Book excerpt: “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008”—Dusty Baker

THT is publishing excerpts from Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, which should be released in December, but can be ordered now. (I should note I make considerably more money if you order directly from the publisher, but if you want to get it from Amazon or another source, that’s your call.)

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(The following excerpt comes from Chapter 9: Contemporary Managers, 1998-2008. Baker is one of 17 managers profiled in this chapter).

Dusty Baker

W/L record: 1,236-1,129 (.523) [Note: as the book title indicates, his W/L record and all info below does not include the 2009 season.
Managed:
Full seasons: San Francisco 1993-2002; Chicago (NL) 2003-6; Cincinnati 2008
Majority in: (none)
Minority of: (none)
Birnbaum Database: -103 runs
Individual h\Hitters: +119 runs
Individual pitchers: -62 runs
Pythagenpat difference: +87 runs
Team offense: -93 runs
Team defense: -154 runs
Team characteristics: His teams win with hitting, especially power. Baker has overseen middling pitchers who allow more walks than normal. He frequently uses relievers on back-to-back days. Only five teams in baseball history with more than 15 saves had one reliever record all of them; Baker managed three: Rod Beck with the 1996 Giants, Robb Nen with the 2002 Giants, and Francisco Cordero with the 2008 Reds.

Much of the commentary on managers (including, admittedly, much of this book) presents a reductionist view of their job, portraying a skipper as someone who has the same impact on all environments at all times. In reality, managers are better at some parts of the job than at others. Place a man in a situation that fits his strengths, and he will look like a savant. Put that same individual on a team that highlights his weaknesses and people will call him a dullard. Dusty Baker’s experiences with the Giants and Cubs provided ample evidence of this phenomenon.

With the Giants, Baker was exceptionally well regarded. He won three Manager of the Year Awards in eight seasons, and the venerable Leonard Koppett argued in his book The Man in the Dugout that Dusty Baker was “as close to perfect as one could find” in modern baseball. Numerous players did far better under his care than one could possibly have imagined, including Ellis Burks, Jeff Kent, Benito Santiago, Rich Aurilia, Brent Mayne and J.T. Snow.

People skills were Baker’s strong point, and positive feelings were the trademark of his Bay Area tenure. In 10 years in San Francisco, he never had a public dispute with a player. The team handled those matters in-house. Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds publicly feuded with one another, but neither ever dragged Baker into it, and he did not let it disrupt the rest of the squad.

Baker’s experience with the Cubs was very different, as the Bay Area’s genius became the Windy City’s idiot. After a strong start, nearly taking the Cubs to the World Series in 2003, things devolved into increasing acrimony. During the 2004 pennant race, the Cubs acted completely unfocused. They concerned themselves with petty details—disputes with reporters, an on-field brawl with the Astros, and most embarrassingly some players complained the Cubs’ TV broadcasters said too many nice things about the opposition. A talented roster failed to reach the postseason because of asinine distractions.

Baker’s critics became louder the longer he stayed in charge, and the situation cratered completely in the first half of 2006. In a four-week period, the Cubs went 5-23, appearing completely disheartened in the process. They set a franchise record for ineptitude, scoring 13 runs in an 11-game stretch. During that death spiral, Baker made some curious statements. Sounding openly morose, he said he felt depressed, and did not know what to do about the situation. That is the last thing a leader should say. In any line of work, the boss’s attitude rubs off on his underlings. Baker’s Eeyore the Donkey impression did not cause the tailspin, but it amplified and extended it. The Cubs played like a team expecting to lose, finding reasons to falter, blowing game after game. When Baker left Chicago amid howls of fan discontent, his reputation lay in tatters.

The difference in Baker’s performance in the two towns had more to do with the fit than with Baker himself. Five factors accounted for the difference: player age, the emphasis placed on pitching, athletes’ sensitivity to criticism, the players’ interest in drawing walks, and the batboys (yes, really). These factors showcased Baker’s strengths in San Francisco and his weaknesses with the Cubs.

First, the Giants had a veteran team, which perfectly suited Baker. He was more at ease dealing with known quantities, which made San Francisco the perfect franchise for him as team GM Brian Sabean badly neglected his farm system, building the team with established talent instead. The quality players who gurgled up from the minors, such as Aurilia, were rare enough that even Baker felt comfortable incorporating them.

In contrast, Chicago had a youth movement when it hired Baker. Baseball America claimed the Cubs had baseball’s best farm system shortly before Baker’s Wrigley Field debut. He unhesitatingly incorporated superlative young pitchers Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano into the rotation; the Cubs could always use another starting pitcher. However, whenever Baker had to choose between starting a veteran position player or a prospect, he reflexively chose the veteran. Most vexingly, when the Cubs fell out of the pennant race in 2005, Baker refused to give prospect Ronny Cedeno a shot because that would mean benching Neifi Perez. Though Perez was a horrible offensive player, Baker praised him as a standout presence.

Similar situations played out with unproven players like Matt Murton and Jason DuBois. Maybe they were not good enough to make it, but Baker rejected them without giving them a chance. A familiar routine developed: GM Jim Hendry would talk about wanting to see how the latest call-up would do. Shortly afterward, Baker would caution against overburdening the youngster, and then bench him. Hendry had to trade veterans away to get Baker to play a few youngsters.

A second difference existed between Baker’s Giants and Cubs squads: San Francisco’s teams did not revolve around pitching. Instead, they won with offense, the part of the game at which Baker, a former hitting coach, excelled. His starting pitchers were generally just innings eaters. In fact, over the course of his career, he had subpar starters. According to the Tendencies Database, the following managers had the worst starting rotation ERA (available thanks to Retrosheet) adjusted for park:

Worst starting pitcher park-adjusted ERA	
Frank Robinson	1.282
Dusty Baker	1.221
Johnny Oates	1.173
Gene Mauch	1.142
Bruce Bochy	1.129

In San Francisco, Baker had men like Kirk Reuter, Mark Gardner and Russ Ortiz—fine pitchers, but nothing special. This was fortunate because hitters were Baker’s forte, not pitchers. The strengths of the roster and manager meshed.

Chicago’s best players were pitchers, most notably their young trio of starters Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. In the most commonly noted criticism of Baker’s time in Chicago, Wood and Prior went down with injuries after experiencing heavy workloads. Frankly, this critique is overblown as Wood already had experienced numerous injuries and one never knows if Prior would have stayed healthy, Baker or not. Nevertheless, Baker had them pitch needlessly deep in several games. He lacked the same feel for pitchers that he possessed for hitters; it was not his strength.

Third, Baker’s teams in Chicago were noticeably thin-skinned. Numerous players went out of their way to complain about the media and any criticism they received. This tactic merely created more backlash against them and further distracted the team from the game. Aside from the players complaining about the broadcasters, several—including Jacque Jones, LaTroy Hawkins and Moises Alou—developed personal media feuds.

This had not been the case in San Francisco. The key difference lay with the best player, Barry Bonds. Aside from being the Giants biggest star, Bonds was their most criticized player. Even before BALCO, critics assailed him for everything from his attitude to having a big chair in the clubhouse. Bonds never let it faze him. Think how that affected his teammates: were they really going to complain about a scathing article when the man 10 times more talented received worse abuse? No. Bonds’s existence meant Baker had to do minimal disciplinary work to keep the team focused. Baker’s interpersonal skills focused on a kinder, gentler approach with players anyway, so this fit his style. The Cubs needed someone who would kick them in the butt instead.

Fourth, the Giants’ hitters minimized and Chicago’s offense maximized Baker’s blind spot for the base on balls. While with the Cubs, Baker publicly derided walks as things that clog bases. If it were just a press conference comment it would not matter. However, the team drew fewer free passes under his watch. In his first year, Chicago’s walks declined by 93, and the Cubs’ walks dropped further each season he was there. In his final year, the Cubs had their worst walks-per-game rate since 1921. However, in 1921 the NL averaged 2.1 walks per nine innings, versus 3.3 in 2006. In context, that year’s Cub hitters did the worst job in franchise history working the count. The 2006 Cubs drew 292 fewer walks than they allowed, the worst differential in National League history. In Baker’s four years, they averaged 158 more walks allowed than drawn per year, easily the worst stretch in franchise history. The year after Baker left, Chicago’s hitters drew 105 more walks than the year before.

In San Francisco, though, walks were not an issue. Bonds, the game’s all-time leader in walks, had his offensive philosophy. Baker was not going to make the multiple MVP winner radically alter his approach, making him generally more tolerant of walks.

The fifth crucial distinction was the different batboys Baker had in San Francisco and Chicago. That sounds frivolous, but it mattered. With the Giants, Baker made the players’ children team batboys in an attempt to foster a positive atmosphere. Baker firmly believed happier teams play better. Fathers who could go weeks without seeing their kids got to spend the day hanging out with them. Someone who committed an error or struck out three times could still return to the smiling face of his child, which shone through all of the crowd’s boos. A bench player could more easily endure his lack of playing time if his son was with him. The batboys motivated the players, putting them in the best frame of mind to win: enjoy the game, have fun, and do not sweat the small stuff. It not only made them happier and better focused, but it also put the players’ priorities in order. First comes family, then the job you do to support it, and after that everything seems insignificant. Also, the kids made sure the adults remained on their best behavior without Baker having to say a word.

Unfortunately, in the 2002 World Series Baker’s own son nearly got run over at the plate, causing Bud Selig to issue guidelines for hiring batboys. The Cubs had generic batboys and considerably less fun. If ever a team could benefit from hearing a child’s laughter, it was the 2004 Cubs, who constantly sweated the small stuff.

One other concern should be noted. There is no profession where people’s talents and abilities stay fixed forever. As Baker got older, he likely declined. His style centered on empathizing with his players. The older one gets, the more difficult it is to relate to twenty-somethings. Baker was neither as bad as he appeared in Chicago nor as good as he seemed in San Francisco. What happens in Cincinnati will determine his managerial legacy.

References & Resources
Please note that this, like all my excerpts, comes from the manuscript. McFarland edited the entire thing, obviously. One or two very minor changes have been made.

Also, a few paragraphs from the book have been broken up. One general style guideline for the internet is that bigger paragraphs are more forbidding when viewed across a 12-inch (or larger) monitor than they would be on a page. Frankly, some of these paragraphs are still bigger than I’d normally like an internet paragraph to be, but I don’t want to go nutty. The important part is that the words are the same as the ones I sent to McFarland in my manuscript.

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Comments

  1. Thomas matteucci said...

    Baker’s record is inflated by having teams in weak divisions. He is overated as a manager and probably never should have been voted manager of the year. I believe some politics in baseball were involved. For the most part the article was right on. But I experienced his managerial style first hand in Chicago. He panicked in many situations and not only did not know how to use starting pitchers but did not use relievers well either.
    He also seemed to wait for things to happen rather than taking a proactive aggresive approach to put pressure on the opposing teams. Without looking, I would suggest that his teams were among the lowest in the league in stolen bases or taking the extra base.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Chris, I am generally enjoying this series. I think you provide some interesting insight. But this:

    “A talented roster failed to reach the postseason because of asinine distractions.”

    I don’t know how you can possibly prove that a decline in on-field performance is directly related to off-field “distractions.”

    I tend to believe “distraction” is a media invention meant to provide fodder for filling column inches in newspapers and air time on TV. I covered a major-league team for a short while way back when and I know how hard it is to find anything new or interesting to write about after the 40th or 80th or 120th game of a season, and I was covering a team in a pennant race. “Distractions” is a cheap and easy story line to invent. “Player A feuds with Player B and the team loses five straight. Must have been a distraction!” And not the fact the team gave up 10 runs a game.

    I think we like the distraction theory so much because we, as normal human beings, know that our troubles away from the office could maybe have some bearing on our work. But pro athletes aren’t normal human beings. Besides being bigger and faster and stronger that have enormous powers of concentration, they HAVE to.

    I honestly can’t believe that a professional athlete could make it as high as the majors if he/she allowed outside distractions to affect his game. Players who argue with teammates and then carry that to the plate or the mound ought to get weeded out at the A ball level, not to mention they run the risk of taking a fastball to the head if they’re not focused on this pitch, right now.

    Finally, who plays with more outside/internal distraction than the Yankees (unless,  historically, it was those 1970s Oakland As)? Who’s the world champion?

  3. JoeThePlumber said...

    Over three years in Chicago, Dusty never figured out that same lefties did not pitch well against other lefties.  He just kept trotting them out as if they were LOOGys.  When Steve Stone called him on this after a loss, Dusty threw his headset to the ground and began the process that led to Stone’s contract not being renewed. The childish concern by players about what announcers were saying began with Dusty.

  4. Brandon Isleib said...

    Bucdaddy,

    While I haven’t covered a major league team or anything like it, I will note Tony Horton, Joey Votto, and Justin Duchscherer’s experiences.  Arguably, Gil McDougald after hitting Herb Score fits here too.  Their cases may be extreme, but if major league athletes can find themselves unable to perform, period, after certain events, it’s not unreasonable to say that lesser events cause small performance declines that, when multiplied by 25 on the roster, gets to be tangible.

  5. Brandon Isleib said...

    And for what it’s worth, Baker does seem to be a nice guy.  I attended the 2007 Winter Meetings in Nashville as nothing but a fan and occasional BPro writer trying to meet up with a few other writers.  Most everyone at the Opryland hotel involved with the meetings tried to keep their head down and speak to no one unfamiliar; I suspect they didn’t want to get too close to the holiday-sweatered tour bus crowd there to see Pam Tillis’s Christmas concert (can’t blame ‘em); it was a highly stoic, unfriendly event.  Dusty Baker was the only person associated with the meetings to say hi to me without any prompting.  He said hi simply because I was a passing stranger.  Nobody else did this, and while it’s a sample size of 1, it was against a backdrop of several other managers, journalists, etc.  Doesn’t make him a good manager, but I can see why his personality might get him more jobs than someone else of his ilk.

  6. bucdaddy said...

    Brandon, At least in Duchscherer’s case we’re talking about depression, a medical condition. I don’t know that that counts as the same thing.

    Some of what bothers me most about stuff like this is the certainty with which it gets reported that things like a manager’s or head coach’s status or a debate among fans about who should be the starting quarterback MUST automatically be a distraction for the team. I just don’t know how anyone can possibly know that.

    Here’s the first sentence of an Associated Press story for tomorrow: “No. 5 Cincinnati has to deal with the distraction of coach Brian Kelly being menioned as a contender for the Notre Dame job as the Bearcats get ready to play at Pittsburgh for the Big East title and a BCS berth.”

    Is AP employing mind-readers now? Who goes out on the field worrying about whether Kelly will be there next year? Top athletes are the most in-the-moment people I’ve ever met. The one epiphany I got from my brief time covering a team was, when they trot out the old cliches about how they play them one at a time and they don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, they say that because they mean it. The next at-bat, the next pitch, that’s all that matters.

    Now can a player be distracted by something that happened on the field? Yeah, I’d say so. A guy in a slump has to fight it, a reliever who blew a big lead two straight outings might start questioning his competence. But to go out there worrying about who said what in the newspaper or what might happen tomorrow, at the top levels of the game? I just find it tough to believe a top athlete could let that stuff bother him/her and still perform as a top athlete. The ability to shut that stuff out and just play must be a characteristic of the best players, IMHO.

    But I couldn’t prove that either.

  7. Chris J. said...

    bucdadddy,

    Can I prove it?  Nope. It’s very difficult to prove much of anything with managerial influence.  That’s one reason why many sabermteric-types have left the field alone.  I can and do come to my conclusions, though. 

    This excerpt is a bit different from most because my own experience as a Cub fan comes into play. 

    I think you have a point but overstate things when you say athletes can’t get distracted.  Any human can be distracted.  I’d agree that high level athletes are less likely to do so, but I still think it happens.  Simply put, no one has perfect control over their emotions or what goes through their minds at all times.  I also think a crowd pyschology comes into play as well.  When those around you start floundering and no one steps up to right the ship, things can degenerate further. 

    As for the 1970s A’s and their distractions.  Dick Williams said in his autobio that no team was as great at ignoring the BS and focusing on the game when it mattered than the Mustache Gang.  Well, from my perch I’ve never seen a sports team be as great at ignoring the game and focusing on the BS as those Cubs.

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