“When your manager is as fickle as a tabloid starlet with a sweet tooth for experienced men, it isn`t easy to be a semi-wild young fireballer.” – Todd Wellemeyer’s comment from Baseball Prospectus 2006.
A week or two ago, I was talking to someone about the Reds rotation and how they should proceed with deploying their depth. At one point or another, the conversation included a jab Dusty Baker’s way—something along the lines of, “Well, you need starting pitching depth when Baker is your manager.” Reputations are difficult to shake in the real world, and sometimes even tougher in the baseball world, which is why Baker’s reputation precedes him even in the present day.
Although Baker spent more time managing the Giants than the Cubs and Reds combined, the infamy of his time in Chicago lives on. It was there, often within the friendly confines, that Baker would ignore pitch counts when handling Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Those two pitchers—enormous talents that they were—subsequently became the poster arms of a pitch count revolution, but not before the young fireballers' careers went up in flames.
The barbs thrown Baker’s way vary from cautious and accusatory (Baker probably had something to do with Prior’s and Wood’s injuries) to acerbic and definitive (Baker killed Prior’s and Wood’s careers). As impossible as it is to know just how much of the blame should lie at Baker’s feet, the Windy City bloodletting stained his reputation and pronounced him as a pitcher killer.
Baker eventually moved on from the Cubs, and has acted as the Reds pilot since the 2008 season. It would be easy to assume Baker still abuses pitchers in a way that ensures future therapy sessions of both the physical and psychological variety, but the numbers do not necessarily support that conclusion. When pitcher abuse is talked about, usually the extreme cases are discussed—like Baker’s 2003 season, where he had Wood throw 120-plus pitches in 13 games.
Rest assured, Wood wasn’t the only one Baker has ridden hard, as the graph below shows, going beyond 120 pitches was a common staple of a Dusty-managed rotation—the key word there being “was”. Since taking over the Reds, Baker has only had 14 instances where his starting pitcher has exceeded 120 pitches—he averaged 17 per season with Chicago, including 29 during that 2003 season, when the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series and accounted for nearly 13 percent of the 120-plus games on the season all by themselves:
That is a percentage of total 120-pitch games, and the assumed average is if each team had an equal number of games. Rarely is that the case, but it provides a visual baseline. While the extremeness of Baker’s negligence has curbed, he still allows his pitchers to throw more pitches per start than the league-average, as displayed below in graph form again. The gap between Baker’s staff and the league-average is less egregious than it was in the past, though:
Anecdotal evidence is invaluable in the court of public opinion and Baker flunked by having his pitchers rack up high pitch counts and injuries. For instance, Baker allowed four of his 2003 starters to top 125 pitches (with Wood and Prior topping 140 and 130 respectively), but has not allowed a starter to exceed 125 pitches during his time with the Reds. Cincinnati’s staff has suffered a few injuries over the years, like most other teams, but cries of inappropriate usage seem limited to Aaron Harang—although Harang actually averaged more innings and pitches per outing before Baker arrived, and his arm wasn't abused so that much that it couldn't be used again.
A logical step is to wonder whether Baker’s usage has altered because of the quality of his rotation or bullpen. If there is a relationship between the rate of quality starts and pitches per game under Baker, then it simply does not show up in a conventional format:
Maybe the secret to Baker’s evolution is the further development of the 12-man pitching staff. Nowadays, it seems like a given for each team to have seven relievers at any moment. Is it the most optimal usage of a roster spot? Probably not, but if it means managers can ease off their starters then perhaps it is a justifiable evil. That is just speculation, though, as Baker may have just further developed his own mindset and system for handling pitchers and workloads.
Such an angle is an interesting one too. While players tend to be viewed as beacons of upside with possibility of improvement, managers are often viewed as finished products without further upside. If Jose Bautista can start hitting for power and Curtis Granderson can begin hitting left-handed pitching, then why can’t Dusty Baker start handling pitchers with more care?