March 9, 2008
The Teflon Manager
I'm trying to maintain my optimism about the Cincinnati Reds, but it's hard. I see a team that had a good offense last year, that has two rotation anchors, four of the top 40 or so prospects in baseball, and no real holes in the lineup.
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.
Then he starts talking…
"On [Joey] Votto: 'He needs to swing some more. I talked to him about that. Strikeouts aren't the only criteria. I'd like to see him more aggressive.'I left the last sentence in for completeness, even though it seems to say the exact opposite of the one prior to it. The keys are Baker attempting to ruin Votto, and his persistence in regarding OBP as a negative. A few years back, the blogosphere had a field day with Baker's talk about "clogging the bases" while he was with the Cubs. We're right back to that point again, with Baker not getting one of the most basic things about baseball: not making outs is the best thing you can do. Baker is fixated on the end result-the event that leads to a runner crossing the plate-and still doesn't understand that in the big picture, keeping the line moving will put more runs on the board.
What's disturbing is that he wants to change Votto. You can see a lot of Hee Seop Choi in Votto, and Choi wasn't one of Baker's favorite players. Choi lost his job after an injury in 2003, and as you can see from the game logs, was never given regular playing time, an opportunity, after he returned. Choi and Votto were left-handed take-and-rake hitters with good power and excellent walk rates and OBPs. It's not like Votto has struggled: he hit .327/.360/.548 in a call-up last season. He hit .294/.381/.478 at Triple-A and .289/.385/.476 in the minors, although neither of those lines matters much to Baker. He won't recognize that Votto is the third-best hitter he has, behind Adam Dunn and Jay Bruce, until Votto gets credited for enough RBIs to show up on his radar.
I'm not entirely sure how Dusty Baker, a man who owes his reputation as a manager in no small part to Barry Bonds, can have learned nothing from managing Bonds all those years. The Giants' offense was capable of contending because Bonds would draw 100 walks a year and lead the league in OBP. Baker no doubt associates Bonds with homers and RBI, but it was the walks, the not making outs, that kept the line moving so that Jeff Kent and Ellis Burks and Moises Alou and others would face pitchers throwing from the stretch.
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.
One other important trait about Baker is that he's the Teflon manager. The local press fawns over him in a way that would be embarrassing if it wasn't just slightly worse than par for the course in the profession. Baker's anti-intellectualistic approach to baseball dovetails nicely with the pervasive press backlash against reality-based coverage and administration of baseball teams.
So it's a new city, a new team, a new roster, and the same naked emperor. Dusty Baker may have positive qualities-he does seem to have a salutary effect on veterans, for one-but he is, one the whole, a negative force in the dugout. He picks the wrong players to play, teaches an offensive approach that is counterproductive, and emphasizes secondary and tertiary traits such as speed and experience over primary ones such as getting on base and power.
He's the wrong man for the 2008 Cincinnati Reds. No doubt when the Reds fall short of their upside that the blame will fall elsewhere-on Wayne Krivsky, on Adam Dunn, on Edwin Encarnacion or Homer Bailey. The Teflon manager will go on.