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March 28, 2012

Painting the Black

Building Benches Faster

by R.J. Anderson

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If Baseball Prospectus tracked how often a manager spurred a column, Dusty Baker might sit atop the leaderboard. Baker, now entering his 19th season as a big-league manager, is wont to trumpet old-time truisms over newfangled concepts like OBP. You could mistake Baker for a troll if his comments weren’t so consistent and his tone so genuine. Alas, that would be too simplistic. Baker is deeper than that; deep enough where the public can identify three idiosyncrasies to him. One is that he abuses starting pitchers—which may no longer be true—and another is that he enjoys the utility and company of a sturdy toothpick, but then again, who doesn’t? That leaves the third piece of his puzzle as the most interesting: his crush on veteran ballplayers.

Baker’s run as a manager started in San Francisco. It was with the Giants that Baker eventually formed a tag team with Brian Sabean, thus bringing tears to the eyes, glee to the hearts, and dollars to the wallets of older players. Baker’s reputation for desiring older players might be exceeded only by Sabean’s. That same Sabean once had this joke made at his expense:

Scene: Cal Ripken, Steve Finley and Jim Leyritz are sitting on a couch in the Opryland hotel.
Observer: “All that’s missing is Brian Sabean and a pen.”

Unsurprisingly, Baker’s benches with the Giants were clustered with the likes of Shawon Dunston, Joe Carter, Eric Davis, and countless other veterans in the dusk of their careers. A few of those veterans followed Baker when he moved on to the Cubs. One such player was Tom Goodwin. Goodwin helped bring Baker’s obsession to light by making fun of himself and his fellow bench players—a group that included Todd Hollandsworth, Jose Macias, Paul Bako, and others. There are few things baseball players love more than nicknames, and Goodwin began calling the Cubs’ bench unit “The Lemons”.

[The players are like] lemons because at first sight a lemon is bright and juicy and appealing, but if you leave it in the sun too long, it shrivels up. Sort of like us if we play too much.

Sometimes Baker’s addiction hurts the teams he steers, particularly when Baker shuns youngsters in favor of older, perhaps less-talented players for the sake of experience. (The frequent inactivity of Matt Murton comes to mind.) One positive about Baker—and some, as you will see, argue that it is the only positive—is that he is a players’ manager. He handles his players and the press well enough to survive. Baker isn’t a sterling tactician, nor one likely to display an outward understanding of advanced analytical nuance. What he does is build enough rapport with his players that they won’t quit on him or whine about playing time. Is it worth the trade-off? Not according to Joe Sheehan, who wrote at the start of Baker’s Cincy tenure in March 2008
 

I also see a team with a manager completely and totally ill-suited to his personnel, with an outsized reputation that far exceeds his actual performance and more control over the roster than he should be allowed. Sometimes I think I'm too hard on Dusty Baker, given that he has managed successful teams, made postseasons, won a pennant, owns a career .527 winning percentage from the dugout. Maybe I make him a caricature, a toothpick-chewing, OBP-hating Luddite who doesn't trust anyone under 30.

[…]

The stathead image of Baker isn't a caricature. It isn't a mirage. It isn't hypercritical. Dusty Baker has no real idea of what makes an offense run. He thinks there's a massive difference between MLB and Triple-A. He thinks experience is just as important as ability.


Sure enough, the perception about Baker from back then seems to be that he is a stubborn, myopic philistine without a clue in player evaluation or application. But the anti-Baker crowd should duck, because here comes the uppercut: No team has received more bench production than the Reds since Baker took over as manager.

***

The hardest part about measuring a team’s bench contribution is defining what categorizes a player as a reserve. The methodology used within the Baseball Prospectus annual will work fine here. Essentially, a player had to appear in 40 or more games during a season, but average fewer than 3.3 plate appearances per game played. Those parameters yield a little more than 4.5 qualified players for team, a number that makes sense given that American League teams tend to carry four reserves, while National League teams carry one extra. Given the unbalanced leagues, for now, the exact number is skewed a little higher.

After defining what makes a bench player, one can apply metrics such as Wins Above Replacement Player to answer the questions about bench quality. From there, tables like the following can be created and displayed for digestion—with the WARP totals rounded to the nearest whole win:

The best on a team level:

Team (2008-2011)

Bench WARP

Team (Season)

Bench WARP

CIN

12

SLN (2011)

6

ATL

12

CIN (2009)

5

DET

12

MIN (2010)

5

SLN

11

CIN (2011)

4

CHN

9

COL (2010)

4

The worst on a team level:

Team (2008-2011)

Bench WARP

Team (Season)

Bench WARP

LAA

-5

MIN (2011)

-4

PIT

-5

PIT (2010)

-3

ARI

-3

SDN (2011)

-2

KCA

-1

KCA (2008)

-2

BAL

-1

PIT (2009)

-2

The best on a player level:

Player (2008-2011)

Bench WARP

Player (Season)

Bench WARP

Seth Smith

5

Jamey Carroll (2010)

3

Ramon Santiago

5

Jim Thome (2010)

3

Jon Jay

4

Seth Smith (2009)

3

Willie Harris

4

Ryan Raburn (2009)

3

Jamey Carroll

3

Jon Jay (2011)

2

The worst on a player level:

Player (2008-2011)

Bench WARP

Player (Season)

Bench WARP

Brandon Wood

-3

Brandon Wood (2010)

-2

Tony Pena

-2

Tony Pena (2008)

-2

Drew Butera

-2

Drew Butera (2011)

-2

Pedro Feliz

-2

Aaron Miles (2009)

-1

Juan Castro

-2

Matt Tolbert (2011)

-1

The Reds have no player present on the individual leaderboards, so their success in this area is not a one-player mirage. Likewise, the Reds haven’t journeyed through four seasons with the same bench core. To get a feel for whether the success is because or in spite of Baker, here are the qualifying Reds bench players over Baker’s four seasons, ordered by plate appearances:

Now here are those same players’ average ages while they served as Baker’s reserves:

  • Paul Janish (27 years old)
  • Chris Heisey (25.5 years old)
  • Laynce Nix (28.5 years old)
  • Miguel Cairo (36.5 years old)
  • Corey Patterson (28 years old)
  • Jonny Gomes (28 years old)
  • Chris Dickerson (27 years old)
  • Ryan Hanigan (28 years old)
  • Adam Rosales (26 years old)
  • Fred Lewis (30 year old)
  • Javier Valentin (32 years old)
  • Ryan Freel (32 years old)
  • Jolbert Cabrera (35 years old)
  • Wladimir Balentien (25 years old)
  • Todd Frazier (25 year old)
  • Darnell McDonald (30 years old)
  • Yonder Alonso (24 years old)
  • Andy Phillips (31 years old)
  • Drew Sutton (26 years old)

It should be evident by now, but Baker is no longer working with benches void of youth. If one applies these same statistical measures to Baker’s benches in San Francisco and Chicago, then weighs the players’ ages by total plate appearances, it turns out that the Reds are the youngest bunch of Baker’s career (28.4). The Giants are the next youngest (29.4), while the Cubs are the oldest (31). What Baker relied upon in Chicago no longer seems to be the norm for him, and never seemed to be the norm before his stop in North Side.

***

The process of picking players is viewed as a tug-of-war between the front office and the field staff. In reality, both sides often have a say. Maybe Baker has relinquished his need for veteran presence because he trusts in Walt Jocketty’s vision. Or maybe Baker just feels the Reds develop more wholesome young players than his previous organizations did. A more extrovertly creative manager might receive credit for thinking outside of the box in Chicago. Did Baker, realizing that the Cubs play a day-game-heavy schedule, favor veterans who might take their rest more seriously than late-night benders?  Heck, maybe it’s all statistical noise and Baker just goes with the flow. The only way to ever find out is to ask the man himself—and even then, we probably wouldn’t like how he gave his answer.

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

Related Content:  Cincinnati Reds,  Dusty Baker

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Sharky

Or MAYBE Baker keeps younger, more talented players on the bench (instead of starting them). So inherently he has a stronger bench than his peers -- who actually PLAY their younger players? Maybe Jocketty controls the 25-man roster (as GMs are supposed to do), fills it appropriately, then Baker mishandles it.

Not saying that's the case. But it's certainly a plausible explanation for Baker getting "more" from his bench. The goal is to win games, not win a contest of bench strength.

Thoughts?

Mar 28, 2012 04:43 AM
rating: 6
 
danteswitness

I have to agree with Sharky here. This is like Jeff Mathis being traded so that the temptation to play him is no longer there.

Even if you look at the list of top reserves, you still see the same issues. First, Heisey is listed as having the most value, but then he was arguably better than players like Jonny Gomes that he was behind on the depth charts. The next two players, Cairo and Nix, are not youth players and were often not the best options for the team.

Mar 28, 2012 07:36 AM
rating: 1
 
gweedoh565

I see your point, but in reality there is no reason to think that the age of bench players has anything to do with the age of starters. That's kind of like saying: "Since all of the bench players are men, we'd expect all the starters to be women".

As a Reds fan, I've never ever seen evidence of the Dusty-loves-veterans idea. He may have earned it in SF and Chicago, but I can't think of an instance in Cincinnati when he's egregiously favored a veteran over a promising younger player... although that would change if he favors Ryan Ludwick over Chris Heisey in battle for left field this year.

Mar 28, 2012 07:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Mudeguy

@gweedoh565 Not on instance? Two names: Hatteberg and Votto. Before Dusty would pry the veteran Hatteberg off first, he had to really stink and Votto had to be beyond amazing. There were calls for Dusty to be fired that were only quieted by him eventually starting Votto.

I'm a Reds fan, too, and Dusty has been the worst thing that's happened to the club in the past decade. I was actually rooting for bad losses at the end of last season so they would ride him out on a rail.

Mar 28, 2012 07:52 AM
rating: 1
 
gweedoh565

The Scott Hatteberg vs. Joey Votto argument doesn't hold up. Votto was a September call-up in 2007, and pretty much was instantly given the starting job. Hatteberg hung around on the bench in 2008 (61 PA), but was by zero means in consideration as the starter.

Now Corey Patterson as RedsManRick mentions below, that's a great example that I had forgotten about. An rotten log would have played better than he did.

Mar 28, 2012 08:08 AM
rating: 1
 
danteswitness

That's not true. Hatteberg was named the team's starting first basemen in 2008. He played so poorly over the first week or two of the season that Votto quickly replaced him, but Baker still put the wrong guy's name in the lineup on opening day. Hatteberg didn't hang out on the bench for that season, he was released in the beginning of June.

Mar 28, 2012 08:21 AM
rating: 0
 
gweedoh565

Fair enough. But I'd still argue that giving a veteran the Opening Day nod, then replacing him with a youngster within a week does not constitute an egregious favoring of a vet.

Mar 28, 2012 08:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Mudeguy

Baker only relented because there were some serious calls for him to be fired for even starting Hatteberg. I believe there was even some scuttlebutt that the GM was about to write the lineups with Votto if Baker didn't swap 'em.

Want an example during this season? Just watch how the Hanigan/Mesoraco playing time shakes out.

Apr 04, 2012 07:10 AM
rating: -1
 
gweedoh565

Also, check out this nice piece by John Perrotto in which Dusty explains his (over)use of veterans in SF/Chicago (the basic argument he makes is that there was lots of pressure to win immediately, which was not conducive to dealing with growing pains of youngsters:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8606

Mar 28, 2012 07:46 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

A few thoughts regarding the Reds bench performance:

1. I don't think 2nd catchers should be included in bench performance. They should be assumed to get significant playing time. But if giving Ryan Hanigan 60 starts a year is a feather in Dusty's cap, so be it.

2. The Reds LF situation has been unsettled ever since Dunn was traded in late 2008. Nearly all of the playing time in LF went to a combination of Gomes, Dickerson, Nix, Heisey and Lewis -- all listed here as bench players. But they combined to give Dusty half of his 12 WARP. Should Dusty get credit for not being able to figure out that who his best options were?

3. A majority of Miguel Cairo's at bats came while he was filling in for the injured Scott Rolen. If you want to give Dusty credit for that, ok.

In short, while I'm happy the Reds have had productive players on their bench, I don't know if it makes sense to credit Dusty for that. Rather, for those of us who have followed the Reds closely, Dusty's largest influences seem to have come in insisting the Reds get (and play) Corey Patterson at the expense of playing Chris Dickerson and playing Jonny Gomes as the primary starter in in 2010 & 2011 when it was clear his bat wasn't superior to Heisey/Nix but that his glove was inferior.

Dusty was given a great bench. But the amount of production he got from it may be more reflective of his lack of willingness to play his best players than some magic touch he's got in putting a bench together.

Mar 28, 2012 07:51 AM
rating: 7
 
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