Oct. 15, 2007
By Ray Ratto
Dusty Baker has just been hired to manage the Cincinnati Reds, which set one corner of the baseball world into full tizz alert. The corner that thinks to its soul that Dusty Baker is a horrible, player-first, pitcher-abusing, overpaid, bad-on-TV, thin-skinned failure of a manager.
In Dusty Baker, the Cincinnati Reds are getting a manager with a career .527 winning percentage. (AP)
Well, that's what having two out-of-contention seasons in Chicago will get you.
Baker is an unusual hire for the Reds, in that he has never worked for the Reds. Cincinnati is an insular town with an insular ballclub, and the results of that insularity, combined with cheap and/or dim owners and a spotty development system, have combined to produce a team of profound mediocrity.
In Baker, though, the new owners have hired an Internet piñata of the first magnitude, so this seems like as good a time as any analyze what about Baker makes his critics so crazy, and whether in fact it is true.
"Horrible." A winning percentage of .527 is better than horrible, and so is 10 in-contention finishes in 14 years. "Horrible," when used without any statistical or analytical backup, only means that the user of the word doesn't like him. Did he have good players when he won? Duh. Did he have bad players when he lost? See Question 1. That's typically how this works. Managers ride their talent, they don't override them. Basic baseball truth, that.
"Player-first." Here, guilty. Baker defends his players in public, sometimes to an almost uncomfortable degree, because that's the kind of player he was -– one who wanted his manager not to hang him out to dry in the morning paper.
The largest example of this was Barry Bonds, but in that case, Baker was simply acceding to the first law of managing -– when your owner coddles your best player, that's the philosophy that prevails throughout the organization. In San Francisco, Barry Bonds was the emperor, and even those who thought it was Baker's idea saw that nothing changed after he left.
"Pitcher-abusing." The prime examples here are Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and they are both bad ones. Prior's injury history is (a) colliding with Marcus Giles; (b) blowing an Achilles' tendon; (c) being hit on the elbow with a Brad Hawpe line drive; and (d) shoulder issues that might have not been properly diagnosed by the Cubs doctors and in any event might well have resulted from any or all of the three other injuries.
Wood has had a chronic bad elbow that was predicted when he first broke into the big leagues because of his high-energy delivery, and in any event began in 1999, four years before Baker got to Chicago. He also had a knee problem, which might have been the result of compensating for his arm issues.
On the other hand, Baker always scored high in what numbers-based seamheads call "pitcher abuse" points, because he let his starters go 120 pitches and beyond. Since many of those pitchers were Livan Hernandez, who by any definition breaks that rule all to hell, this might be exaggerated somewhat.
The Giants pitcher he is most commonly linked with in this area is Robb Nen, who like Wood had a history before he got to San Francisco and, like Wood, maintained the same high-torque delivery. Should Baker have had those deliveries changed? Maybe, but they might have also cost those pitchers their careers just as certainly.
He did ride hot hands, true, but teams in contention always do so. Was he predisposed toward high pitch counts? Yes. Is that good? As a rule, no. Is there a trail of destroyed pitchers in his wake? Not really, once you see that Prior and Wood aren't good examples of Baker's alleged "abuse." In other words, shut up about Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey.
"Bad on TV." A matter of taste at best, spiteful at worst, and not worth discussing in this context.
"Overpaid." He has made good money in a job where the new trend is to underpay and undercut. He is paid what his employer is comfortable paying him, so in that context no. Compared to a teacher, or a nurse, or a janitor, or an entry-level anything, hell yes.
"Thin-skinned." Maybe, but that's only if you believe Lou Piniella is a gentle soul, or Tony La Russa lets criticism roll off his back, or Ozzie Guillen is a Zen master.
Baker has had no recorded YouTube-quality tantrums, but he does speak his mind and defend his turf, perhaps to his detriment if your idea of the perfect manager's temperament is Joe Torre. He does pay more attention to public commentary than he should, but that hardly puts him at the front of the pack.
"Failure." Yeah, right. Next to Bonds, he is the most important hire Peter Magowan ever made as managing general whatever of the Giants. He managed the only team in the post-playoff world to win as many as 103 games and not get into the playoffs. He was one Scott Spiezio golf swing from managing a team to the World Series title. He was one Alex Gonzalez error from being the manager when the Cubs got to their first World Series since 1945. Yeah, that sucks. He's brutal. Chase him with sticks.
Is Dusty Baker a good hire then? The short answer is he isn't bad at all. The more involved answer is, that depends on Adam Dunn and Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips and Harang and Bailey and Wayne Krivsky and Bob Castellini.
In other words, when evaluating Baker, trust nobody and nothing except (a) your own lying eyes, and (b) the standings. That last one is a handy and much underrated tool for this sort of thing.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
I love this response by an emailer named Dillon1998:
October 16, 2007 2:11 am
Prior never blew an Achilles tendon. He had tendonitis, and it was probably caused by compensating for his overuse arm injuries.
Moreover, Dusty's pitch-counts for Prior during the 2003 season weren't just negligent, they were practically criminal. At the end of his 22-year-old season - September, at a time when he was already well above his all-time high for innings pitched, Dusty left Prior in for outings of 131, 129, 124, 131, and 133 pitches.
And the abuse continued in the playoffs - Dusty let Prior start the 8th inning of Game 2 of the 2003 NLCS with a 10-run lead and 110+ pitches already thrown. He sat in the dugout and chewed toothpicks after the Bartman incident in Game 6 while Prior, visibly laboring and visibly upset, already up at ~120 pitches and only in the high-80's with his fastball, got knocked around.
"Thin-skinned"? Very. Dusty repeatedly fell back on the "Well, dude, I'm a MLB manager and you're NOT, so I'm smarter" routine with reporters after they (correctly) called Dusty out on his abuse of Prior, Wood, and Zambrano, or called Dusty out on an improper double-switch.
On at least two occasions, Dusty incorrectly double-switched, causing the Cubs to bat out of order and costing the team outs. On countless other occasions, Dusty would double-switch stupidly, causing the pitcher's spot to come up sooner. On most occasions after a double-switch, Dusty would only use the pitcher for 1 inning anyway, making the double-switch unnecessary to begin with. Once, Dusty (or, more likely, one of his coaches) recognized a double-switch mistake after one batter, and the Cubs had to make a second double-switch, yanking an outfielder in the middle of an inning. Amateur hour!
"Thin-skinned"? Dusty took such umbrage with Steve Stone's (spot-on) criticism of his managing failures that the best color man in TV was run out of Chicago. When Stoney is noting that you ran zero hit-and-run plays in the 2004 season.... and he's not exaggerating... there's a problem.
The "Fact" is, Dusty isn't a very good baseball mind. ("Walks clog the bases", right?) This is why the Cubs fired him three years after he made the NLCS, and this is why the Giants fired him immediately after winning the pennant. Great teams can win in spite of him, but he'll cost every team wins, and his locker rooms eventually dissolve into anarchy and in-fighting.
The Reds have made a terrible mistake. As a baseball fan, I hope that the Reds end up paying a lesser price than the Cubs did for hiring Dusty Baker - they're still doing penance a year later. Mark Prior, now only 25 years old, may never recover.