Dusty being Dusty could get messy for the Reds
February 28, 2008
There is a certain charm to Dusty Baker, a lemme-tell-you-a-story forthrightness that can soften even the most hard-boiled observers. His voice is molasses. You can't help but crack a smile when, in the midst of explaining how a year away from managing changed him, he breaks into a recitation of lyrics from Van Morrison's "Meaning of Loneliness."
As the song goes:
How can you ever really know somebody else?
It takes more than a lifetime
Just to get to know yourself.
Baker is not so sure he has changed, really.
"When you're 58 years old, there's not a whole bunch of difference," he says. "You just sort of reposition things. I weigh the same, but stuff fits differently. I think people understand that, once you get to a certain age. I'm the same guy because that's the only guy I know."
How Baker's uniform fits is not of tremendous concern to fans of his new team, the Reds. They have a more pressing worry -- whether, once the season starts, Baker will be willing to change his style to fit this young group. For all Baker's success as a manager, he has thrived with veteran teams. When it comes to youth, Baker has been, at best, neutral. At worst, he has been accused of being a career-killer.
The second point is debatable. Baker is widely blamed for the flameout of former Cub Mark Prior, who was brilliant under Baker in his first full season, 2003. The workload Baker gave Prior that year was excessive -- 26 of 30 starts went 100-plus pitches, and 20 starts went 110-plus. When the playoff race was at its most intense, Baker was relentless: Prior averaged 120.8 pitches in his final 10 regular-season starts, 122.7 in three playoff games. He hasn't been healthy since.
But Prior's problems can't be entirely laid at Baker's feet. The Cubs rushed Prior to the big leagues in 2002, after he'd made just 37 college starts the previous two years. In Chicago that year, he averaged 107.0 pitches per start. But Baker was still in San Francisco then. Prior's heavy workload preceded Baker -- it was part of an organizational conviction that his mechanics were so good, he could handle high pitch counts.
Still, Baker should have had the foresight to soften Prior's burden. When Shawn Estes had a breakout year in San Francisco in 1997, Baker allowed his pitch counts to balloon -- Estes went 120-plus pitches seven times in 32 starts. Estes had a 3.18 ERA that year, but for the remaining nine years of his career, his ERA was 4.97.
This made Baker an odd choice for Cincinnati -- especially as the Reds missed out on veteran starters Erik Bedard, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton before settling on Josh Fogg. If Baker's reputation for overusing young pitchers is more real than imagined, the Reds could have a problem. The team's rotation behind Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Fogg could include Homer Bailey, 21, and Edinson Volquez, 24. Johnny Cueto, 22, is on the Reds' horizon.
If Cincinnati is in the N.L. Central hunt, Baker will be tempted to lean on his pup pitchers, especially with a spotty middle-relief situation. "You have to worry about the young pitchers there," says one veteran N.L. scout. "They need to keep close watch -- they can't afford to blow those guys out. Dusty needs to change his approach there."
Baker, as he notes, hasn't changed much as a person over the years -- he's still "the only guy I know." But for the sake of his new franchise, he needs to change as a manager.
Farewell to an arm
Dusty Baker's detractors say the way he used Mark Prior in 2003 led to Prior's subsequent injuries. But comparing Prior, who turned 23 that season, with other similarly young pitchers pokes holes in that argument. Perhaps more noteworthy than their pitch counts when 23 or 24, none of the others took the quick route to the majors Prior did: Drafted out of USC, he was in the majors the next spring (2002). The others had been pros for a while, giving them a chance to build pitch counts. Is that a key difference? Maybe. Whatever the reason or reasons, you surely can't blame Prior's ongoing arm problems solely on Dusty Baker in 2003, especially when you consider Prior's count that season doesn't even rank among the 100 highest pitch counts per season among active players.