We’re past the initial rush of the Dusty Baker takeover. After a 14-4 start to a season of new leadership and newfound enjoyment, the Washington Nationals have had a losing record (16-17) over the past 33 games. After losing four times in a seven-game homestand, they have dipped below .600 for only the second time this season. Nevertheless, this is a baseball team without reason to fret.
We’re starting to see pitching that can’t always hoard zeroes, an offense with holes that might require outside help and a National League East division that is much tougher than a supposed two-team race. Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier this season to let the year develop without elevated stress levels.
The Nationals have a 30-21 record. A year ago, they were 29-22, just a game worse. So why does 2016 feel better?
It’s because of the Baker effect, having a cool and experienced manager to handle the streakiness of 162 games. It’s because, knock on wood, the Nationals have been much healthier this season, which leads to belief that some struggling veterans will find themselves if nothing is physically wrong and reach their career averages once the sample size increases. And it’s because after a humbling 2015 season in which championship dreams turned into an 83-79 disappointment, expectations are grounded, and the process of change is being appreciated.
The Nationals will complete the first third of the season Wednesday. Their condition remains as stable as it was when they passed the quarter pole two weeks ago. This squad isn’t burdened with the hype of its predecessor, but it is proving that it has a more balanced — if not dynamic — roster.
They have won mostly as a result of stellar starting pitching, led by the suddenly unbeatable Stephen Strasburg, but the bullpen has advanced from dependable to exceptional in two months. In addition, the defense has been reliable and greatly improved. Other than Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, the offense has been a mess — 10th in the National League in batting average and ninth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and runs, averaging just over four per game — but there have been some positive moments that indicate the potential for balance throughout the lineup and even on the bench. Mike Rizzo may need to trade for a middle-of-the-order bat in July, however.
The most remarkable thing about the Nationals thus far? Ace Max Scherzer has the worst ERA of the five starters at 4.05. MVP Bryce Harper has had a ton of human moments despite a .958 OPS. Nevertheless, the Nationals are playing at a 95-win pace.
That is where Baker’s managerial expertise comes into play. It’s a false notion to think Baker does it solely on charisma. He’s such a character, such an essential storyteller of baseball’s past and present, that it’s easy to focus on how his personality has relieved the pressure of the tension-filled tenure of former skipper Matt Williams. But Baker hasn’t earned 1,701 career victories on gab.
He knows how to lead and manage, and it goes beyond communication skills. Baker is sly because he can tell interesting stories to avoid disclosing any true tactical insight.
“I don’t know why I do stuff sometimes,” Baker said. “Sometimes I go by the numbers. Sometimes I go on what I feel. Sometimes I go on what I hope.”
Consider what he said Thursday night after collecting his 1,700th victory. In that game, Baker left 23-year-old starter Joe Ross in the game even though he had thrown 94 pitches through six innings. He stuck with Ross after he gave up two singles to start the seventh. Ross responded by striking out St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. Then Baker pushed it even more, letting the right-handed Ross face left-handed-hitting Kolten Wong when handing the at-bat over to lefty reliever Oliver Perez would have been the textbook decision. Ross wound up getting the speedy Wong to hit into a double play to end the inning.
Baker reacted with perhaps the most rhythmic celebration in managing history: one air-piercing fist pump, followed by a quick one-two-three combination. Asked afterward why he took the risk with Ross, Baker started with a rather nonsensical explanation that he wanted Ross, who hadn’t won a decision since April 30 despite several acceptable performances, to finish the inning and still be eligible to collect the win in a game knotted at 1. Shortstop Danny Espinosa wound up hitting a home run in the bottom of the seventh, and Ross evened his record at 4-4.
Later, after more questioning, Baker gave a more plausible reason, saying that the trust is part of Ross’s development.
“What it can do for him is to pitch to the situation,” Baker said. “That’s what pitching is all about.”
At first, it seemed like a reckless Baker decision that ended with a good result. Upon further thought, there was much more to it, especially when you think about the trajectory of this young pitcher. Ross was promoted from Class AA last June, and he has risen quickly from a good prospect helping the team out of a rotational jam to a rising star. There could be a time in September or October when the Nationals need Ross to buckle down in a situation like he faced Thursday. Looking at it from that standpoint, Baker wandered into danger in late May to give Ross valuable experience.
“Kind of a big deal,” Ross admitted.
Why does 2016 feel better? Witnessing the manager trust his team makes it easier to do so from the outside. Whether it’s expressing support for Espinosa or moving Jayson Werth to second in the batting order or waiting for Ross to provide a fist-bumping breakthrough, Baker isn’t afraid to believe.
So many managers or coaches make decisions out of fear. At 66 years old and at No. 17 on the all-time wins list as a manager, what does Baker need to be afraid of? There are times when he could rely more on statistics or even fundamental logic, but it’s difficult to impossible to deny the effectiveness of his instincts. Baker’s way creates a natural accountability that helps players compete for the entire game. It creates a calm amid swoons, too. We will learn more about Baker’s ability to adapt as the season progresses, but for now, the Nationals have an edge appropriate for success over the long haul.
“Having Dusty is kind of like having your dad or someone coach your team. It’s pretty cool,” Espinosa said. “He’s just behind all of his guys. So to have him behind me, supporting me to go out there everyday knowing that he wants me out there is a great feeling.”
Werth compares Baker to a “cool uncle.” Pick a family member. It doesn’t matter. He knows how bring a clan together.
It’s a clan with plenty of flaws. Nevertheless, there’s something about the Nationals that inspires confidence. Surely, Baker has the perfect story about that, but it’s the substance behind the anecdote that matters more.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.