The Astros are hardly in an ideal situation, finding themselves suddenly lacking both a Manager and a General Manager mere weeks before pitchers and catchers report for what is expected to be a contending season. However, they appear to have finally settled on longtime manager Dusty Baker, and honestly? I think that's a fine choice, especially on short notice.
Really, of all the names that were considered for the role, Baker's was far and away the one that was the most interesting, to me. We have a decent idea of who all was considered for the role, given Chandler Rome's list of nine candidates from the other day, and it's not bad considering the short notice the role opened on. Still, I was also hesitant given that half of the list was candidates with no managerial experience.
The Astros are pretty clearly in win-now mode, and while I think the Astros will be contending this year and possibly even in 2021, I'm not sure how much further than that I'd be willing to go. The farm system is depleted after the last few years, and losing their biggest draft picks for 2020 and 2021 is only going to exacerbate matters. The primary focus should be on the next season or two, which is why I'm skeptical of rookie managers (in this case meaning Mark Kotsay, Eduardo Pérez , Joe Espada, and Will Venable).
There's a lot of uncertainty in hiring someone totally unproven, and even in the event that you find someone great, it may take a while for them to find their footing. Just look at Terry Francona, or Bobby Cox, or Joe Torre, all of whom didn't record a winning season until their second teams as managers. Even the legends who figure things out relatively quickly still usually have something of an adjustment period, like Tony La Russa and Bruce Bochy needing a full season or more to make it above .500. And this is without getting into the unique challenges Houston will present this year, with increased pressure following in the fallout of the sign stealing investigation. Given all that, I'd rather go with a more experienced manager.
And of the managers with experience, Baker was far and away my favorite option. Let's just start with the first, most basic point: Dusty has had substantially more success than anyone else available. For example, just comparing him to the other candidates who had managed before:
Every candidate has had some success, but Baker is just heads and shoulders above the other four. Not that they’re bad, of course, Baker has just managed a level of success that few have sustained for as long as he has. In fact, he’s twenty-third all-time in Games Above .500. That doesn’t just happen by accident.
Perhaps more importantly, this hasn’t happened by just camping out on a good team for years. Baker has continued his success across all four teams he’s managed to date. And it’s not like he’s just stepped into already successful teams, either: every one of his first seasons in a new town have seen his team improve, with three of those four improving on their previous year’s record by double digits. The only one that didn’t improve by that much was the Reds, who were in midst of a losing streak; by 2010, his third season, he had gotten them their first winning season since 2000 and their first playoff appearance since 1995.
Few managers can boast that type of quick success across so many teams, and the ones that can are pretty fondly remembered, like Billy Martin and Davey Johnson. There’s not really a good way to measure the exact effect a manager can have on a team, which is why direct comparisons between seasons like that seem important. It’s the closest we can get to running a season again with minimal changes to measure differences, and while one or even two success stories might be luck, four feels a little closer to a pattern.
The larger point is, there’s clearly more to managing than just the things Baker has been criticized for, like in-game bullpen management or optimizing the lineup (the latter of which still has a minimal effect at most). If there wasn’t, we probably would probably have seen more success among the total neophytes with close ties to analytical front offices that were so in vogue a few years ago. Most went the way of guys like Robin Ventura or Walt Weiss, making little impact. But even the ones that made the playoffs tended to have questionable records that drove fans of their teams crazy. Seriously, ask a Cardinals about Mike Matheny, or Tigers fans about Brad Ausmus. Or Nationals fans about Matt Williams, for that matter.
That last one seems especially relevant, seeing as it led to Baker’s last gig. And it seems like a not-dissimilar comparison to what the Astros face, with a talented roster but chaos at the head of things. Keeping things calm and getting the players to play to their full potential would be greatly appreciated for the 2020 Astros, in my opinion.
But even aside from that, Dusty’s reputation has sort of wildly surpassed the man himself, with a lot of the points held against him coming from things that happened a decade or more ago. He’s pretty clearly shown an ability to learn and grow, though, which is both a good quality and critical point to look at when evaluating him as a potential manager for 2020. You can point to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s (who had arm troubles years before Baker got to Chicago anyway, but we’ll ignore that) injuries if you want, but noting that his approach has changed and his last two teams didn’t see similar problems in his wake feels at least as important, if not more so.
And I guess you could worry about his postseason record, but it feels kind of like a moot point. I tend to think a lot of the playoffs are still pretty random and that the effect a manager can have is pretty underwhelming, so you might as well focus on maximizing regular season success and work from there, but let’s set that aside. The only available managers with World Series under their belt are guys who have made it pretty clear they’re retired, so it’s not like there was a clearly better option floating around. And the other four veteran manager candidates on that list combined have as many playoff series victories as Baker does by himself.
Really, the biggest part of a manager’s job seems to be second-guessed, so no choice is going to make everyone happy. But at the same time, Dusty Baker is without a doubt in the top 10% of managers all-time, likely even higher, and it’s not every day you can find someone like that on short notice. No other candidates looks like as sure a bet, which seems crucial given how much longer the team’s window for success looks to be open. He has a long track record of success, has succeeded on teams that look similar to the 2020 Astros, and has shown an ability to learn from his mistakes. Working with a more analytical front office might even help him improve more. I don’t know what else you could want if you’re in Houston’s situation.