Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Coming to Terms With Dusty Baker

No, this isn't a post about how much money Dusty Baker is going to make this year. This is a post about long-term perceptions about a man and his managerial record. Those perceptions were smug and happy when Baker's teams were not performing well. But then we are confronted with a Reds team in 2010 that defied all the projections and won their division over the almighty St. Louis Cardinals. The season left Baker just one vote shy of winning this year's Manager of the Year Award that went to Bud Black (a man who Baker once managed). After such a season, it's time to confront the stereotypes about Baker and take a closer look.

One place to start is his record. Johnnie B. Baker has now managed a total of seventeen years in the majors. Four of those seasons (or nearly 25%) resulted in his team leading the division. Six other times, his teams finished in second place. In one of those seasons (1993, his first) his team won 103 games and did not make the playoffs (no wild card then). The team that won the NL West that year was the east coast team. Yeah, it was weird. Another time his team came in second, his team won the NL pennant after getting into the playoffs via the wild card. He has won the Manager of the Year Award three times (1993, 1997 and 2000). He has a .522 career winning percentage. That's a pretty good resume.

Baker managed the Giants for ten years. Only two of those years were not competitive. Every other year, the Giants came in first or second. He then moved on to the Cubs where they won their division the first year he arrived. That was the Cubs team that came within a Bartman of going to the World Series. Up until that season and during it, the perception of Baker was all good. But unlike San Francisco, where he had sustained success, after the Bartman series, the Cubs went downhill and every remaining year that Baker was there was worse than the year before. The Cubs won 89 games in 2004 and then 79 and then 66. When things go sour at Wrigley, things go sour. Just ask Lou Piniella.

It was those last two years in Chicago that the perception turned sour. And to be frank, the Fan is mostly talking about himself, but the Fan isn't alone. Baker became reviled in Chicago. The fall from grace after his initial season led to his reputation that he ruined young pitchers. The reputation is at least partly earned. Prior, Wood and Clement all pitched over 200 innings as young men in 2003. None of the three would ever be the same. It may be argued that he did the same thing to Shawn Estes in 1997 and Bill Swift in 1993.

Estes is a particularly gruesome story. Estes only logged 70 major league innings in 1996. He was really young at the time. In 1997, he pitched over 200 innings despite walking 100 batters. Think about that for a second. Estes had never pitched that many innings before and despite pitching behind most of that year, he won 19 games with a 3.19 ERA. If you look at his game log, almost every single game featured him throwing 110 or more or 120 or more pitches. Estes never again had a year as good as 1997.

Bill Swift pitched mostly in relief up until 1992. He saved 17 games in 1991. He was converted to a starter in 1992 and pitched 164 innings, a jump of 70 innings from the year before, but still reasonable. 1993 was Baker's first year with the Giants and as mentioned, they won 103 games and fought for the pennant down until the final day of the season only to fall one short. Swift jumped to 232 innings that season. He was never the same pitcher again.

All that said, Baker didn't manage in a vacuum. He had bosses who could have made him take care of his pitchers. The whole idea of gradually breaking pitchers in was just beginning in the late 1990s. Baker came from another era. His GMs didn't stop him from giving young pitchers so many innings. His pitching coaches didn't. But the damage was done. What happened to Prior, Wood and Clement combined with the Cubs slide permanently scarred Baker.

That's why it was surprising to this observer when the Reds hired him in 2008. Unlike the Cubs experience, each year has gone a little better for the Reds since Baker's been there culminating of course with the division title. He hasn't overused anybody. He handled Leake just right in this writer's humble opinion. The same with Wood.

There are other good things to say about Baker's run with the Reds. He's put Votto, Bruce and Stubbs out there every day and let them develop into great ball players. He handled his bullpen really well including changing Arthur Rhodes from a one batter specialist to a set up man when it warranted the big left hander. Rhodes had another incredible season.

Dusty Baker cannot be denied his 2010 season. There is nothing to point at to say he didn't manage it well. The big thing now is how the team will do in the coming seasons. Baker had a lot go right in 2010. Scott Rolen had his best year in a long time. His two catchers had career years. Votto blossomed. Bruce blossomed. The team just seemed to gel. It would be difficult to imagine some of those players doing as well in 2011 as they did in 2010.

But it really doesn't matter. This writer needed to come to terms with Dusty Baker as a manager. As usual, a manager gets too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go bad. But Baker and the Reds didn't win the division in a fluky way. They did it the old fashioned way. They earned it.


Josh Borenstein said...

Yeah, it pains me to say that Baker did a good job this year. Still, Bud Black was definitely the right choice for NL Manager of the Year. A lot of experts would have been surprised if the Padres had finished .500 by season's end. They took the Giants to the limit.

bobook said...

Wow, how is it that the three of us all have the same impression of the Dusty one? My friend Tim in Ohio also... Speaking of Bartman, shouldn't fans be smart enough to allow their team's players to reach in the stands when attempting to catch a foul ball? Contrary, a fan should do all one can within the rules of the game (i.e. don't reach over) while an opposing player attempts to reach in. During the past playoffs in Yankee Stadium, some chump hindered a Yankee down the third-base line and my friends and I were saying that had Texas scored as a result that guy was in serious doo-doo! The Chicago crowd is one thing, New Yawkers another...