clearly can’t out-run. To so many people, Baker is a pitcher-destroyer. Even among those who don’t really feel that way, everyone’s familiar with the rep.
It should be understood that nothing is ever simple. And it should be understood that behavior changes. Dusty Baker is going to manage the Washington Nationals. I don’t see a convincing argument for why that’s a bad thing.
Let’s tackle the pitching thing first. This could be done really quickly, just by pointing out that, hey, pitchers get hurt, literally all the time, frequently for no clear reason. Any manager would be expected to experience a certain number of pitcher injuries. It doesn’t have to be their fault. It doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault.
Yet I think it’s pretty clear how Baker got the rep he has. When he was managing the Cubs, that was back when people paid more attention to Pitcher Abuse Points. And a select number of people were also talking about pitching mechanics, and spreading the idea that Prior’s delivery in particular was perfect. I think, back then, there was a greater degree of confidence that injuries could be predicted and therefore prevented. One of the keys was avoiding overuse. Baker rode some of his pitchers hard. And Wood and Prior were so talented it was devastating when they were rendered unfit to pitch.
Maybe that was negligence. Maybe Wood and Prior were just going to get hurt no matter what. Maybe Baker played some role in all that. But if you believe that Baker overworks his pitchers, that belief is outdated. I pulled, from Baseball-Reference, starts under Baker with 120 pitches or more. It’s kind of an arbitrary cutoff, but a start with 120 pitches or so raises certain red flags. I went back to 2000, because I didn’t see the point in going back any further. Between 2008 – 2013, Baker was in charge of the Reds.
The pattern is easily identifiable. Baker used to push his starters. More recently, he hasn’t done that. The league overall has behaved similarly, now with a greater degree of pitcher caution, and at this point it doesn’t seem like it should really matter how Baker managed between 2003 – 2006. Even if you really, truly, deeply believe Baker has some blood on his hands for what took place with Wood and Prior, that doesn’t have anything to do with the 2016 Nationals. Over six years with the Reds, Baker oversaw 24 starts with 120+ pitches, a lower total than his 2003 alone. Over those six years, the Reds ranked 10th in baseball in that category, five starts above the league average of 19. The Rays, if it matters, ranked seventh.
There’s not really all that clear a link between workload and injury rate, but even if there were, Baker would seem a better manager in that regard than he used to be. And keep in mind that these end up being organizational decisions — if Baker worked a given starter too hard then he could expect to hear about it. Baker won’t be pushing his starters further than the Nationals overall are comfortable with. His authority is significant, but limited. The Nationals will make sure he’s not reckless.
If you review the specific pitcher record, Wood broke down. Prior broke down. Yet Carlos Zambrano survived. Moving on to the Reds, it’s not like Johnny Cueto didn’t come to flourish under Baker. Homer Bailey more recently became hurt, but he was steady in the Baker years. Mike Leake didn’t have any problems, and he’s about to receive an awful lot of money. Edinson Volquez did have an elbow thing. Mat Latos‘ thing was a knee thing, which isn’t a Baker problem. This is going to be unscientific, but I don’t think Baker had a real injury problem in Cincinnati. He didn’t have the high-profile breakdowns he had in Chicago.
Baker also has another reputation, of not being the most saber-friendly manager around. He’s perceived as one of the old-school types, because he is one of the old-school types. In his Reds years, they led all of baseball in sacrifice bunts. Baker put Zack Cozart in some weird places in the lineup. There was a quote about preferring RBI to OBP. You would’ve thought Joey Votto and Dusty Baker would butt heads, but it was under Baker that Votto won the MVP. Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: Baker will probably implement some sub-optimal in-game strategies. He’ll behave more in accordance with the book than The Book. The World Series was literally just won by a manager who batted Alcides Escobar leadoff. It isn’t about the strategies. It’s never been about the strategies.
At the end of the day, a manager is a leader. The job is to get the best out of the players you can. This is where Matt Williams failed — Williams proved to be a terrible leader. Players didn’t like playing for him. Baker’s been a leader for decades. However successful Baker is in the clubhouse will be the story of how successful he is as a manager.
This is why people cite Baker’s win/loss record. Over 20 years, he’s won about 53% of the time, and that’s telling. That suggests that Baker has been able to pull out better-than-average performance. It could be more telling to look at what some of those teams were expected to do before the year. If they were collectively supposed to win, say, 55% of the time, then that would be more problematic.
Let’s focus on Baker’s last job, managing the Reds for six years. Over those six years, the Reds won 509 regular-season games. The Reds were projected, preseason, to win 497 games, for a difference of +12. That ranked the Reds ninth-best over the six-season window. For whatever it’s worth, the Reds also beat their BaseRuns record by four wins. That’s small, but I might as well include it.
With the Reds, total, Baker got a better team performance than was expected in spring training. As bad as we are at evaluating managers, that seems like it should be worth something. It’s the whole point — make sure the players are giving their best, as often as possible. Baker might not always make the best in-game decisions, but that isn’t as important as keeping the roster motivated. The disappointing Nationals just had a leadership problem. People in the front office can talk to Baker about bunts and times through the order.
When Baker was dismissed by the Reds, it followed a brief but crucial late-season slump. It was a slump that just about spoiled a year, but if you take a step back, you tend not to see a problem with drive. Historically, players have played pretty hard for Dusty Baker, and he’ll bring an authoritative, experienced voice to a clubhouse that never had it in 2015. He’s already had to deal with some extraordinary egos so he should be able to handle that aspect of the Nationals, and then with some better player health, Baker might be in line to be credited for a turnaround. As far as that health is concerned, I don’t see Baker as a threat.
Managers are hard. We usually don’t write much about these things. It’s almost impossible, but here, I don’t see reason to believe Dusty Baker is a bad hire for the Nationals. He might even be a good hire. He’s an old-school manager with some dicey reputations, but most recently, he helped the Reds win. Winning is what the Nationals would sure like to do.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.