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March 28, 2012
Painting the Black
Building Benches Faster
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:
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”.
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:
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:
The worst on a team level:
The best on a player level:
The worst on a player level:
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:
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.