Postseason Managerial Report Card: Dusty Baker

It’s time for another edition of postseason managerial grades. If this article series has taught me anything, it’s that in-game management is both hard and largely inconsequential. There are a million variables to consider in nearly every at-bat, but at the end of the day, the players on the field win or lose the game. Dusty Baker, the subject of today’s article, is proof of that: the Astros are an excellent team, and Baker managed well, and the Braves just beat them. The team didn’t choke, and neither did he. They simply ran into someone playing better, which is almost always more important than who moves the chess pieces around more efficiently.

One piece of feedback that I’ve gotten in previous installments of this series is that giving managers all the credit or blame for their decisions understates the role that team front offices have in preparing for the playoffs. Managers aren’t making it up as they go along, at least not always; they come into each game with a plan for many contingencies. In most cases, that’s a plan they’ve constructed in collaboration with front office personnel who do the drudge work of coming up with 50 (or 100 or 200) scenarios that mostly won’t take place, then coming up with plans for each.

So if you’d like, consider these as joint manager and front office grades. The two are operating in concert, with the front office doing research that the manager applies during games. So this is a Dusty Baker report card, but it’s also a referendum on everyone in the Astros’ front office for getting the right information in front of him. And spoiler: they all passed with flying colors.

Lineups/Pinch-Hitting

Grade: B+
Before the World Series, the Astros didn’t have many decisions to make. When you can simply plug in the best lineup in baseball every day, you do it, and while it’s not that big of a help, stacking them lefty/righty certainly doesn’t hurt. In fact, I have no notes on the ALCS or ALDS; Baker didn’t have many decisions to make, and he just wrote down his best lineup day after day. He shuffled center field around after a season-ending injury felled Jake Meyers, but I don’t have any hot Jose Siri versus Chas McCormick takes for you.

In the World Series, Baker mostly stuck with what was working in home games, playing his seven great hitters and two bad hitters and letting them work. When the series shifted to Atlanta, he went maximum offense, putting Yordan Alvarez in left, Michael Brantley in right, and Kyle Tucker in center, which makes sense given the caliber of the players involved. I think this was the right decision, and not a particularly close one. The alternative would have been benching Brantley or Alvarez for McCormick, which, no.

Pinch-hitting becomes more relevant in NL parks, but the Astros didn’t have a lot of flexibility. Their best bench bat was probably Aledmys Díaz, and Baker turned to him in every big spot against lefties. He used Jason Castro next — or sometimes first against righties — and Marwin Gonzalez in low-leverage spots. All checks out to me!

The only strange pinch-hitting decisions I can point to involve Zack Greinke. In Game 4, Greinke came up with the bases loaded in the top of the third, and Baker let him hit for himself. I like this decision, believe it or not. Greinke hits extremely well for a pitcher, and only had only pitched two innings (facing eight batters). Five Houston relievers had thrown the day before, and there was another game scheduled the next day. I like pinch-hitting for pitchers a lot, but this spot seemed too soon.

In the fifth, Greinke came up with the bases loaded again. This time, Baker called for a pinch hitter: Gonzalez. I’m not sure why he used him there, given that he otherwise treated him as a low-leverage bat only. Maybe he didn’t like the matchups of Díaz and Castro against Kyle Wright, but that seems strange. Maybe he didn’t want to burn a backup catcher and didn’t want a righty-righty matchup? I don’t think that was worth it, though; I would have gone with Castro or Díaz.

The next day, Houston had another classic low-leverage pinch hitting spot. In the top of the fourth, down 5–4, Yimi García’s spot in the lineup came up with one out and the bases empty. Normally, Baker would use Gonzalez here; he did so in a similar situation in Game 3. This time, he used Greinke! Greinke singled, which is awesome, but that’s not really the point; I think that it’s strange to use Greinke there over Gonzalez if you’re also going to pull Greinke from the game in favor of Gonzalez in Game 4.

That’s a minor quibble, and the rest of the game was textbook. Weird Greinke decisions aside — and I love weird Greinke things — Baker managed by the book. The makeup of the Astros helped, given that they have a clear hierarchy between starters and bench guys, but he didn’t get too cute. He did shuffle the batting order late, moving Alex Bregman down, but that’s fine with me; might as well try something, and the net effect of moving hitters around in the order is small anyway.

Pitching

Grade: A-
The Astros were dealt a tough blow at the end of the ALDS when Lance McCullers Jr. strained his forearm. He missed the rest of the playoffs, which meant it was time to manufacture innings — a problem for a Houston team that had poor rotation and bullpen depth at the best of times. Thanks to a conveniently placed rain delay, McCullers had handled half of the starts in that ALDS and looked quite good while doing it. The rest of the pitching worked well enough, but it was hardly a good test: closer Ryan Pressly threw three times in the series but had at least a five-run lead each time.

The ALCS wasn’t so easy. In Game 1, Framber Valdez didn’t have it, simple as that. Baker didn’t wait to make things worse, pulling his starter in the third inning. He didn’t play favorites, either, using his top seven bullpen arms and squeezing every drop out of the resources he had, including lining up Brooks Raley for the toughest lefties in Boston’s lineup and then Pressly against the heart of the order the next time through. A game that might have spiraled out of control stayed close, and the Astros eventually scored enough to win, 5–4.

In the second and third games, nothing Baker did mattered. The Red Sox clubbed three grand slams, scored 21 runs, and chewed through the Houston pitching staff. He stayed away from using his best three relievers — Cristian Javier, Kendall Graveman, and Pressly — but otherwise gamely tried to keep the game close. Saving those three relievers, though, let the team empty the tank in Game 4; they combined for six shutout innings, keeping the game deadlocked, 2–2, until Houston broke it open in the ninth. The rest of the series was cruise control, with Valdez and Luis Garcia overpowering Boston as the offense romped.

That brings us to the World Series, where Baker stuck to his guns even as the going got tougher. When Valdez got crushed in the first game (two innings, five runs), Jake Odorizzi took one for the team, and Baker again avoided his highest-leverage relievers, which let him deploy his top trio in Game 2 to back José Urquidy.

I’m slightly confused by Baker’s managing in Game 3, though nothing came of it. The game was 1–0 after the third inning, but only Graveman pitched out of the top three arms. It didn’t matter: not only did the offense not score, but Graveman also gave up a home run, and the rest of the bullpen didn’t allow any runs. But it was a deviation from trend for a manager who mostly flooded the zone with top relievers whenever the game was close.

Maybe it was just as well, because Javier didn’t have it in Game 4. Baker arguably used a quick hook with Greinke, who was starting that day; that’s the pinch-hitting situation I talked about up above. It’s hard to say that pulling him after 14 batters faced was a mistake, though, as the relievers who followed are all likely better pitchers than the 2021 version of Zack Greinke. Javier just gave up two homers, which was the margin in a 3–2 game. Hey, sometimes you send your best at the other team and the other team still wins.

That leaves the last two games of the World Series, which both followed similar paths from a Houston pitching standpoint. The starter — Valdez in Game 5, Garcia in Game 6 — gave up a big home run and didn’t give the team any length. Baker pulled both in the third inning, and I don’t think you can argue that either came too late. Valdez gave up a grand slam in the first inning, and Garcia was cruising until giving up a two-out, three-run home run.

After that, there wasn’t much more to do. Run in a parade of relievers? Check. One more I particularly liked was using Phil Maton for two innings in Game 5; he faced the heart of Atlanta’s order, then stuck around for a second inning against the bottom half. With Pressly likely unavailable after a multi-inning appearance the previous night and Javier reeling, Baker had extra innings to cover. Getting an extra one out of Maton let him shorten up his bullpen and use relievers he trusted the rest of the way.

Overall, I think that the Astros, with Baker at the helm, took a consistent and rational approach to maximizing their pitching staff. Would they have preferred to line up four dominant starters and let the bullpen clean up after them? Of course. With McCullers missing most of the playoffs (and Justin Verlander missing the entire season), that wasn’t an option. They had to make do with what they had, and I love where they ended up.

Getting the most out of high-leverage relievers helps soften the blow of missing good starters. Getting a bit of length out of your starters when the situation allows lightens the load on the bullpen. Those two were building for the long term, but when it mattered most, Baker put all hands on deck. That balance is hard to strike, but Houston managed it, even though it didn’t pay off for them in the end.





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

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I thought Dusty managed his pitching staff very well— he seemed highly aware of the significant limitations of that staff has besides McCullers and the bullpen backend. The front office didn’t give him nearly as deep and high-end a pitching staff to work with as some other managers (Counsell, La Russa) who went home much sooner this postseason.