Everyone has a reputation — or, as Dusty Baker calls it, a jacket. This player can’t hit a fastball. That pitcher struggles against left-handers. This guy has a checkered past.
The Washington Nationals’ manager has a jacket, too.
Baker has always been known more for his gregarious personality and people skills, traits that have helped him guide teams for 21 years, than for his skills as a baseball tactician. On the field, Baker has been viewed as old school, relying on sacrifice bunts, leaning too much on his starting pitchers and laughing off modern statistics.
But in Baker’s first six weeks in the Nationals’ dugout, his players have learned that their manager is more than his reputation suggests. “He’s so good at being a players’ manager that people overlook him being an X’s and O’s manager,” closer Jonathan Papelbon said.
Baker, a three-time manager of the year, still has his quirks, but to dismiss him as an inadequate tactical manager is to sell him short.
“Everybody just calls me lucky or ‘I got a good rapport with the players,’ ” Baker said. “Most of the time it’s everything other than ‘I know what I’m doing’ or ‘I might be pretty smart.’ So therefore, I’ve gone the other way most of my life. Most people don’t give you credit for your brain, therefore I don’t want you to give me credit for it. The opposition or the press, let them think what they want. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on kicking your butt.”
Baker has pushed his talented starting rotation — Nats starters have thrown 239⅓ innings, third most in baseball, but they have a 3.01 ERA, second only to the Chicago Cubs . The Nationals are on pace to nearly triple the number of defensive shifts they employed last season.
“I’ve always thought, even playing against [Baker], that he was a good manager,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “He knew what he was doing. He communicated with his guys. He pulled the right strings. He’s won a lot of games. As a manager, you can pull whatever strings you want. You can do whatever you want. And if it works out, you’re brilliant. If it doesn’t work out, you’re not.”
Unlike last season, when players questioned Manager Matt Williams’s decisions, there have been few complaints about Baker’s deployment of relievers. The Nationals’ revamped bullpen ranks fifth in baseball with a 2.88 ERA . Only two Nationals relievers — Felipe Rivero with 19 and Blake Treinen with 18 — are in baseball’s top 30 in appearances.
“You kind of think along with the manager, and a lot of times it’s pretty much right on with what we’re thinking is going to happen, which is nice,” veteran reliever Shawn Kelley said. “Managing a bullpen is not an easy thing. He keeps it simple, and it makes sense. We have good communication with him, or through [pitching coach Mike] Maddux to him.”
Baker has been unafraid to play matchups with veteran relievers. Even though the right-handed Kelley has been effective against batters from both sides of the plate in his career, Baker has used him often to face tough right-handed batters only. Then he has used the left-handed Rivero to complete the inning against left-handed batters. He has also straddled innings with Rivero — having him complete one frame and start the next against a left-handed batter — even if that meant Papelbon didn’t pitch for a full inning.
“You trust him,” Papelbon said. “Those managers that you trust in like that, you just ride with them and you can have faith that they’re going to make the right decision most of the time.”
Papelbon said what has stood out about Baker’s managing style is that he empowers his coaches. Baker talks to pitchers, but Maddux and bullpen coach Dan Firova are in charge of keeping track of how pitchers are feeling and offering thoughts on when to use them. When starter Tanner Roark struck out 15 batters against the Minnesota Twins on April 23 and felt strong despite a high pitch count, Baker trusted his eyes and the opinions of Maddux and catcher Wilson Ramos.
“I’m the final decision,” Baker said. “If I confer with somebody and it doesn’t work, then I eat it as if it was my decision because I am the leader of the band. I ain’t ever passing the buck.”
Before every game, Baker reads through the Nationals’ binder of advanced scouting reports and highlights what he feels is relevant. He jams the edges of his pocket-sized lineup card with notes, such as the opponents’ stolen base tendencies, which relievers to avoid using and the opposing pitchers’ matchups against his bench players. “If I can study, I can pass any test,” he said.
Baker maps out regular days off for starters and playing time for bench players. It has paid off: The Nationals’ bench, which has benefited from more at-bats, already has six pinch-hit home runs. It had five last season. When regulars rest and reserves play, Baker gives them a heads up a few days in advance.
“As a player, you gotta always be prepared,” Werth said. “But if you got somebody giving you a heads up and helping you in that regard, that can only help.”
When Baker felt he has erred, he has admitted it. In the eighth inning of last Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers, Ramos represented the tying run after he singled with one out. Two batters later, Clint Robinson doubled into the gap and the slow-footed Ramos was easily thrown out at home. After the game, Baker said it was his fault for not pinch-running for Ramos. Ramos appreciated Baker’s honesty.
“No one is perfect,” Ramos said. “He tries to do the best he can and he’s done a lot of good things. He’s known when to make needed changes and he’s done well.”
Baseball analysts may not view Baker’s managerial tactics as on par with those of Chicago’s Joe Maddon or San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy, but Baker long ago let his jacket throw off opponents.
“In my career, people have talked about something that I’m not doing versus what I am doing,” Baker said. “What kills me is: How am I winning if I ain’t doing all this stuff?”