The Washington Nationals have won back-to-back division titles for the first time in their history. Admittedly it’s a history that stretches all the way back to 2005, unless you want to consider a different team with different uniforms in a different country part of the same history, which we will not here.
This is also the first time the Nationals have won 90 games two seasons in a row. They’re a great team, and look to be on track to finally make it to the NLCS for the first time, as long as baseball weirdness stays out of the way. Overseeing this two year stretch has been Dusty Baker, one of the most well-known managers in the game finishing another successful season in a 22-year managerial career. The Nats are good. Baker has a very good career managerial record at 1863-1635, a .533 winning percentage. He’s been to the postseason eight times. He managed in a World Series.
Is Dusty Baker a good manager?
Baker was brought in after the Matt Williams experiment. Letting a rookie manager run the clubhouse for a World Series contender pretty much fell apart. The 2015 version of the Nationals won 83 games, had an all-time great 9.9 WAR season from Bryce Harper, two other position players worth more than two wins, one reliever with a strikeout rate over 23.9 percent, half a season of Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer. The names that make the noise on offense this year were hurt or just bad in 2015. Ryan Zimmerman (107 wRC+) played in 95 games, Anthony Rendon (97 wRC+) played in 80, and Daniel Murphy wasn’t even on the team yet. All those guys will get MVP votes this year. The team’s second best offensive player was a tie between Denard Span and Yunel Escobar, both with a 120 wRC+. So naturally it was Williams’ fault. Admittedly there was some clubhouse strife, encapsulated in Johnathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout during a game for some dumbass reason. But a scapegoat was needed, and a veteran “player’s manager” was needed to guide the team to the promised land. After lowballing Bud Black (a personal favorite of mine and current Rockies skipper) they got Baker. Maybe it worked.
On average, teams that Baker has taken over have improved by 16 wins the next season. In a vacuum, this is great. But in context — the Nationals got healthy and signed hidden-gem Daniel Murphy, the Giants signed Barry Bonds, the Cubs’ young pitching flourished — it’s a bit easy to peel that away. In 2002 however, while winning 67 games, the Cubs’ Pythagorean record gave them 76 wins, and their Second and Third Order win number was 78.5 and 77.4 respectively. They were better than the record, perhaps a bit unlucky. Or maybe it was the manager. When Baker showed up they won 22 more games (though only nine above their Pythag number), got 100 more innings of Mark Prior and 200 more of Carlos Zambrano. It got them a division title. It also all fell apart a few years later as the pitching disintegrated.
This is perhaps the greatest black mark on Baker’s legacy — the destruction of the Prior/Wood tandem that was supposed to lead the Cubs to glory a decade ago. Maybe he did ride Prior too hard, handing him the ball for nearly twice the amount of time he threw the year before. But it’s pitching. All pitching is suspect because the entire action goes against physiology. To their credit, neither Wood nor Prior blame Baker for abbreviating their careers, but who knows. The manager’s greatest role is that of scapegoat. It is one of the parts of Joe Torre’s career that made him so special. He deflected negative attention away from his own players in the savageness of the New York City press environment. It’s not something that shows up on the box score, or the win column. But it makes your players love you. And Dusty always had the clubhouse on his side at least.
Let’s try to find some some numbers to describe Baker though. Pythagorean Win/Loss record is based on run differential, so it’s can be inexact. You can look at it as a luck thing or a “good at managing close games and pulling the right levers” thing — if a team wins more than their run differential suggests, they’ve been lucky. Or well managed. As with so much in the world of baseball management, it’s hard to tell.
Baker’s teams are a net 15 wins better than their Pythagorean record. But this is over 22 seasons at the helm. Comparatively, avowed “Great Manager” Joe Maddon is plus-1 in his managing career (including performing four wins worse than expected by run differential last year), and Terry Francona is plus-3 for his career. This season alone the Indians have “underperformed” by six games. Bruce Bochy is another ‘Great Manager’, and he at least is plus-17 in his career. But this can’t all be the manager. Francona is considered the best manager in the game, or one of them at least. Bochy is great, probably. Its hard to find “bad managers” with Pythagorean records that are of any real note. If you’re a “bad manager” your team loses a lot. That means you get fired. And possibly become a “good manager” later on.
This doesn’t really tell a whole lot. Baker has been on teams that have won more than they were supposed to, on average. But It’s hard to point to that as a barometer of how good a manager he is. Again, Francona. But what about bullpen usage? Admittedly, Baker hasn’t had the strongest relief corps in Washington. In Cincinnati he got to play with Aroldis Chapman, but that was restricted use in only the ninth inning. That’s just the rules with Chapman. This graph shows the leverage index Baker’s top three relievers found themselves in throughout 2012:
His hand was forced, because Chapman, by virtue of being the big dollar free agency acquisition and able to make demands, was the Closer. Sean Marshall was not as good as Chapman, and Logan Ondrusek struck out 16 percent of batters and walked nearly 13 percent. Jose Arredondo struck out 23 percent at least. Maybe Bakers’ a product of his environment, but he still didn’t make optimal decisions. In Washington, he’s had a bit more freedom. It shows itself here:
That’s from last year. You’ll note the drop in use of Papelbon as he proved to be pretty useless, and Mark Melancon’s use in higher and higher leverage moments after he came over. Though that’s still disturbing use of Oliver Perez. That trend - going with the best hand in big moments, not just the ninth - has stuck in 2017:
Sean Doolittle came over from the A’s to bolster the bullpen mid-season, and Baker has used him to win games, not just shorten them. Baker is known as an old-school manager, but he’s managed his relief corps much more this year. That could be a sign of the times. The last decade or so has seen a rise in the power of the front office, while the manager's role has faded.
We saw this dramatized in Moneyball when Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Art Howe was told by Brad Pitt's Billy Beane to play certain players at certain positions. Howe, an old school type as portrayed by Hoffman, resisted, and ended up losing the player he wanted to play. Across baseball the manager has become a bit of a figurehead, a pawn for the statistical machinations of the front office. With the massive amount of data available to them now, it's hard to rely on gut instinct and feel quite so much, because you know according to the data what the right move is. Managers want to win. They also know who the boss is these days. Baker could just be more flexible than his reputation suggests.
The last real knock against Baker has always been his management in the postseason though. As indelible as the image of him chewing a toothpick and sitting, Buddha-like, by the steps of the dugout, so too are the collapses of the Giants on the verge of clinching the World Series, or the Cubs falling apart in October a year later. Or the Reds coughing up a 2-1 lead in the NLDS to 2012 to those Giants years later. Not all of this is Baker's fault. In the Giants case, his pulling Russ Ortiz wasn't a bad idea, not really. A pitcher that's "cruising" is only as good as his next at-bat.
Especially when the Third Time Through The Order Penalty looms. And that was a good Angels team. And as good as the 2003 Cubs were, that Marlins team they lost to was incredibly talented in hindsight. Even-year magic is the only explanation for that damn 2012 collapse. Which, again, isn't his fault. Not really. The postseason is a random collection of madness that does nothing to replicate the regular season. You’d just think he would have caught a break somewhere.
To this point, Baker’s career is defined by successful regular seasons, destroying toothpicks, and flameouts in October. Which, again, is rather unjust. It’s the world he put himself in, though. Until one of his teams actually wins something, he’s going to be that guy.
He’s been around 22 to years to not have some kind of reputation. But Terry Francona was a losing manager until he won in Boston. Bochy was in the hinterlands of San Diego then built a Hall of Fame managerial career in San Francisco. Managers are defined by their players as much as by themselves. Baker’s teams have just gotten bad rolls of the dice, but he’s usually had good players. Players seem to like him. He seems to have become rather amenable to the role of the modern manager. There’s no real answer to whether he’s good at his job. Bad managers win sometimes. Good managers fail and get fired. It’s an impossible job, a walking scapegoat / cheerleader / psychologist / spokesman. If the Nats win it all this year, Baker will get some credit and a moderately sized monkey off his back. If they lose, it’s another sad notch in his belt. Whether it’s a vote of confidence or damning with faint praise, when it comes to Dusty Baker, you could do a lot worse.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for baseball at Beyond the Box Score, as you can see, and also at Let’s Go Tribe about the Cleveland Indians. He hosts a podcast, Mostly Baseball, which is as it sounds. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing.