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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More on Dusty Baker

Here are a few additional comments/links on Dusty Baker:

The Baker Press Conference
(viewable in full via cincireds.com...why do they make it so darn hard to link directly to their videos?)

Wayne Krivsky really needs to prepare some bulleted notes or something. This speak-from-the-heart-thing that he tries to do at these conferences is incredibly ineffective. I've no doubt that he's speaking sincerely, but he tends to ramble and takes about thrice as long as he needs to given the content of what he says. It'd only take 5 minutes to jot down a few talking points on a note card, and it'd improve his credibility enormously.

Bob and Dusty, on the other hand, are much better "off-the-cuff" speakers (though they also seemed to have planned what to say in their heads a bit better than Wayne). Nothing new with Bob, I can see some evidence of Dusty's reported ability to relate and motivate personnel based on that press conference. I thought Dusty's comment about how to promote leadership in the clubhouse was particularly memorable and effective.

I am perfectly willing to accept that Baker is exceptionally good at relating and motivating players. And I'm also willing to accept that this is important. It's his other qualities as a manager that I worry about. So onto his other qualities...

Pitcher Abuse
One of the things I argued in my initial post about Baker's hiring (and especially the subsequent comments) about pitcher abuse is that the managers don't operate in a vacuum, and that whatever he did in terms of player usage certainly must have been ok with the team's front office in Chicago or San Francisco. Nate Silver, observing that Terry Francona seemed to drastically change his pitcher usage when moving from Philadelphia to Boston, did a nice little study at BPro Unfiltered (it's free!) looking at manager usage of pitchers via their pitcher abuse point statistics. The prediction in his study based on my (and his) assertion is that team identity would be at least as good of a predictor of pitcher usage as manager identity.

Instead, he found that after one controls for year (pitcher usage has changed a lot in the past decade), the best predictor of pitcher usage was manager identity. Team identity was not significant in the model. Therefore, given that Baker showed up at the high end in both SFN and CHN (a point emphasized by Doug Gray here), there's definitely something for the Reds to be concerned about here.

However, I want to emphasize that the correlation was only 0.45. That's certainly substantial, but it's not enormous either--it indicates that manager identity explains about 20% of the variation in pitch counts as measured by pitcher abuse points. This means that managers most certainly can and do change. We can only hope that the media attention focused on Bakers' pitcher handling will make both he and the organization more conscious of the issue. Baker did cite an emphasis on keeping his players healthy in his press conference--hopefully that'll translate into action during the season. Honestly, given how careful the Reds have been with Homer Bailey over the last few years, I'd be shocked to see them suddenly just stop paying attention to his usage under Baker. I'm more concerned about Arroyo, who seems to perform better in subsequent start when his pitch count is kept under 110 or so.

Also, I'd again like to draw attention to the system that Boston uses to study and gauge player fatigue in some of their young pitchers, which I profiled here. I see absolutely no reason why the Reds aren't doing this with every single pitcher in their system. The point isn't to protect them from a particular manager or coach. The point is to gather specific, pitcher-by-pitcher data on fatigue as it relates to their usage, and to prevent injuries by better diagnosing fatigue before someone gets hurt. The potential long- and short-term rewards of using this kind of system just seem enormous relative to the cost required to get it up and running. It's just the sort of thing that could give a small market team like the Reds an edge over the competition in terms of developing their talent and keeping it on the field...after all, how many of the Reds' top pitching prospects have had their arms blow out in the minor leagues over the past 15 years?

Blocking Young Position Players
Another common critique of Baker as a manager is an over-reliance on veteran players, and a tendency to block young prospects with veterans. Baker claims that this had more to do with a lack of good young talent than any tendency to favor veterans on his part. In fact, he emphasized excitement over the opportunity to teach young players how to play. Those are just words, of course.

Still, the fact that Baker's taken so much flack for over-using young pitchers seems to support his claim--how can you argue that he both overuses young talent and while at the same time arguing that he doesn't let them play? :) What we need is an objective study that looks at all the available talent that he actually had at his disposal, rather than just citing anecdotes of blockage.

Shawn has answered the call and has begun a study looking at Baker's record with young players on a season-by-season basis. There are 14 seasons to work with, so he should be able to get a nice sample here. So far, from 1993 through 2002, he has found that two deserving young homegrown position players that won jobs (Rich Aurilia and Bill Mueller), while several young starting pitchers were in the rotation (Shawn Estes, Kirk Reuter, and Russ Ortiz). There may have been others who did not get as much of a shot, but I'm not seeing a massive trend against young players thus far. The primary reason for the abundance of veterans, in fact, had to do with trades of young players for veterans. Whether Baker had something to do with that, I don't know. It'll be interesting to see Shawn's piece recapping Baker's time with the Cubs.

As a side note, I want to thank C. Trent Rosecrans for asking questions about pitcher abuse and blocking young players in the press conference and in subsequent interviews! It's nice to see at least one reporter stepping up and asking some good questions. It's going to be such a shame to lose him when the Post closes its doors at the end of the year.

Baker's Salary and the Reds' Aspirations
J.C. Bradbury noted that Baker's salary will be $3.5 million a season over his three-year deal, which is ~$2.5 million more than the median managerial salary in '07. He thinks that the decision to spend that kind of money has more to do with sending a message to the fanbase than an expectation of actual return on the ballfield. I think he's probably correct about that.

He also thinks, along that vein, that the Reds may be aggressive players in the free agent market his offseason, perhaps even courting A-Rod. .... Now I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after some big name free agents, because even after picking up Dunn's option (adds $3 million to payroll), they should have a substantial amount of cash on hand to play with given the departures of the Milton ($10.3 m), Lohse ($4.2 m), LaRue ($2.5 m), Cormier ($2.3 m), Conine ($2 m), Hatteberg ($1.5 m, assuming he leaves), and Saarloos ($1.2 m) liabilities. That's $24 million right there, which represented 35% of the '07 opening day payroll. Some of that will be used with the various player options and raises, but there's still going to be a lot of financial room to work with this offseason.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine them ponying up the $30 million a year that will likely be needed to retain someone like A-Rod. He's an outstanding player, and would put up huge numbers in homer friendly GABP, but there are too many other holes on this team to be dedicating ~40% of payroll to one individual. Nevertheless, I could certainly see them go after folks in the $10-15 million range.

Photo by AP/David Kohl