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October 7, 2013

Overthinking It

Dusty Baker and the Modern Manager's Survival Manual

by Ben Lindbergh


Dusty Baker was fired on Friday, and few Twitter tears were shed. When a manager who’s perceived to be anti-analysis gets the axe, sabermetricians celebrate. It's about time, we think. All those bunts by position players, all those illogical lineups, all those refusals to bring in the closer with a tie game on the road. We said they didn’t make sense, and someone finally listened. Maybe Bob Castellini reads blogs! Ding-dong, the Dusty era is dead. We did it!

Well…no, probably not. Most managerial hirings and firings aren’t referendums on the industry’s acceptance of sabermetrics, or the result of what anyone on the internet says. Sure, Baker was known as one of the game’s most first- and second-guessable tactical managers, and sure, he’s now out of a job. Correlation, causation, etc. Maybe Baker was let go because the Reds felt his in-game decisions and reluctance to look at certain stats were costing them wins, but it’s not the only (or even the most likely) explanation.

Maybe, as Castellini and Walt Jocketty said, it was because the Reds looked lifeless while losing six straight to end the season. Maybe it was because they didn’t win the division. Maybe it was because Baker smiled when Brandon Phillips insulted C. Trent Rosecrans. Or maybe the clubbies complained about cleaning up toothpicks. Baker was in Cincinnati for six seasons, which is plenty of time for miscommunications to occur and resentments and disagreements to simmer. The explanation probably isn’t as simple as, “He preferred RBIs to on-base percentage.”

Managers, as the old saying goes, are hired to be fired. (Baker wasn’t even the only manager let go last week.) Manny Acta, among the most openly “sabermetric” managers, has been let go by multiple teams. He’s currently an ESPN analyst. And the frontrunner to succeed Baker in Cincinnati is reportedly Jim Riggleman, who isn’t known as a particularly progressive skipper (though he’s not necessarily against new-age information, either). It’s not as if all it takes to get a managerial job post-Moneyball is to profess an appreciation for stats. There’s much, much more to the gig than that.

But when Baker told USA Today “I still plan on managing” and proclaimed “I’ll be back,” I wondered whether anyone would take him up on the offer.

Baker may be popular with his players, and he may, for the most part, prepare them to play hard. And that ability to inspire might be a manager’s most important quality (although it also seems to be one that expires after a long enough stretch in the same clubhouse). But it’s not the only important quality, and it’s not so scarce that a team has to settle for someone who’s below average at everything else.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Playoff Prospectus: AL... (10/07)
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