The deranged process through which Dusty Baker arrived at the helm of the Washington Nationals can be separated from Dusty Baker the man. The debacle will not occupy the dugout. There is a good chance that by June it will have been forgotten to a degree that would surprise anyone sitting here now, after watching the carnage of the past 24 hours. When the dust settles, there will just be Baker, trying to guide the Nationals back to the playoffs. Through a farce, the Nationals ended up with an accomplished manager who fits their needs.
The Nationals needed Baker more than he needed them. After the Lerners’ lowball offers lost them the Nationals’ first choice, Bud Black, they circled back to Baker. He accepted their offer. The Lerners should be thankful they could botch a simple process so poorly and come out with a positive outcome.
Baker will bring his maligned reputation to Washington. In many circles, Baker is considered a dinosaur with no handle on modern analysis and a menace to young pitchers. The former may be true but overrated, and the latter is false and overblown.
To harp on Baker’s flaws would undersell his demonstrable success. In 20 seasons, Baker has won five divisions titles and made seven postseasons. He reached the 2002 World Series and won 97 games as recently as 2012 with the Cincinnati Reds. Players adore him, respect him and play for him. Many Nationals have already expressed fondness toward Baker and a desire to play for him. After a season rife with clubhouse dysfunction, Baker is a solid bet to fix the Nationals’ biggest issue. No one’s getting choked on Baker’s watch.
Baker’s selling points do not mesh with modern expectations. Some in the Nationals’ baseball operations department soured on Baker during his interview, according to one person familiar with the situation, when Baker dismissed the importance of sabermetric thinking in a manager’s role.
That’s … not good. But let’s breathe, put away the pitchforks and think about what Baker’s stance on stats means. It is quite possible that advanced metrics are better applied from the front office than the dugout, and that Baker’s approach, while retrograde, is not a fatal flaw. Managers must first make their players believe in their own ability. Many players do not care about sabermetrics. A large portion believes the data helps them perform, and they can find all they want from support staff outside of the manager.
It is not an encouraging sign that Baker might dismiss an advanced statistical breakdown meant to help him, say, write out a batting order. But evidence suggests the strengths Baker possesses matter more than optimal lineup construction. Tactics are secondary to the environment a manager creates. In case you missed the World Series, the managers were Ned Yost and Terry Collins.
Let’s also not discount the possibility that Baker could evolve and incorporate more statistical feedback into his decision-making. He already made strides in how he handles pitchers, which is why the greatest knock against him is outdated.
Baker often draws blame for damaging the careers of Cubs pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood by overusing them. First, the safest bet in baseball is pointing at a young pitcher and declaring, “He will break.” Baker’s handling may have played a role in their truncated careers; they might have doomed no matter what happened.
Baker rode Wood especially hard – he threw 120 pitches 13 times in the 2003 season. But as a 2011 study by Baseball Prospectus showed, Baker left the practice in Chicago. With Cincinnati, Baker used his starters past 120 pitches less than league average.
In 2008, Baker took over the Reds and assumed a 22-year-old pitching prospect named Johnny Cueto. Under Baker, Cueto developed into an ace and started at least 30 games five times. He will enter free agency healthy. If you want to blame Baker for Wood and Prior, credit him for Cueto, and remember that Cueto is the more recent, more relevant example.
The most important player Baker will manage is Bryce Harper, one of baseball’s biggest superstars and the presumptive National League MVP. Few managers have better experience to oversee a player like Harper. In Chicago, Baker managed Sammy Sosa. In San Francisco, he ensured Barry Bonds blended into the rest of the Giants’ clubhouse. Even in Cincinnati, he directed Joey Votto, not as big of a name but a huge talent.
With Baker, the Nationals now employ the only African-American manager in baseball, and just one of two minority managers. That should be considered a point of pride. It would be better if more people of color without prior managerial experience received opportunities. The candidates are there. DeMarlo Hale, Dave Martinez, Dave Roberts, Alex and Joey Cora and plenty more are qualified. Baker’s presence should at least prompt more teams to broaden their thinking, and it should touch more parts of a diverse city.
It’s good for baseball that Baker is back in the dugout, and it should be good for the Nationals, too. Baker was not the Nationals first choice, but that does not mean he won’t end up being the right choice.