In Defense of Dusty Baker

Yesterday, the Nationals lost Game 3 of their division series to the Cubs 2-1, and now trail by the same margin in the series. Despite a brilliant outing from Max Scherzer, the Cubs managed to plate a couple of runs against the team’s bullpen, putting the team on the brink of elimination in the first round once again. And because the Cubs got their runs with Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez on the mound, with Max Scherzer, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle all watching, Dusty Baker has come under fire for his bullpen management once again.

But on this one, I have to say that the criticism feels a bit unfair. If we look at the circumstances and what actually happened, it seems like Baker mostly made reasonable decisions.

Let’s start with the 7th inning. Max Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the inning, but had also thrown 90 pitches through the first six innings, and facing roughly a 100 pitch limit, it was pretty unlikely he was going to get through the inning himself. Baker let Scherzer face Willson Contreras, but with a switch-hitter Ben Zobrist and the left-handed Kyle Schwarber due up behind him, he got the lefty Solis warming.

After retiring Contreras on six pitches, Zobrist sent a 1-0 fastball into the gap for a double, the Cubs first hit of the game. And at 98 pitches, with Schwarber coming up, Baker made a tough-but-correct call to go get his ace. Instead of having a tiring Scherzer face a good left-handed hitter, he got a fresh arm in there against the pinch-hitting Albert Almora. Almora’s something like a league-average hitter, but with the pinch-hitting penalty, he was a pretty significant downgrade from Schwarber, and significantly less likely to hit a home run that would put the Nationals down a run.

And Solis, after a terrible first half while dealing with “dead arm”, earned his way into high-leverage situations with a dominant second half. After the All-Star break, batters hit just .125/.222/.172 against Solis. He struck out 28% of the batters he faced in August and 35% in September.

So Solis against Almora was pretty clearly a better matchup for Washington than a tiring Scherzer vs Schwarber. And after battling to a 3-2 count, Solis threw a slider on the outer half, but elevated it a bit too much. In truth, it wasn’t a bad pitch.

Almora reached out and made enough contact to send an 88 mph line drive just through the infield for an RBI single, tying the game at 1-1. Credit to him for good hitting, though he might have swung at ball four and he didn’t exactly crush the pitch, but I don’t know how that sequence can really result in criticism of Baker’s management. He got a good match-up, his pitcher threw a decent two-strike pitch that resulted in a chase, and a softy hit line drive found a hole. It’s baseball. It happens.

Then came the 8th inning. Brandon Kintzler remained on the mound after finishing off the 7th, and this is where you could probably most take Baker to task for managing too much like it was the regular season. The left-handed Tommy La Stella pinch hit to lead off the inning, and with the left-handed Jon Jay on deck and the left-handed Anthony Rizzo due up fourth, this would have been a good spot for Sean Doolittle. After all, you give up a run in that situation, and you’re facing Wade Davis in the top of the 9th, so with the big bats coming up, this was probably the time to use your best left-handed reliever.

But Baker stuck with Kintzler, perhaps in part because La Stella and Jay aren’t the scariest hitters around, and sticking with Kintzler meant that he could face the right-handed Kris Bryant. Not great logic, especially since he could have just gone with Ryan Madson, a significantly better right-handed reliever if he wanted that match-up, but it’s also not a total disaster of a decision.

After a leadoff walk to La Stella, Jay sacrificed, moving pinch-runner Leonys Martin to second base. In this situation, I probably would have intentionally walked Bryant and had Doolittle come in to face Rizzo. But Baker stuck with Kintzler, and to his credit, he struck out Bryant, getting a key second out. And with a lefty coming up, he did go to the pen. But he went to Oliver Perez, not Doolittle.

Perez is a pretty decent left-on-left specialist, having held LHBs to a .291 wOBA this year, and a .279 mark over the last three years. Since the start of 2015, he’s struck out 29% of the lefties he’s faced. As LOOGYs go, Perez is above-average.

He’s not Doolittle, though, and again, it’s probably fair to suggest that the team should have had their best reliever, who also happens to be left-handed, on the mound in that situation. But Perez vs Rizzo isn’t a disaster for the Nats. Most times, Perez probably wins that battle.

And, realistically, you could argue that he basically did yesterday anyway. Perez threw a high fastball that Rizzo popped up. It left the bat at 71 mph and went all of 228 feet. Balls hit with Rizzo’s exit velocity and launch angle are caught 71% of the time. When the ball fell, three Nationals defenders were within a few feet of the ball.

Rizzo blooped a ball into no-man’s land. It happens. It’s baseball.

The Nationals lost a one-run contest in which their offense hit .094/.121/.125 because the Cubs blooped 88 mph and 71 mph dunkers just in the right spots. And somehow that’s the manager’s fault.

Baker didn’t handle the situations perfectly, but he took Scherzer out at a time when he probably would have stuck with his starter too long in previous situations, and both times the Cubs knocked in runs, the match-ups were reasonable enough decisions, even if the second one wasn’t entirely optimal.

In reality, the Nationals lost because their offense got shut down again, and the Cubs got a couple of lucky hits at the right time. That’s not worth crucifying Dusty Baker over.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago


I know, I know.. It’s in a position where three men could have potentially gotten it and they all pulled up to avoid collision.

But no one took charge or called the others off. That to me is inexcusable at this point in the game and the true blame needs to land on them, specifically Michael A. Taylor.

6 years ago
Reply to  Skipple

They all pulled up because that’s what you do at the very last moment when it’s clear you’re just not quite going to get there. Otherwise it’s much more likely for the ball to get away from you entirely. As to calling for a ball you then don’t get to, no that’s not a good idea.

Balls fall in sometimes. Unless you can show Taylor got a late jump or took a bad route, that’s the totality of what happened here.

Captain Tenneal
6 years ago
Reply to  Richie

I just watched the video and Taylor absolutely had a shot if he had dived. You just have to dive in that situation.

OddBall Herrera
6 years ago

More importantly, the ball was coming in at a relatively high angle, so it’s not bouncing all the way to the wall. There are also two guys standing there as backup in case he doesn’t get to it.

Seems like you may as well take a shot there, but it’s obviously easier said than done.

6 years ago
Reply to  Skipple

I am a Cubs fan so maybe I am a little biased.

I definitely would not want anyone on the team I was rooting for to lay out for that ball. Yes, one of them probably makes the play, but in a situation like that, as catastrophic injury is extremely likely if there is any miscommunication at all.

Just imagine if Taylor called everyone off, Turner peels away a little, but Taylor’s momentum takes him into the side of Turner’s knee. Or Werth doesn’t hear and they collide, and suddenly they are down two starting OF.

Players have been injured just way too many times on plays almost exactly like that, that it just isn’t worth it to go for it.

If it was the other way around, I would be pissed at the luck of where the ball landed, rather than the players.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  alpha309

The danger of a collision is why someone needs to call everyone else off before trying to make a play on the ball. Logically that’s Taylor because he’s faster than Werth and has a better angle on the ball than Turner.

I can see the sense of the “safety first” idea during a lot of regular season situations, but this situation was the 8th inning of a tied postseason game.

Deacon Drakemember
6 years ago
Reply to  Skipple

Biggest criticism of Taylor is that he cannot/does not take charge when he’s CF. It’s a personality thing… he always deferred fly balls to Harper, Werth, and Desmond in the past, even if they had little chance of making the play and he at least had the skills to make a play. Since taking over for Eaton this year, it hadn’t been an issue until last night.