Whither Dusty?by Chris Jaffe
October 07, 2013
Last week, in a surprise move, the Reds announced the firing of veteran manager Dusty Baker. This was a stunner because he’d just taken the team to the playoffs. Okay, so they’d lost the Wild Card game after playing tepid baseball over the last week of the season, but it was their third postseason appearance in the last four years. The Reds had gone 357-291 in that span, their best four-year period since the days of the Big Red Machine.
But out the door he went. It’s funny because while Baker has had a very successful career, he’s never lacked for critics. His success has been very real. The Giants revitalized themselves under Baker. In 2002, they came two innings from their first world title since leaving the East Coast. In 10 years, the Giants made the playoffs three times under Baker and just missed October baseball three other times.
Upon arrival in Chicago in 2003, Baker came just five outs from delivering the Cubs their first pennant since 1945. Under Baker, the Cubs had their first back-to-back winning seasons in over 30 years. And the Reds would become the third franchise revitalized under Baker’s watch.
Aye, but as Baker’s critics will correctly point out, success has more to do with the players than the manager. Baker’s real problem is that his weakest points are the manager’s most visible points. He’s not very good at in-game strategy. His lineup cards are often disastrous.
(Just ask your friendly neighborhood Cubs fan about him, and be prepared to hear a tirade about the infamous Corey Patterson-Neifi Perez 1-2 punch atop the Cubs 2005 lineup. Neither had an on-base percentage north of .300).
But none of that really gets to the biggest criticism made of Baker over the years. People often have blasted the way he’s handled pitchers. I don’t think any manager in the 21st century has taken as much heat as he has for how he treats his pitchers.
The ups and downs of Baker’s reputation tell us something about Baker, and also something about how the broader conversation about pitcher usage has changed over times.
Baker and pitch counts
Baker’s reputation as a mutilator of pitcher arms frankly is out of line with the evidence. He is blasted mostly for his time with the Cubs, when two star young pitchers went down with injuries and were never the same afterwards: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. This has provided plenty of ammunition for Baker’s critics. In fact, when Rob Neyer wrote his “Big Book of Baseball Blunders,” he even included a section on the Cubs hiring Dusty Baker to manage them as one of the game’s great blunders.
What really hurt Baker’s reputation was more timing than anything else. He managed right in the period of transition when people began focusing on pitch counts. It’s weird, because Baker had a reputation for destroying arms before he ever actually destroyed any arms. The evidence came only after the storyline about Baker had been set.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a strange time to discuss how managers handled the workloads of their starting pitchers. On the one hand, you had managers doing what they’d long done—just keep a pitcher in for as long as they could. On the other hand, you had a newly mobilized movement to look at pitch counts and denounce managers who let their hurlers throw over 100 pitches per outing.
There was a very stark contrast between how managers handled pitchers and how they were told to handle pitchers. And those doing the telling were certain, damn certain, that unless pitch counts were adhered to, pitcher injures would increase. Things have settled down since then as the pitch count war has largely been won, and all managers have a quicker hook now than they did in the late 1990s.
Quick comparison time. This year, there were just three times all season a hurler threw over 130 pitches in an outing. In 1997, it happened 74 times. In 2013, there were 69 times a pitcher threw 120 pitches in an outing. It happened 374 times in 1997, about once every two weeks for each team.
Also, this was an era in which pitch count enthusiasts were too damn certain of themselves. That’s arguably still the case (and no, I don’t want to get into that debate), but there is no kind of certainty like the initial rush of faith by a newly minted true believer; one who hasn’t had his teeth kicked in a bit by reality.
I still recall one sabermetric writer flatly referring to a May, 2000 complete game by Curt Schilling as the nine-hit shutout that ended his career. No ifs or maybes, it was a done deal. Schilling was through. He threw just 126 pitches that game, and oh yeah, he wasn’t through.
Baker managed right in the middle of this change. He was in the dugout when the pitch count movement was at its most fervent. What’s more, he was one of the skippers who pushed his pitchers the hardest of all.
Thus, in the late 1990s, Baker became one of the big targets of the movement to limit pitcher workloads. In mid-1998, Baseball Prospectus introduced a new stat to track pitcher overuse: Pitcher Abuse Points (giving the stat the rather distinctive acronym, PAP). BPro later totally abandoned the original formulation of PAP, and I can’t recall the last time I saw anyone use the later PAP formula, but for a while there it was at the heart of the pitch count debate.
And PAP hated Baker. His Giants squads routinely scored as the most abused in all the game. One pitcher in particular stood out as on the verge of being baked by Dusty (or turned to dust by Baker, whichever bad pun you prefer): Livan Hernandez.
Those of you out there with long enough memories in the sabermetric community probably can recall this. There were annual predictions of Hernandez’ imminent demise. His arm wasn’t going to fall off at some date long in the future—his arm was a ticking time bomb. He was the doomedest doom that ever doomed.
A funny thing happened, though. Hernandez kept all of his limbs. In fact, he kept on keepin’ on, pretty much never missing a start through 2011. He was still active last year at age 37.
But while Hernandez may have survived, the push for pitch counts moved forward. And all those years of howling about Baker gave him a reputation as a dangerous man to have around precious arms. Thus, even before Baker filled out his first lineup card as Cubs manager, people were already voicing concerns about wheter he was the guy you wanted on this team. Even though no big-name arms had been ruined in his decade in San Francisco, plenty of people still expected Baker to ruin Wood and Prior.
And sure enough, both pitchers did fall apart on Baker. Both made it through Baker’s first year in Chicago and nearly helped the team win the 2003 NL pennant. But then Prior showed up in 2004 with arm problems and barely pitched all season. He never recovered and basically was done. Wood went down with arm problems in mid-2004 and soon would have to be converted to the bullpen to keep his career going.
Losing those two pitchers really hurt the Cubs. And it sure doesn’t look good when two studs go down on the same manager, as happened with Baker. But Baker was held to blame for all the problems because the story had been written before the injuries began.
After all, Kerry Wood already had Tommy John surgery before Baker showed up, and his mechanics were never ideal. Sure Prior did go down under Baker's watch, but then again, young pitchers sometimes do that. And the third big young pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, survived Baker’s tenure.
In his six years in Cincinnati, Baker’s staff has had remarkable health. In 2012, his starting five arms combined for 161 starts in the teams 162 games. That’s historically healthy. Four of those pitchers—Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake—were youngsters who all had blossomed under Baker.
The 2013 rotation was nearly as healthy, with four of the team’s starting pitchers handling a full load. Cueto missed parts of the season with injury but was terrific when he was in the game. Ultimately, six pitchers started 156 of the team’s 162 games. Over the last two years, no rotation has been as stable as the young guns under Baker’s care in Cincinnati.
Thus, if you were going to talk to someone new to the conversation, you might have a hard time explaining exactly why Baker’s reputation for pitchers is so bad. After 20 years on the job, he has had two prominent pitchers go down, and one of them was a question mark before Baker showed up. It really doesn’t seem like hiring Baker would be one of baseball’s greatest blunders.
Sympathy for the critics
That said, while the criticism of Baker has been overblown, that doesn’t mean it’s without foundation. He may not be the greatest arm shredder that ever was, but he really has had his problems.
Let’s look back at San Francisco. No, Hernandez’s arm never did fall off. But his performance sure as hell did. With Baker pushing Hernandez hard in 2001, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball with a 5.24 ERA and league-leading totals in hits allowed (266) and earned runs allowed (132). He had a partial recovery the next year under Baker but was still bad, and led the league in losses (16).
These events happened in his age 26-27 seasons, in what should’ve been his prime. As soon as Hernandez left Baker, he turned into a great pitcher, making a pair of All-Star appearances for the Expos/Nationals.
Similar to Hernandez, Shawn Estes didn’t blow his arm out, but it looks like something went wrong with it. Estes was a very good 23-year-old call-up in 1996 and had a terrific first full season in 1997 (19-5 record with a 3.18 ERA), but then he floundered. Estes lasted another decade, but just as a back-of-the-rotation starter, a far cry from his earlier promise.
There weren’t many other young pitchers under Baker in San Francisco. The most notable is William Van Landingham, who was a promising young starter at ages 23-24 but was through at age 25 in 1996. Baker clearly can’t be blamed for all of this. The nature of pitching is that there is always a multitude of things to blame when a pitcher goes down. But the trend with the Giants was bad for Baker.
In Chicago, Baker did push Wood and Prior very hard down the stretch in 2003. He had a few chances to lighten the load on Prior late in the year and didn’t, which couldn’t have helped Prior’s eventual chances.
Actually, the most damning criticism of how Baker used his arms came with reliever Chad Fox. Fox came to the Cubs in 2005 fresh off an elbow injury that sidelined him for almost all of 2004. He was damaged goods and needed to be treated carefully. The Cubs and Baker openly said so, noting that they had to be careful in how they used Fox, or he’d be in trouble all over again.
Immediately after saying that, Baker was as careless in his handling of Fox as possible. Two weeks into the season, Baker used Fox in four straight games. None were long outings, but this wasn’t being careful. In the third week, Baker had Fox throw 20 pitches on April 24, then called on him again on April 25. On the 25th pitch, Fox’s elbow gave out. It was the one of the easiest-to-see-coming injuries of the year.
The point isn’t that Baker failed to keep Fox healthy. Given his elbow, an injury was a matter of when, not if. But Baker sped up the process as much as possible, and this right after a public statement about the need to be careful with him.
Whatever problems with pitchers Baker had in his previous stops, however, he’s apparently learned from them. The Reds rotation really has been stable.
The rest of Baker
While Baker typically is at his worst in the most visible aspects of the job, he’s at his best with the harder-to-gauge areas. He’s always had a reputation as a player’s manager, and by and large he gets his guys playing as well as possible, especially his bats.
I looked into this for my book on managers, and found that hitters do tend to overperform expectations for Baker. Obviously, it helps to have the best players, but it also helps to get the most out of them. Look at the 1999 Giants, for instance. The offense was centered on Barry Bonds, but he missed 60 days due to injury. The squad still had one of the best offenses in the league, as everyone in the lineup posted a good season.
That said, there is one oddity in his career, and it’s maybe the most damning item of all against Baker. It’s one thing if people on the internet criticize him. Ultimately, what we say doesn’t mean much. But the teams he works for don’t seem to think too highly of him, either.
The Giants opted to let Baker walk away right after he managed their 2002 squad to the World Series. That isn’t too typical. And now, the Reds figure they’re better off without him, despite their success with him. Keep in mind that both Giants GM Brain Sabean and Reds boss Walt Jocketty know a thing or two about baseball. The only GM to stick with Baker until things went wrong—Cubs GM Jim Hendry—is easily the least-regarded boss Baker ever worked for.
Baker and the future
Going forward, Baker has said he wants to manage again. Despite his success, however, there is no guarantee that he’ll do that. He’ll be 65 years old next year. Right now there are just two employed managers older than Baker, Detroit’s Jim Leyland and Terry Collins of the Mets (and Collins is just 19 days older than Baker).
Also, Baker is a 60-something who has had some health problems in recent years. In 2012, Baker spent time in a hospital due to an irregular heartbeat, and then he suffered a small stroke.
Not many guys get hired when they are old enough to collect Social Security. Let’s see what examples of that we can find.
Jack McKeon is one. Actually, he’s three. At age 66, he took over the Reds in mid-1997 and did a good job before leaving after 2000. In 2003, he took over another team in mid-season, and this time guided the Marlins to an unexpected world title (beating Baker’s Cubs in the NLCS). Then, in 2011, McKeon again served as a midseason replacement for the Marlins, becoming the oldest manager since Connie Mack when ending the season.
Two years ago, the Nationals hired 68-year-old Davey Johnson. That worked out well, though Johnson just retired for good after two and a half years there.
Felipe Alou is another. He’s the guy the Giants tabbed to replace Baker in 2003. Alou led the 2003 Giants to a 100-win season and retired after the 2006 campaign.
Actually, when Alou left his previous job in Montreal, he was replaced by 66-year-old Frank Robinson. That was a weird situation, though. Major League Baseball owned the Expos for a spell and moved Robinson from his front office job as minister of discipline to dugout manager. Still, the team had a better run than expected, playing around .500 when people figured they’d be cellar dwellers.
Technically speaking, Red Schoendienst qualifies for the list, but only technically. When Whitey Herzog surprisingly resigned on the Cardinals in mid-1990, the 67-year-old franchise stalwart served as manager for 24 games until the team hired Joe Torre.
In 1976, Bill Veeck’s White Sox coaxed 67-year-old Paul Richards out of retirement to manage them. Though Richards had been one of the best-respected managers in the 1950s, this return was a fiasco. The one-time “Wizard of Waxahachie”—a man known his smarts—kept falling asleep on the bench during games.
In 1972, the Astros hired a 66-year-old Leo Durocher to helm their squad. But Durocher was past his prime and out of touch with the players, and the team went nowhere under him.
The Mets hired a 71-year-old Casey Stengel as their first skipper. That was a disaster, as the team was terrible, and after a few years Stengel broke his hip and had to step down.
That’s it. Those are all the guys hired from age 65 onward. Odds are we’ve seen the end of Dusty Baker as a manager.
Looking over his career, Baker doesn’t have a good chance to make Cooperstown. He’s had success, but his teams have failed in October. He’s the guy who almost led the Giants to a world title, who almost brought the Cubs to the World Series, who almost had the Reds win a postseason series. Hence, he’ll be the guy who almost makes Cooperstown.
References and Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
The bit I mentioned about my book comes from something called the Birnbaum Database. It takes too long to explain, but in short, it estimates how a player should perform in one season based on his performance in surrounding seasons. Hitters tend to do better for Baker than projected.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.