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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dusty Baker

Sometime in mid-August, I had a bizarre conversation with a mid-40's check-out clerk at Safeway who saw my Reds hat. He said that he was not a Reds fan, but asked what I thought about the Reds' managing situation, and said he thought that Pete MacKanin had done a heck of a job. I said "Yeah, seems like they've responded well to him."

He then started naming several additional names within the Reds system as potential candidates for the managerial job, including Pat Kelly, Rick Sweet, and Tom Hume. Have to say that I was impressed. I mean, shoot, I follow the Reds pretty closely, and I'm not sure I could have come up with Pat Kelly's name if someone asked me who the Reds' bench coach was in the second half. It'd be one thing if this had happened in Cincinnati, but this was Phoenix for pete's sake! It's not even all that nice of a Safeway.

The last thing this guy said to me as I was leaving was that he'd heard that Dusty Baker was a leading candidate for the job. I said "huh, I hadn't heard that," and left the store. It was the first time I'd ever heard Baker's name in connection with the Reds, and the last time until Fay started mentioning his name a week or so ago.

Well, it's apparently now a done deal. I need to go back to Safeway and find that guy...he's some kind of oracle. That or, more likely, he just guessed right.


Honestly, I don't know a heck of a lot about Dusty Baker. That's probably my fault, as the guy has as long of a track record as anyone. But as of tonight, here are the few things that I do know about him.
  • He often chews on a toothpick during games.
  • When serving as a commentator on ESPN radio playoff games this postseason, he tends to focus a lot on doing "the little things," like noticing when someone does a nice slide into second base. He also tends to suggest that guys may bunt a lot more than they actually do.
  • While managing with the Giants, he allowed his 3.5 year old son to be a batboy, and the kid nearly got run over during game five of the '02 world series.
  • During his tenure as manager of the Cubs, two phenomenal young pitchers--Kerry Wood and Mark Prior -- blew out their arms.
  • In 2005, under Baker's leadership, batters hitting first in his lineups had the worst OBP (0.299) of any slot in their batting order aside from the pitcher's slot.
    • Prominent leadoff hitters that year included Jerry Hairston (0.336 OBP), Corey Patterson (0.254 OBP), Neifi Perez (0.298 OBP), and Matt Lawton (0.289 OBP), and Jose Macias (0.274 OBP).
    • Plugging the lineup splits from b-ref into David Pinto's Lineup Tool predicts that Baker's lineups would score ~0.19 fewer runs per game than an optimal lineup, which works out to 30 runs per season, or roughly three wins. None of the top 40 or so lineups his tool generated place the true leadoff hitter group in the leadoff spot.
  • Baseball Prospectus's wrap on Baker following the '07 season cited impatience with the pitching staff and fickle loyalty to rookie players.
  • Bill James' '07 handbook indicates that he has used a roughly average number of lineups each year, that he hasn't focused much on platoons, has used very few pinch runners and defensive substitutions, has averaged more high pitch count outings from his starters than anyone except Jim Leyland (eek), has been prone to use relievers on consecutive days rather often, hasn't seemed particularly obsessed with the running game, has liked to sac bunt, and rarely has pitched out. For whatever that's worth.
Look, I don't think a manager makes all that much difference in the long run. I think they're important in terms of maintaining order and a sense of confidence in the clubhouse. I think they're probably important in terms of how they manage their pitching staff's workload, especially in the bullpen. But I think that variance in manager skill, especially in terms of in-game strategy and lineup construction--the two most visible things a manager does--is rather small. It's not that managers can't make a difference in these areas. Rather, I think that that most managers just do the same things that all the other ones do, which means that it doesn't matter much who you plug in at the helm as long as they have the confidence of their players.

On some level, the manager must matter, right? So looking at the things I know about Dusty Baker right now...well...I'm not super excited about this move. In fact, he seems to be exactly the sort of manager I was hoping the Reds wouldn't hire, i.e. someone who is apparently completely blind to anything that has been discovered about baseball since 1970. I mean, shoot, even Jerry Narron understood something about on base percentage in the leadoff spot.

Nevertheless, there are a few things that I do like about the move:
  • I like that they gave their chosen guy a three year deal. That indicates some anticipation of stability over the next few years, which would at least be something different for the Reds....volatility wasn't working, so maybe stability will.
  • On general principle, I like the fact that someone who is not a white male was deemed the best choice for such a prominent job, especially in a fairly conservative town like Cincinnati.
  • I like that the choice for the managerial job did not come down to a team's performance during the second half of a single season under an interim manager like it did with our last two managers.
Photo by AP/Eric Risberg