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June 28, 2010

You Could Look It Up

The Dusty Discontents (or You Must be a Cubs Fan)

by Steven Goldman

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Sometimes you get an email that is worth responding to not because the reader raises good points, but because he doesn’t. Such is the case with reader Greg (not a subscriber, so one of you did a copy ‘n’ paste job—c’mon, ‘fess up) and last week’s discussion of Dusty Baker’s leadoff men.

Below, I reply to Greg’s questions/comments/accusations. He’s the one in bold, while I, ever humble, am in the understated normal font. I’ve corrected some punctuation and grammar for ease of reading, but that’s all.

So Steve, tell me why its Dusty Baker’s problem that the front office can't get Dusty Baker a qualified leadoff man?

Because it’s his job to get the most out of the team whatever the makeup of the roster. What’s more, “qualified” is an entirely arbitrary term. Dusty has a roster full of leadoff men. They may not be obvious leadoff men like Rickey Henderson, but they’re there, just waiting to be batted first. Leadoff men aren’t born, they’re made. Any good hitter will make a good leadoff man. The manager just has to be willing to see the possibilities.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite players, Brian Downing. Mr. Downing came to the majors as a catcher. In telling you this, it is my purpose to suggest that as is typical for that position, he was not fast. He stole 50 bases in his career and was caught 44 times. About halfway through his career he was moved to left field, where he was a surprisingly solid defender, and also spent a lot of time at DH, playing until he was 41. A career .267/.370/.425 hitter, Mr. Downing was usually good for 20-25 home runs and 85 walks a season. This year’s version of Nick Swisher isn’t a bad approximation of Mr. Downing, though the latter made better contact.

Slow, patient, powerful, Downing was clearly a middle-of-the-order hitter in traditional terms. Nevertheless, in 1982, Angels manager Gene Mauch, Mister Bunty-Deadball-Baseball himself, made Downing a leadoff man. He spent a good deal of the rest of his career in the role and was very effective. Similarly, Casey Stengel made Hank Bauer a leadoff man, and Earl Weaver often listed Merv Rettenmund in the first spot (these players are somewhere on the same branch of the baseball family tree with Downing). They both would have preferred a Rickey Henderson type if they had had him, but they didn’t, so they improvised. Earl had Don Buford, who was actually very good in the traditional leadoff mold (though a rotten percentage basestealer) but sometimes chose to lead off Rettenmund anyway. Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds both spent time in their careers leading off. They scream 3-4 hitters to you now, but that’s not always how their managers chose to see them.

There are no rules to who should be a leadoff man, only received images that you can throw out the window if you don’t have anyone who fits that image, or even if you do, because you might have someone better. The speed component of that image has ruined many a baseball team, because managers can’t see that a slow high-OBP leadoff hitter is more valuable than a fast low-OBP hitter. The only thing between Baker and a more sensible leadoff man—as, ironically, he proved this weekend, see below—was a lack of imagination.

Isn't the Reds' offense the top offense in the NL?

Yes and no. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I would strongly suggest that the answer is irrelevant. The manager’s job is to correct his club’s deficiencies. Even if the Reds’ offense is succeeding in spite of the prominent role given to a non-hitter, that doesn’t mean that Baker (or we) should accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After all, the Reds are merely a .553 team, which means they’re on a pace for 89 or 90 wins, and their run differential is just plus-25, which suggests they’ve been a bit lucky. Indeed, before Sunday’s action, BP’s third-order wins saw them as a 37-38 team, not the 42-33 team they were. A correction could be coming, and it’s Baker’s job to stave it off. If he can’t improve the pitching staff (something that might happen when Edinson Volquez returns), the least he can do is squeeze some extra juice out of the batting order. It is literally the least he can do. It could prove to be the difference between leaving the Cardinals behind and being left behind by them. Not fixing an obvious problem because things seem to be working out anyway is the very definition of complacency, and complacency kills wannabe contenders dead.

As for the Reds’ actual offensive performance, as alluded to above, they have mostly succeeded despite Orlando Cabrera’s starring role. Going into Sunday’s game, the Reds were second in the league in runs scored per game with 4.88, an average virtually equal to that of the league-leading Brewers, who averaged 4.91. They were first in batting average, second in on-base percentage, and first in slugging percentage. They ranked fourth in the majors in True Average, trailing the Red Sox, Brewers, and Yankees. One of the main reasons that they’re not clearly the top team is that their home park has helped them quite a bit. They’re hitting .291/.355/.479 at home, but only .255/.323/.398 on the road. Among the Reds who turn into total pussycats on the road: Cabrera, batting .215/.246/.308 away from the friendly confines. The club has allowed just 4.2 runs a game on the road, versus 4.5 overall, but its record is just 17-16 because it can’t score enough to win consistently. The upside construction of the batting order is part of that.

You must be a Cubs fan or something because this is an idiotic commentary.

The correct answer is “or something,” as longtime readers well know. I leave the issue of whether or not it’s an idiotic commentary to you. By the way, kudos on making such an original attack. Never before has a Baseball Prospectus writer been hit with the “you must be a [insert team name here] fan to make that argument” line. Not once!

Tell me: who from the Reds' 40-man roster would you use as a leadoff hitter?

As if by magic, Brandon Phillips has shown up in the leadoff spot for three games in a row, the first time that’s happened all year. So far he’s gone 5-for-12 since being moved up, giving him an overall line of .311/.370/.477. Cabrera has dropped to second in the order, which isn’t far enough. Phillips seems like a reasonably good choice to me. He has only a career .330 OBP as a Red, but he has enough power to lead off the game with a home run (Stengel’s theory on Bauer, who wasn’t a big walks guy, either) or put himself into scoring position with a double or a triple. Phillips is not a great percentage basestealer, but he swipes about 25 bags per season, so he’s fast enough to get around the bases for the other hitters if you care about stuff like that (not essential compared to a good OBP, but better than not). Moving Phillips up also gives him a shot at the most plate appearances on the team, which means more chances for him to do the things he does well and takes plate appearances away from Cabrera.

When/as/if Chris Dickerson comes back from his broken hamate bone (he’s supposed to begin a rehab assignment in the near future), I would also bring him into the mix by spotting him for Jonny Gomes in left field against some right-handed pitchers. Gomes is hitting .293/.331/.476 against righties, but he’s a .233/.313/.451 hitter against them for his career; chances are he’s going to regress a bit, and one way to put off that moment is to selectively limit his exposure to them. Dickerson isn’t going to make Cincinnati forget Edd Roush or anything, but in his limited major-league playing time, he has a .367 OBP, something more or less consistent with his Triple-A stats. As a left-hander, he makes a natural alternative to Gomes when the situation calls for it.

Drew Stubbs is a good enough hitter against left-handers (.264/.324/.496) that he could take the odd turn at the top against southpaws. Finally, if you don’t like any of those options, I would take a page from Joe Maddon’s book—catcher/DH John Jaso and his .271/.398/.396 have been leading off quite a bit of late for the Rays—and stick Ryan Hanigan up there from time to time when he returns from his trip to the DL (he’s rehabbing at Louisville now). This would be particularly helpful on the road, where Ramon Hernandez has hit a cool .197/.293/.273. I suspect that most of the 63 walks that have given Hanigan a nice .281/.383/.371 line in 496 career PA result from his batting eighth most of the time, but it’s worth finding out if this is truly the case.

Greg, I hope this response helps clarify your thinking about the role of the manager on a major-league baseball team. The front office giveth and the front office taketh away (or more accurately, don’t giveth), but the manager can’t just pout and say, “They didn’t give me Tim Raines so I’ll just put the batboy out there.” They have to struggle against their team’s limitations in order to maximize production. Until Friday, Baker hasn’t done that, choosing to emphasize his team’s limitations instead. It’s been a career-long problem, one that Baker will have to overcome if he’s going to avoid being out-managed and out-played by Tony La Russa’s Cardinals. 

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

32 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

CRP13

Steven, I'm generalizing here, but I grew up in Cincinnati and my whole extended family is still there. This email could have come from one of my cousins or uncles. The town is filled with Reds apologists, much more so than any other city I've lived in.

I'll never forget an argument I had with a cousin about the Reds last season after they were mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs, and my cousin insisted, "Anything can happen in baseball, I still think they'll make it because it's well known that they're the best team right now."

Just two weeks ago, an uncle told me the Reds had the best draft in baseball. He could not name any player the Reds drafted - or that anybody else had.

Conversations like these every few weeks has led me to the statistically-proven conclusion that you can't argue with a Reds fan. Greg has already decided that you are hopelessly biased and ignorant, and he is counting the days until the heavens open up and the Reds are anointed to their rightful place as the globally-recognized most amazingly fantastic sports franchise since Maximus Decimus Meridius (A Reds fan I know named his son after him instead of Pete Rose, so he must be great), just so that you will be proven wrong. You might as well be arguing with Mr. Red.

Jun 28, 2010 09:38 AM
rating: 1
 
cggarb

That's just nonsense. It is. You must live in a narrow circle, if you're seeing optimistic Reds fans. Check out any Reds blog or listen to WLW callers, you'll see all the negativity you can handle. Just as stupid as what you're describing, but in the other way.

I'm not going to defend Dusty Baker, or bash Goldman for choosing the strawiest of straw men.

But I would like to note that Cabrera DID hit after moving the leadoff spot: .301 .352 .361 in his first 20 games after the move. As did Drew Stubbs, who was moved down: 286 .359 .486. Goldman's suggestion of leading him off seems especially odd, when that was EXACTLY WHAT BAKER DID to start the season, to abysmal results (.174 .267 .283 in 26 games).

Baker obviously waited too long to make this second move, and I'd love to see Hanigan there, but I'm waiting to see *how much* this actually cost the Reds. I know lineup tools can rough it out, and I'm surprised Goldman hasn't shown us that.

Jun 28, 2010 13:29 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

I was mean to my own relatives. You're being mean to me. Boo on you.

Are you suggesting that Orlando Cabrera is an effective leadoff hitter because he hit ok in 20 games? You're not only breaking a cardinal rule of stats (low sample sizes don't mean squat!), but you're also ignoring history (just like the other Reds fans I'm intimately familiar with).

One Reds fan I am closely associated with called to brag when the Reds signed Josh Fogg, saying he was a talented pitcher who just needed a scenery change, and Cincy was the place for it. Fogg went on to post a spectacular 7.58 ERA in 78.1 innings.

Your insinuation isn't quite as bad. Orlando Cabrera isn't a complete zero...but he IS a guy with a career .320 OBP, which is not a stat you can just choose to ignore when you're talking about effective leadoff hitters. Add his SB success rate of barely over 80% and that he hasn't stolen over 20 in a season since 2006, and you have a guy who doesn't get on base who pitchers don't fear at all once he's there.

As for Stubbs, with an OBP of .311, well he's even worse.

What I took away from that part of Steven's article is that Brandon Phillips' value to the Reds right now might be highest as a leadoff hitter, but there are other situation options that might be acceptable as well.

Jun 28, 2010 13:51 PM
rating: 0
 
redsfan1470

Neither Cabrera nor Phillips is an OBP machine, really:
Last 3 years OBP / Career OBP
Orlando Cabrera .332 / .320
Brandon Phillips .324 / .318

I wouldn't mind seeing Bruce lead off, actually. One thing I'm sure of: Gary Matthews Jr. had better not be hitting first for the Reds a month from now.

I don't think there's a definitive answer to the question of who the Reds' most appropriate leadoff hitter is. I'm just glad that the job no longer belongs to Willy Taveras - if you want to bang on Dusty, Taveras's playing time last year definitely makes for a good start.

You two seem to have a difference of opinion about the manner in which Reds fans are idiots. You're actually both right - the derangement of Reds fans pretty much runs the spectrum. (And I AM a Reds fan, so you can add "self-aware idiocy" to the list as well.) My least favorite aspects of Reds fans are their love affair with Pete Rose and their collective hatred for Adam Dunn. (I'm the opposite - I hate Rose and love Dunn, which I suppose makes me a bit of an outcast.)

Jun 28, 2010 16:05 PM
rating: 5
 
CRP13

BLASPHEMER!

Jun 29, 2010 07:24 AM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

I'm not saying Cabrera IS an effective leadoff man. I'm saying that he WAS effective for 3-4 weeks, which explains (partly) why Baker stuck with him. Even if something isn't ideal, from an objective standpoint, there's some common sense in not "fixing" something that isn't broken *at the time.*

As for stolen base rate, Cabrera was 10 for 10 until stupidly trying for third with Votto up last night. That's excellent, both percentage-wise and as a total.

So, looking only at 2010, Baker had what options for the leadoff spot?
1. Stubbs, who failed.
2. Cabrera, who failed.
3. Phillips, who is no OBP machine himself (.312 going into this season), but who looks to be a different hitter since leaving the cleanup spot earlier this year.
4. Ryan Hanigan, half of a catching platoon and owner of 400 PA before this season. Also, Brian Downing and "base clogging" jokes aside, dude is SLOW.
5. Chris Dickerson, who hit .205/.222/.273 in half-time play in April, and can't stay healthy. If he had, Cabrera never bats leadoff.

Again, Baker stuck with Patterson, Taveras, and Cabrera well beyond the point he should have. But I'm not sure there were any good options this year.

Jun 29, 2010 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

cggarb, I break for scarecrows and didn't intend to push over a straw man. Rather, I figure that sometimes these kinds of responses are opportunities for education. I don't always want to preach to the converted. You can't do that without bantering a bit with those that disagree and getting some general principles out there. I know that Dorothy Parker was right when she said that you can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think (the rare meaningful pun?), and there are some bonehead fans that are never going to get beyond the back of the baseball card and what the team-approved broadcaster says (there are probably fans in New York who think Miguel Cairo is a better player than Mickey Mantle due to the way he was fawned over when he was here), but I feel obligated to try.

Jun 28, 2010 15:45 PM
 
redsfan1470

Yankees fans have a love affair with Miguel Cairo? Interesting. Cairo is hitting .433 as a 1B this season - Jocketty needs to pick up the phone and deliver unto the Yankees a clearly great first baseman!

Jun 28, 2010 16:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

It all stemmed from John Sterling's love affair with Miguel Cairo at first base, and sadly, some Yankee fans think John Sterling knows more about baseball (which you just can't predict) than anyone else alive.

Those folks are a minority, I think.

Jun 29, 2010 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Baker gave Patterson and Taveras a longer leash as a leadoff man than he did Stubbs. Corey had 35 games and 155 plate appearances with a whopping .217 OBP and Taveras had 82 games and 368 PA with a .275 OBP. So, compared to those two, Baker didn't wait long enough.

Also, a .301/.352/.361 line from Cabrera is very batting average driven which has a chance of dropping.

Either way, the basic idea is that your best offensive players should be at the top of the lineup since they get to bat more frequently. Hence the Brian Downing reference.

Jun 28, 2010 16:47 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Just for the record, Taveras was another Reds acquisition that I received bragging phone calls about.

Jun 29, 2010 08:19 AM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

Taveras and Josh Fogg? They must've been ecstatic when Eric Milton came to town. :)

Jun 29, 2010 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

As I recall, a lot of Reds fans were ecstatic about Milton as a veteran arm, forgetting his flyball tendencies in a small park.

Jun 29, 2010 11:17 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Yes actually, now that you mention it. Milton and Harang were supposed to be this amazing 1-2 punch. At this point you probably wonder if I'm making this all up. I am not, I promise. I found the conversations pretty surreal.

For the record, these are NOT dumb people. I don't understand it either.

Jun 29, 2010 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

They may not be dumb, but they apparently DO listen to what the team and its loyal beat writers spew. "Milton won 14 games" was the spiel, I believe.

I believe the hype was actually for Paul Wilson and Milton, though. Wilson was coming off an okay year (and a guady-for-Cincinnati 11-6 W-L). Harang had his breakout year in '05, after Milton joined the club.

Jun 30, 2010 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

Are you crediting Baker or complaining that he (seems to have) learned from his mistakes?

Jun 29, 2010 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Neither. He still has poor leadoff choices, still has poor roster construction, and keeps sending pitchers to the DL.

Baker would not have a managerial job today if he didn't have Barry Bonds to take his Giants teams to the playoffs.

Jun 29, 2010 11:19 AM
rating: 2
 
cggarb

Lineup choices: Guilty
Roster construction: Walt Jocketty
Pitchers to the DL: So does everybody else.

Jun 30, 2010 12:44 PM
rating: 0
 
jballen4eva

I very much appreciate your point about ignoring the rankings and focusing on correcting deficiencies. Following the Phillies, I've seen a team really limit itself with the philosophy of "good enough," whether that's letting Howard hack away vs. lefties, leaving Lidge in when he wasn't performing, or trading away Cliff Lee for peanuts.

The ironic thing is, you're calling on managers like Baker to be more active in how they manage, while guys like "Greg" so often criticize saber-folk for not focusing on how the game is played.

Jun 28, 2010 10:23 AM
rating: 0
 
JoshT

If you want further proof of your argument, the 2002 Cubs had a decent leadoff hitter in Mark Bellhorn. Sure, he wasn't a traditional leadoff hitter, but Don Baylor and Bruce Kimm, of all people, saw fit to give him 53 games as a leadoff hitter and Bellhorn responded with a .389 OBP and 14 HRs there.

When Baker took over the Cubs in 2003, he struggled to find a leadoff hitter, using mostly Mark Grudzielanek. (To be fair, Grudz wasn't terrible.) When someone in the press told him that Bellhorn had been successful there the year before, Baker was first of all completely unaware that Bellhorn had hit leadoff the year before and secondly shocked anyone would bat him there. But Baker did try it. For all of one game. After one game with an 0 for 4, Bellhorn went back to hitting sixth and seventh. Three weeks later, Bellhorn got one more chance to lead off. After another 0 for 4, he got shipped to Colorado.

Jun 29, 2010 00:15 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Baker also got Kenny Lofton twice, once as a Giant and once as a Cub.

Jun 29, 2010 11:23 AM
rating: 1
 
cggarb

Baker is cutting bait faster, it seems.

Leadoff starts after a guy's OBP drops below .300:

Patterson 23 (though he started another 50 in other slots)
Taveras 36
Stubbs 17
Cabrera 9

Jun 29, 2010 11:18 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

That chart is absolutely meaningless.. you are comparing full seasons of Patterson and Taveras versus half a year of Stubbs and Cabrera.

Jun 29, 2010 11:25 AM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

It's only meaningless if he somehow puts Stubbs or Cabrera back in the leadoff hole. As I said, he cut bait faster on those guys than he did with Patterson or Taveras.

Jun 30, 2010 12:39 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

With the Baker-bashing being done in the comments, I take this opportunity to remind that the Reds ARE in first place, so he can't be all bad.

Jun 29, 2010 12:13 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

P.S. I'm an Astros fan. As much Reds-Fan-Bashing as I do, I have it much, much worse. Count thine blessings.

Jun 29, 2010 12:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Or they are in first place (by a whopping half a game) in spite of him.

Were the Giants in first place because of Dusty Baker or Barry Bonds?

Did the Cubs go to the playoffs because of Sammy Sosa, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, or because of Dusty Baker?

If the Reds end up at .500, is that Dusty Baker's fault or his players fault?

Jun 29, 2010 12:27 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Oh, I get your point. But you could say that about any manager. When's the last time somebody said "Dang, that manager got a lot more out of that team than he should have!", after a whole season of play?

I don't think Baker deserves credit, but I'm not sure he deserves the vitriol flung at him either. Yeah, public opinion is that he burnt out a few young pitchers, but you can't put that unarguably on his head either.

Not fair for him to take the heat for playing bad leadoff hitters on a team with no leadoff hitters.

Jun 29, 2010 13:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

So then I'll reiterate an argument I made some months ago...

If I can say that any manager is dependent on the personnel that they have and...

If Baker's traits are, at best, no different than any other manager... and at worst, have some serious flaws (roster construction, lineup construction, risky to young pitchers).

Why employ Dusty?

What compelling strength does Dusty have that would make him any better than any other ex-manager or minor league manager? That he "knows how to win"? Based on his win-loss record over the last 5 years or so, he doesn't even have that on his resume anymore.

At what point does Dusty take the blame? If roster construction isn't his fault, lineup construction isn't his fault, pitching health isn't his fault, in-game pitching changes (or lack of them) aren't his fault... then what does a manager take blame for?




Jun 29, 2010 18:36 PM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

Why employ any manager? Why not Richard Bergsrtrom?

Isn't that ultimately the argument?

Jun 30, 2010 12:39 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

No that is not my argument. I've never managed in the big leagues, have no idea how to relate with players, motivate them to perform better or notice what factors might be affecting them slumping. I have little idea what the day-to-day role of a manager is outside of the baseball game.

But there are many people with that experience. Dusty Baker hasn't had a winning record since 2005 and hasn't won more than 90 games since 2002. If Baker has drawbacks, why not avoid the risks from his managerial style and employ one of those other managers? What obvious strength does Baker have that makes him more qualified or deserving of a job than a hundred other potential candidates?

Jun 30, 2010 19:09 PM
rating: 1
 
jdeich

First, you're correct to divorce Dusty Baker from the team's record. Joe Torre won a ton of games with the Yankees despite several tendencies (bullpen management being the best example) that seem suboptimal. The Yankees might have been even more dominant with a better manager.

You instead want to think about Dusty the way we think about his players-- value over replacement. Given what Baker can control (daily lineups, substitutions, calling for bunts/steals/pitchouts/etc.), how does he change the results of baseball games?

Something like Win Probability might help-- isolate plays that are certainly or likely to be 'manager calls' (sacrifice bunts, steals by guys who rarely try to steal, pinch-hitting, intentional walks, etc.) and see how each managers' decisions played out in terms of impacting the chance to win after that play. Over hundreds or thousands of such plays, you might be able to see the signal under the noise, and separate good processes from dumb luck.

You could also look at how each new player on a team performs against predicted production. This is a measure of the staff as a whole, but if nearly everyone on a team outperforms expectations, that lends credibility to the hypothesis that the manager and his staff are having a positive impact.

It's an underexplored topic, to be sure. And managers may (or may not) have significant influence on their team through off-the-field abilities related to leadership, preparation, etc. But there's plenty of anecdotal cases (see Patterson, Corey... or the infamous Adam Dunn bunts) where Dusty seemed to be out of his mind and nearly anyone would have been a better choice.

Jun 30, 2010 12:08 PM
rating: 1
 
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