I’m going to be honest: I’m not sure that I see the logic in the Washington Nationals letting go of Dusty Baker.
I mean, I’ve heard the arguments for it; that Dusty is a “bad tactical manager”, that his teams can’t win in the postseason, and so on. I’m just not sure that I totally buy it. Arguing that being a “good tactical manager” is necessary to win a World Series seems like a specious argument, given that three of the last four World Series were won by Joe Maddon (who has repeatedly come under fire for his strange bullpen management the last two years as well as his other “quirkier” habits), Ned Yost (no one’s idea of a stat-head), and John Farrell (who just found himself let go). In fact, just in the past decade, we’ve seen Yost and Ron Washington, two of the managers traditionally thought of as the least statistically-minded, each win back-to-back pennants; Yost with a title, and Washington a misplayed Nelson Cruz flyball away from his own.
That’s not to say that being bad at tactics is a benefit or anything crazy; just that there are many things to being a manager, and while tactics are the only one we can really traditionally measure at this time, they clearly aren’t everything. And really, we know this; most studies on lineup optimization have found that it can save maybe a win or two a year, which is nice, but also not enough that a team can’t win 95 games and a World Series while batting Alcides Escobar and his .257/.293/.320 triple slash line leadoff.
This is something that I’ve sort of changed my mind on over the past few seasons, that managing is easy and can be done by anyone willing to listen to their front office. Over the last few years, we’ve seen teams trying to hire inexperienced managers who apparently take orders pretty directly from their front offices, and the results have been…mixed at best, I would say. Guys like Mike Redmond, Robin Ventura, Walt Weiss, and Craig Counsell haven’t exactly done anything to impress (and the first three were all fired before 2017). Even the ones who have made the playoffs for the most part haven’t exactly set the world on fire; Brad Ausmus was just fired and Matt Williams’ tenure in Washington came to a pretty miserable end. The most “successful” manager of this type may be Mike Matheny, which…as a Cardinals fan, let me just say that I have many, many issues with his tenure. Viva El Birdos has a summary good enough that I don’t feel like I need to write my own.
While we may not be able to determine for certain who the best managers are, most of the metrics that we tend to use come out strongly for Baker. With 1863 wins, he’s 14th all time, behind Gene Mauch and 12 Hall of Famers. He’s 71st all-time in winning percentage at .532, but few ahead of him have managed more games; indeed, 31 of the 70 have fewer than 1000 games managed (Baker has exactly 3500). Combining the two, we have games above .500; Baker is at 227, 22nd all-time. Of the 21 ahead of him, 18 are in Cooperstown for their managing. Two of the other three are Billy Martin and Davey Johnson, both of whom I’ve argued should be in the Hall as well. The third is Jim Mutrie, who maybe should be in himself, but only managed nine seasons from 1883 to 1891, meaning he lacks the counting stats.
But let’s go back to Martin and Johnson, because I want to discuss something I talked about in my Hall of Fame piece. Those two are notable for not just winning, but winning in multiple places. One of the biggest problems in evaluating managers is we can’t just swap out a manager and see how a team would do otherwise. But looking at teams before and after a manager arrives can be a reasonable proxy. Teams usually see some turnover in between seasons, but are on the whole at least fairly similar. As I noted then, when winning seems to follow a manager around as they arrive at a variety of teams, it may not be definite proof that it’s the manager, but it definitely makes for a compelling argument, in my mind.
Baker is a lot like Martin and Johnson, in that regard. He’s led four different teams in his managerial career, between the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and Nationals. In his first season for a new team, they have not only all seen their win total improve, the average improvement was 16.5 wins compared to their last pre-Dusty season. Two of the teams saw an improvement of over 20 games. The only team that didn’t see an improvement of at least a dozen games was the Cincinnati Reds, who were in the midst of a twelve-year postseason drought when he arrived; that drought would end in his third season there, having taken the team from 72 wins before he arrived all the way to 91 wins.
Even some of the criticisms of Baker seem overblown and more based in parody at this point. People will point to his handling of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in Chicago, but even that is more complicated than it seems. Most teams at that point weren’t looking at pitch counts; Wood, in fact, had already missed time from overuse before Baker arrived. This is hardly Baker’s cross to bear alone. And since his days in Chicago (which also saw the development of the incredibly sturdy Carlos Zambrano, but we’ll leave that aside), he’s overseen staffs in Cincinnati and Washington that have been pretty healthy, especially from the arm/should angle that’s typically tied to overuse.
I definitely wouldn’t call Dusty Baker the best manager in the game right now, but at the same time, all he has to be is one of the top 30 to justify a job. And given that most of the ones who I’d call better than him are pretty clearly locked in to other spots for the long term, I’m not at all certain where the Nationals expect to find someone better on relatively short notice, especially given the approximately-two-year-window (before Bryce Harper’s free agency) that they seem to be operating under at the moment. All I know is that, as a Cardinals fan, I would consider it a major trade-up to go from Matheny to Dusty right now. And seeing that he had to wait two years and take a greater-than-50% paycut in going from Cincinnati to Washington, it seems all the more reasonable to reach out to him.