A bizarre week of twists and turns seemed to come to an end on Thursday as the Washington Nationals officially named Dusty Baker their new manager. While dismissing former manager Matt Williams
and his coaching staff the day after the season ended was supposed to be targeting the sudden aura of dysfunction that surrounded the squad, the Bud Black saga seemed to compound that there was a problem. Whether it was Black's camp that leaked the details of the offer that he considered an insult or someone in the Nationals organization, that situation ended up being far more public than it should have. The Nats organization wasted no time in moving on, hiring Baker almost immediately.
I can't lie and say that I'm happy with the Baker hire. In many ways, it feels like the Nats reaction to Baker's student (Williams) failing to guide this team as they'd hoped was to just go out and hire his mentor. Had there not been so many systemic problems with Williams' management style (which, in truth, wasn't that close to Baker's), I could see the justification in turning to his more experienced teacher. Of course, much of the reason that Williams is gone is because of his tactical failures.
With that in mind, let's move on from Williams and discuss Dusty Baker a bit. I don't think that he'll be half as bad as his critics are worried that he will be. He won't be as good as those who want to look solely at his .526 career winning percentage think he will be either. How good will he be, though?
managers/players people, Baker has his strengths and weaknesses. It's odd that, given his managerial history (1671-1504, 5 division titles, 1 NL pennant), most of what we hear about regarding Baker are his weaknesses. What may be even stranger is that he actually showed some improvement in those areas that are his perceived weaknesses near the end of his time at his most recent stop in Cincinnati.
- Baker earned a reputation as an arm-shredder in Chicago with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Of course, we heard far less people talk about Carlos Zambrano (jumped from 117 IP between AAA and the majors in 2002 to 214 big league innings in 2003), who was a nice success story on those same Cubs teams. Zambrano made 30+ starts in each season from 2003-2008. Baker's pitching staffs remained relatively healthy during his time in Cincinnati, with young hurlers such as Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Mat Latos staying healthy under Dusty's watch.
- Baker has also earned a reputation as a manager who pretty much spits in the face of advanced metrics. One of the examples more commonly pointed to in this area was Baker's insistence to bat Willy Taveras (.275 OBP that year) in the leadoff spot whenever he was in the lineup in 2009 for the Reds. The problem did persist throughout most of his tenure in Cincinnati, with Brandon Phillips (.320 career OBP), Zack Cozart (.284 career OBP), and Drew Stubbs (.303 career OBP) all saw their fair share of time in the leadoff (or number two) spots in the order on Baker's watch. However, in his final season as the Reds' manager, Baker did use more of a modern leadoff man with Shin-Soo Choo.
Baker's tactical reputation is easy to attack. His perceived strengths are a lot more difficult to quantify outside of his won-loss record. The areas in which Baker has (presumably) thrived over the years are some of the things that many of us point to as "the narrative." He's always been well respected by his players. Guys play hard for him. He's relaxed and comfortable in the clubhouse. He's the type of guy that players want to follow and succeed for, rather than the type of guy that players follow because it's expected of them.
Does it really matter that much?
After consistently hammering Matt Williams and his decision-making for the past two years, I'm sure that many of you will think that my answer is: Absolutely! Oddly enough, though, I just don't think that it really has to matter that much. I read.... well... I read the first few paragraphs of an article that Dan Szymborski retweeted the other day. I went a few paragraphs in, or about as far as I could go without wanting to hurl. I won't share the link because I really don't want to feed this guy's clickbait, but it shouldn't be too hard to find. Anyway........ In that article, one of the writer's main points (?) revolves around Baker turning Bryce Harper into a man... blah blah blah. While that's nothing but a bunch of nonsense, it did make me think about how much the manager (or head coach, in other sports) really matters.
Let's tie this other article's nonsense about teaching players (specifically the best player in baseball) to become men into another sport at a level where coaches are expected to turn players into men. Bobby Bowden coached at Florida State until he was eighty years old. He won his final national title at the age of seventy, but he did go 85-44 (before fourteen wins were vacated for academic violations) in that final decade of his career. Over that final decade, Bowden was on the sidelines and surely had some control over the decision-making process during games, but he seemed to delegate his authority to his coaches more and more as his career came to a close. In fact, he delegated his authority so much near the end that the transition to Jimbo Fisher was pretty much seamless. Florida State has won four ACC Atlantic Division titles in five years under Fisher and a National Championship.
If there's one brilliant thing that's happened since the Dusty Baker hire, it's that some of the top coaches in baseball have already flocked to Baker's staff. Mike Maddux has joined the staff as the new pitching coach. Davey Lopes has accepted a position as the new first base coach. While I'm (somewhat half-heartedly) a bit disappointed that Barry Bonds isn't being considered for the vacant hitting coach position, the field of coaches that they're looking at figures to be strong based on the first two additions to his coaching staff.
I certainly worry about Baker's track record with regards to his tactical decisions. However, I think that having a strong coaching staff around him could make it easier for Baker to spend more of his time focusing on the big picture... and being a figurehead that the players, fans, and certainly the media love. We've already seen that last part come to fruition. In Baker's introductory press conference, he already showed more personality and charm than we saw out of Matt Williams in the past two years.
While Williams would seem to hide within a shell when asked a difficult question, Baker seems like he's going to be eminently quotable. After the seeming dysfunction at the end of the 2015 season (and now the whole managerial hiring mess), Baker's ability to play at politics after the ballgame a bit should come in handy. Of course, don't confuse Baker's affability and charm to mean that he's always going to be giving straight answers, though. He'll just deflect them in a much more interesting fashion than Matty did.
Was he the right man for the job?
As soon as Matt Williams was dismissed, my first feeling was: "It was the right move, now just don't hire Dusty Baker." A month later, they've hired Dusty Baker. I've made my peace with it over the past few days, and I do believe that he's probably going to be better than the manager who looked like he was stuck in the early 1990s at his previous stops. Perhaps two years away from the game has helped Baker to evolve and realize that at least some of the statistical advancements (like a closer focus on pitch counts... and the importance of OBP) made over the past two decades have enhanced the way that the modern game is played. Even if he hasn't grown more comfortable or adapted much, we've seen in the past year that this only means so much. Ned Yost's Royals have singled, bunted, and stole their way to the past two World Series, winning one of those. There's no saying that even a Dusty Baker who is stuck in the past can't guide a talent-laden team to a title.
Baker does have his strengths, and they're good enough to keep this team in contention even if he still has some of the tactical issues that he's had in the past. If he's adapted and is ready to take a more modern approach with his in-game tactical decisions, Baker could end up being the perfect man for the job.