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It’s probably not the first time that we’ve run a Transaction Analysis on a managerial hire that didn’t end up happening, but—okay, scratch that, it probably is the first time. Bud Black had the Nationals’ manager job. He had it, by all accounts, although never officially. And then he didn’t have it. Instead, a few days later, the gig goes to Dusty Baker.
My first reaction to that news was, I admit, ennui. Former Baseball Prospectus author Rob Arthur correctly reminded me of current BP colleague Russell Carleton’s landmark managerial analyses (here and here), though, and a funny thing about those studies: they both show Baker to be a pretty tepid managerial influence, and Black to be damn near the best helmsman in baseball. In other words, thanks (allegedly) to the penuriousness of the Nationals’ ownership group, they had their Joe Maddon in their hands, and let him slip right through.
It might well wind up being a mistake that haunts the Nationals, because if Black ends up getting perfectly good money to manage the Dodgers, there will be no close second for the honor of 2016 NL pennant favorite. The talent and resources and intelligence of that organization meshes too well with all the things Black does well. At the same time, we should be careful not to treat the hiring of Baker as a disastrous decision in its own right. To the contrary, it might just be an underrated one.
Many remember Baker mostly for his much-maligned mistreatment of young arms from his managerial debut in 1993 through his departure from the Cubs after 2006. It’s a fair criticism, but it’s no longer a relevant one. Baker did fine in his handling of the Reds’ hurlers from 2008-2013, and as many have said, it’s just no longer within a manager’s power to really abuse starters.
Others remember Baker for his professed love for veterans, and his apparent inability to trust young players over lesser players with longer track records. This, too, is a valid narrative, but it, too, began to erode during Baker’s time in Cincinnati. More importantly, and loop the early mishandling of pitchers into this, too: one must consider Baker’s managerial learning curve before punishing him unduly for past mistakes.
In 1993, it was far from trendy to hire a young former player without significant coaching experience to manage a team. There were 14 teams in the National League that year, and 11 of them broke camp with a manager who had managed at least seven previous seasons of pro baseball. Baker was one of only five who had never managed in the minors, and Joe Torre (then in his 12th season as a big-league skipper) was one of the other four. The problem with the Mike Matheny/Brad Ausmus/Walt Weiss/Robin Ventura/Matt Williams/Bryan Price/Craig Counsell/Paul Molitor hire isn’t that those guys can never be good managers. It’s that none of them has any chance of being good managers right away. That’s not how managing works. So Baker, who not only survived but thrived for long stretches in his first gig despite a glaring lack of preparation for the job, must have his early mistakes (and successes) discounted a bit. It’s probably (though not certainly) also true that managers who don’t get a chance to manage in the minors have a harder, longer road to improvement than those who do, because so many crucial facets of the job—the development of a philosophy with which one is truly comfortable, the trial-and-error that goes into finding the right way to reach ever-changing groups of players, the spiritual callous one must build up against the electric feeling of a win and the scorching pain of a tough loss, the best way to balance delegating to coaches with making sure players feel they can talk to you, the list could go on for days—are terribly difficult to master under the media demands and the unique circumstances of an MLB gig.
Baker wasn’t perfect even as the Reds’ manager. His rhetoric about Joey Votto drove people nuts. He made bizarre decisions about bunting and baserunning. He probably could have handled the confrontation between Brandon Phillips and C. Trent Rosencrans better (though I have to say, his facial reaction to this exchange is almost exactly how I would look if I saw a friend coming in, seemingly ready to crack a joke, and then slowly realized what was really happening). Still, he led the team to three playoff berths in six seasons, and while the 2012 and 2013 Reds probably slightly underperformed their talent level, they still won a combined 187 games and reached the playoffs both years.
Baker has tended to manage talented teams, but it’s not like he was handed the keys to the Yankees right when Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte were arriving on the scene. In 20 years of managing, he has 12 winning records and a .526 career winning percentage. He’s an interesting, multidimensional person. He’s smart, he’s energetic, he smiles a lot. He’s probably not going to be as good as Bud Black, but if you’re still painting Baker with your old brushes, watch out. Even on the wrong side of 65, he’s learning. He might be improving. And he has a chance to write a really good final chapter in the story of a fine career.
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