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October 24, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Farewell to Dusty Baker

On Friday, the baseball world was stunned by the announcement that the Nationals were letting Dusty Baker‘s contract expire, effectively firing him. The baseball baseball press called this move everything from insane to ridiculous, from cold to arrogant, from unfair to short-sighted, and from dumb to foolish. With the decision apparently originating from the owners, the Lerner family, and coming over the objections of general manager Mike Rizzo, the story reinforces a long-standing view of stubborn, tight-fisted owners impeding Rizzo’s efforts to build a winning team.

While I’m not quite as affected as most baseball writers, I did think Dusty was a good manager and I will miss him. He quickly restored order and teamwork after the calamitous Matt Williams tenure, and he subsequently led the team to 95 and 97 wins, despite battling injuries both seasons. Several young players, including Joe Ross, Trea Turner, and Michael A. Taylor, have developed into good players over the last two years. Also, Dusty Baker is definitely one of the coolest and most interesting men in baseball, and my sense is that the players largely enjoyed having him at the helm. As with all managers, I quibble with some of his choices about playing time and in-game strategy, but I think it’s ludicrous to blame him for the Nats’ losses in the 2016 and 2017 NLDS. None of Baker’s strategic moves was horrible enough to be blamed for the losses (though, with five of the Nats’ six losses coming in one-run games, of course it’s impossible to say that different strategies couldn’t have made a difference). Ultimately, though, it was the players who were responsible for executing or not—it’s not Baker’s fault that the Nats batters barely hit in Games 1 and 3, or that Max Scherzer gave up a go-ahead double to Addison Russell in Game 5.

I’m going to spend the first half of this post talking about my general thoughts on the job of a baseball manager and how it can (or can’t) be evaluated, and the last half talking about some of Dusty’s strengths and weaknesses as a manager.

The roles of a baseball manager.

A baseball manager has to do a lot things. Among the more important roles are:

  1. In-game strategy. Each game, the manager has to make countless decisions, such as: what batting order should be used? should a player bunt or swing away? should a runner be given the green light to steal? should the defense play in or concede a run? when should the defense use a shift? when should an opposing batter be issued an intentional walk? and most importantly, when should relief pitchers, pinch hitters, pinch runners, and defensive substitutions be employed?
  2. Use of the roster. Given a 25-man roster, it’s the manager’s job to make decisions about how to best utilize them: when should a player be rested? which bench player should be used? how much work should be expected from starting pitchers and from relief pitchers? should decisions about whether to use a player respond to factors like the players history against an opposing pitcher, or should those factors be ignored?
  3. Communication with the press and the public. The manager is the most visible spokesman for the team, and usually talks to press, often on-camera, both before and after games. A manager who is effective in this communication helps build good-will with the fans and respect from the media. Some managers have also done harm through their communication, for example, by venting their frustration at poorly performing players.
  4. Communication with the players. We tend to hear less about this and the following roles, except when things really break down. One of a manager’s jobs is to let players know what their role is, to communicate what management is expecting of them, to explain the situation if changes are potentially coming (such as a player being reassigned to the minors) so the player isn’t blindsided, and to let players know when they need to make changes in how they’re playing.
  5. Leader in the clubhouse. This role is probably bigger in our collective imagination than it is in practice—I suspect the scene of managers giving inspiring speeches to turn their team around mostly just happens in bad baseball movies. But a manager is still responsible for setting the tone in the clubhouse and correcting problems and misbehavior when they arise. The manager is also responsible for enforcing team discipline.
  6. Oversight of the coaching staff. Major league teams have large coaching staffs, and the manager is responsible for coordinating and overseeing the effectiveness their work.
  7. Mentor for young players. While some players arrive at the majors with years of minor league experience, others—especially the budding stars—often are still developing and require coaching and mentoring to fully develop their talents. A talented manager can help those players become better players.

While the first three roles take place in the light of the public, we usually know relatively little about the last four. Furthermore, the front office may know things going on behind the scenes that the public knows little about. I think that means that we should be a little humble in our criticism of these kind of personnel moves—it’s sometimes the case that a personnel move that looks unwarranted to the general public may be justified on information that we know nothing about. I should emphasize that I’m not saying that’s true in this particular case—just that it’s sometimes true in some cases.

How well can we evaluate the success of a manager? Sabermetric analysts have spent a lot of time studying in-game strategy. But even there, the analysis ought to be taken with a grain of salt because it never can control for all the factors that are relevant in a particular game situation. Furthermore, the gains from following optimal strategies are almost always quite small—we’re talking about changing the expected run value by maybe 0.1 or 0.2 per game. Over a long season, that may add up to two or three extra wins, which is huge, but blaming a loss in a particular playoff game or series on use of a suboptimal strategy is almost never valid.

While we write a lot about the importance of managerial strategy in winning and losing games, it’s worth keeping in mind that when it comes to spending money, no team acts like managers are especially important. The highest paid managers in MLB—Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Mike Scioscia, are paid $6 million a year. Dusty Baker was paid only $2 million. If owners really believed that the best managers were worth two or three wins a season, I think we’d see a “free agent”-type market for managers, with salaries bid to $15 to $20 million for the best managers. The fact that we don’t see that type of bidding suggests that either no one really believes managers make that much difference, or that if they actually can, no one thinks they can accurately identify the best managers.

The other managerial roles are almost impossible to evaluate quantitatively. Analysts have occasionally taken stabs at trying to measure how well a manager does at improving the overall performance of his players, but those studies are subject to so many confounding factors that it strains credulity to take their results seriously.

With many roles to fill, it seems to me that different managers are probably better at filling different roles, and different managers may be better fits for different teams. For example, the managerial needs of the 2009 Nationals with players like Elijah Dukes and Nyjer Morgan were clearly different from the needs of the 2017 Nats, with their many veteran players and expectations of winning. So, to me it makes sense that teams sometimes need to change their managers, not because the manager has done a poor job, but because the team’s needs have changed and a different manager is a better fit for their needs. That may have been the case, for example, when Jim Riggleman was replaced by Davey Johnson (though, of course, there were also contract and other issues going on at the time.)

Dusty Baker as a manager

Baker is known as a “players’ managers”—that is, he generally supports his players, looks out for their interests, and isn’t known for aggressively confronting or challenging them. While 30 or 40 years ago, that style of managing was considered fairly novel, I think it’s now the predominant style of managing. Johnson was also considered to be a players’ manager.

When I think of things I like about Baker as a manager, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is how he regularly rested his starting players. Almost every starter would get a couple of days off each month. As an example, Anthony Rendon, who was pretty healthy all year and never went on the disabled list, started only 143 of the team’s 162 games and played  in 145 of them. This policy not only helped keep the starting players fresh, but also gave playing time to the bench players, keeping them fresh as well. I think Baker’s roster policies were part of the reason the Nats got a lot of production from bench players like Wilmer Difo, Adam Lind, and Howie Kendrick.

I also thought Baker was good at mentoring young position players. I often saw TV shots of Dusty chatting with Michael A. Taylorfor example, and I’d guess that Taylor’s development as a player this season was due in part to Dusty’s work.

A possible downside to Baker’s loyalty to his players is that he may have stuck with his regulars too long when the playoffs were on the line. In this year’s NLDS, for example, in view of Jayson Werth‘s late season struggles, I don’t think it was wise to have him start and play most of every game. Dusty was pretty conventional about relying on his regulars during the post-season, and really didn’t make great use of his bench.

The most prominent complaint we hear about Baker is that he over-uses his pitchers. This story goes back to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood blowing out their arms while Dusty was managing the Cubs. While Dusty no longer allows his pitchers to go 130+ pitches, in 2017 he still tended to push his starters longer than most other managers. Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark ranked third and fourth in MLB in pitches per start, with 105.1 and 103.6. Both of them saw their performance tail off late in the season. Scherzer’s 100.4 pitches per start ranked 13th, but he would have been in the top four if injury hadn’t forced him to leave early in a couple of starts in August and September (excluding the August 1 and September 30 starts when he was pulled early, he averaged 105.1 pitches per start, the same as Gonzalez).

Of course, the Nats’ bullpen during the first three-and-a-half months of the season was such a disaster that Baker was almost forced to push his starters a bit more. Teams with stronger bullpens didn’t have to push their ace starters as much—Clayton Kershaw averaged only 93.4 pitches per game. But I wonder whether some of the Nats’ late season and playoff pitching issues, such as Scherzer’s neck and hamstring issues and the slide in performance of Gonzalez and Roark, might have been avoided if Baker hadn’t pushed them quite so hard earlier in the season.

Where do the Nationals go from here? With the Nationals now having gone through six managers in 13 seasons, and with their reputation for short, cheap contracts, they’re unlikely to find an experienced, well-regarded manager. That means they’re probably looking at a rookie manager. It will be interesting to see what kind of manager they try—I interpreted the hiring of Williams as a reaction to Johnson’s relatively lax, player-friendly style. Will they want to try a harsher style again? Of course, the coaching staff will also need to be replaced. If it’s hard to evaluate the manager, it’s even harder to evaluate coaches, but my general impression is that Mike Maddux was a well-regarded pitching coach, and that base running improved under Davey Lopes’ tutelage. It will be interesting to watch how this all turns out. 


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