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The complicated nature of the Astros’ possible hiring of Dusty Baker

The recent news forces us to reflect on sign-stealing and the Astros, Dusty Baker’s historiography, and racism in MLB. I have a headache already.

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While not totally official, it seems based on Jeff Passan’s reporting that the Astros are eyeing Dusty Baker for their replacement to AJ Hinch. Man, do I have a lot of thoughts. For one thing, I keep going back to the interview he had with Ken Rosenthal about a year ago.

“Every team I inherited was a bottom-dwelling team, except Washington,” he said. “I look at my situation on a small scale kind of like Barack Obama’s. He wouldn’t have gotten nominated for president unless we were in a bad way.” On the racism that he found in the clubhouse, he said to prejudiced players that “Your daddy probably never had a black boss... You hope some of these guys might have changed.”

I don’t think anyone who isn’t underrepresented can really understand what it’s like to be put into a position of authority where the de facto assumption is that people like you do not traditionally sit in positions of authority.

For Baker, it’s been something of an interesting historiography for him. First thought of as the destroyer of Mark Prior and pariah for the ill-fated 2003 Cubs with his fair share of postseason collapses, his historical outlook—at least in the windows of the internet that I peer into—has somewhat changed.

Especially after the infamous Jonathan Papelbon-chocking-Bryce Harper incident, Baker was a welcome addition to an incredibly troubled Nationals clubhouse, leading the team to 192 wins over two seasons. This, as Bradford Williams Davis succinctly puts it, combines two opinions of Baker that are not mutually exclusive:

What Baker was brought in to do in Washington was to lock down issues related to chemistry and player cohesion, and on that front he was largely successful. It was also clear that he was slightly more receptive to sabermetrics as that’s become more team-mandated, but that gets to point number-two: he still is a sub-par in-game manager.

FiveThirtyEight, for example, found that from 2000 to 2016, Baker was the fourth-worst manager by wRM+, a stat to show how effectively a manager deploys relievers based on Leverage Index. In his final year at the helm of the Nationals, you could see the relative bullpen mismanagement on display, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus:

While essentially hamstrung by the lack of depth of that bullpen, the glaring thing is that Matt Albers, despite the excellent year, essentially got no high leverage opportunities despite getting the lion’s share of the appearances. It’s riding the hot hand, and like I said it wasn’t unwarranted considering how little there is and how late Sean Doolittle joined the team, but he could in fact be joining the Astros, where the options could be more plentiful and where proper allocation becomes even more important. That being said, recent history and his postseason record likely exacerbate his bullpen reputation despite this seeming run-of-the-mill.

So without patronizing, Dusty Baker is a below average tactical manager and a likely above-average player’s manager who can effectively guide a winning team to its potential. That bodes well for a good team—as he said, he didn’t want to join a loser again—except once you throw the monkey wrench of the Astros’ nonsense into the mix.

The Astros are obviously looking for a PR slam dunk here. With a manager and GM out the door and temporarily disgraced, it seems the steady hand was the play when targeting Baker, who has a mutual interest in joining a bad club but understands the “Obama conundrum” he laid out earlier.

Which is why, even though this makes sense like a puzzle piece falling into place, it feels.... off considering who the offer is coming from, I guess? Owner Jim Crane, in fact, had lingering questions about his past while making a bid for the ownership about a decade ago. At his company Eagle Global Logistics, it was found by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Crane “failed to promote blacks, Hispanics and women into managerial positions,” and “[t]he report cited an accusation that Crane told his managers not to hire blacks because ‘once you hire blacks, you can never fire them.’”

This is Baker affair is now on the heels of a wide-reaching sign-stealing scandal with the Astros dead-center, with Rob Manfred even pointedly referencing the team’s “culture” as a part of how this unfolded as it did. With all of these factors, could it be a sign that this in bad faith, that this was a seemingly “safe” hire in the sense that it simultaneously gives the impression of addressing the culture on multiple fronts, but without actually changing the inner machinations?

That’s hard to see into peoples’ true intentions like that, and it also wouldn’t be fair to Baker to imply that he would necessarily go along with that; he has his own agency to make this decision, even if it seems by the aforementioned quote that he is willing to make the Faustian bargain of being the perceived clean-up man.

Either way, this whole affair is a web too difficult to untangle in one post, crossing at the intersection of the biggest baseball scandal in decades and race and how we see it in baseball. There are no easy answers here, and feeling and processing these emotions is really the only way to watch baseball these days—by walking (trying to actually enjoy this damn sport) and chewing bubblegum at the same time (reckoning it with every societal issue that it crosses.)