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Dusty Baker's undoing

While we're still years away from fully understanding how to properly value managers, if you watch one long enough their strengths and weakness become clear. After the Reds failed to advance past the wild card game, the Reds have decided Dusty Baker's weakness outweigh his strengths.

Dusty Baker is out as Reds manager.
Dusty Baker is out as Reds manager.

News broke Friday morning that Dusty Baker is out as the Reds manager. For the analytically minded Reds fan, this probably feels like Christmas morning. Baker, wildly regarded as one of the best clubhouse managers in the sport, is also one of the most hotly criticized skippers by those who view the game through some type of sabermetric prism. I've been extremely critical of Baker in the past for two main reasons, but that criticism is entirely professional. You never like to see a person lose their job, but Baker isn't just taking the heat for a team that under-performed, he's taking the heat for his tactical deficiencies.

Baker's tactical issues can be divided into two main boxes. The first is his pro-bunt, anti-walk, pro-RBI trifecta. These may seem like separate problems, but they aren't. Baker is clearly still of the mindset that walks are essentially outs in disguise and that hitters should expand the zone with men on base and move runners along. You've seen that in some of his comments about Choo and Votto, but you've really seen his lack of interest in OBP through his decisions about who hits second for the Reds.

For the first two and a half months of the season, he hit Zack Cozart in that spot. Cozart is one of the worst hitters in the league, but Baker liked him there because he could bunt and handle the bat. Forget for a moment that Cozart is not a particularly skilled bunter, but the idea of hitting a poor batter between Choo and Votto because he can bunt is entirely illogical. Giving away outs in the middle of your attack is foolish. Eventually, Baker relented, but still inserted lower OBP guys into that spot and on many occasions the Reds #2 hitter came up in a big spot and made an out while the great Votto waited on deck helplessly.

It's not so much about the particular lineup choices because we know lineup construction only matters at the extremes. If you hit Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez in the reverse order, I'm not sure anyone would actually notice. If you hit Zack Cozart second instead of Joey Votto, that's almost as big a gap as you can find. The lack of attention to a widely accept idea like the value of getting on base is a red flag, but it actually isn't the one that drives you up the wall.

The one that drives you up the wall, or at least it does for me, is how he uses Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is one of baseball's top relievers and can get three or more outs with the best of them. But Baker doesn't use him in a way that maximizes his value. He doesn't bring him in before the 9th inning and he doesn't bring him in non-save situations. I haven't counted, but I can think of more than a handful of games I was following this year (note: I'm not a Reds fan, so this isn't even the full sample) in which Baker didn't use Chapman on the road in the 9th inning or later because it wasn't a save situation.

He was saving Chapman for a save that wasn't coming while asking much lesser relievers to get huge outs. It's wrong to expect Baker to buck the trend and use Chapman as a true relief ace who comes in during the 6th inning of a game and gets you four outs, but he has to at least use him in the 13th inning of a tie game. There is no excuse for that. If you don't get those three outs, the game ends and you lose. At that point you know you need to get at least six more outs and if you're only willing to use him for three, using him in the tie game makes more sense because the cost of allowing a run in that situation is higher than allowing a run in a future inning regardless of what happens in between.

But it all came down to what happened on Tuesday for me. I don't blame Baker for the Reds losing in Pittsburgh. If your #3 and #4 hitters go 0-8, you're not likely to beat another talented team. It wasn't that the Reds lost that game, it was that Dusty Baker didn't use his best reliever at all. I wanted him to use him with the game on the line in the fourth inning, but that's probably even too progressive for Joe Maddon. The fact that he didn't use him at all was the end of the line. You can't employ a manager who doesn't use his best pitcher in a game in which your entire season hangs in the balance. Chapman was well-rested and healthy, so not using him was crazy. At the very least, in the bottom of the eighth inning, Baker should have gone to Chapman. He was down four runs, but it's a lot easier to rally back from four runs than it is from six. You cannot allow extra runs. Not using Chapman there is a sign that you had given up or that you don't understand the stakes of the game. Both are fireable offenses.

Baker either didn't bother to use Chapman because he didn't think it would matter or he was holding him back for a potential save situation while putting lesser arms on the mound to keep his team in the game. That's a bridge too far. That one mistake might not cost you your job, but when that mistake is consistent with your broader practices, it highlights your faults.

This is not to say that managerial tactics are all that matters. The ability to lead and motivate and teach is very important. Probably more so than tactics, but there is absolutely no reason you can't have both. If Baker wanted to learn optimal tactics, that would be fine, but there are hundreds of great motivators working in minor league parks all over the country who can get the best out of their players and make smart choices. This is not either/or. You need a manager who can lead and a manager who makes good choices. There are only thirty managerial jobs so teams have their pick or some really talented people willing to integrate what the front office analysts are selling. You don't have to look farther than the team that beat the Reds on Tuesday for an example of a manager willing to listen.

This isn't really even a sabermetric versus old school debate anymore. It's not that Baker doesn't like new stats, it's that when presented with evidence, he hasn't adapted. The Reds are such a talented team and talented teams are at the location on the win curve in which managers can have the most effect. The Reds probably lose on Tuesday if Joe Maddon was in the dugout, but if they had someone like him down there all season, they probably would have avoided the wild card game entirely.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is a Staff Writer at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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