Dusty Baker, Nationals manager for the past two seasons, epitomizes “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” He has never won a World Series. At this rate, he never will. He has only ever been to the Fall Classic once; in 2002 Baker led the Giants to the World Series only to be dispatched by Mike Scioscia’s Anaheim Angels in seven games. Baker and the Giants even held a five-run lead heading into the seventh inning of game six (they held a 3-2 series lead, so had they won game six, they would have captured the series), but managed to blow that. Baker has managed four different teams for 22 seasons total and has captured only one league pennant. He has only won one playoff series aside from the year he took the Giants to the World Series. If you take all of the postseason series he’s managed, he’s 3-8 all-time, 3-9 if you include his 2013 Wild Card Game loss. He has a 23-32 record, good for a .418 postseason win percentage.
So why do teams keep hiring this guy? Because, contrary to what his postseason record might have you believe, he wins. Baker ranks 14th all-time among managers with 1863 regular season wins, and it’s not as though those wins are coming from just managing for a long period of time; his career win percentage is .532.
I should rephrase my statement from the previous paragraph. He appears to win. Not that the wins are an illusion or anything like that, but if you look at the rosters that he has managed into the postseason, they’re not short on talent in any way, shape, or form. Aside from the 1997 Giants (who, for the record, had Barry Bonds leading the way), the rosters he has been handed have, for the most part, just been talented enough to get to the postseason. Let’s take a look:
This season just screams steroid era. Aside from the aforementioned Bonds (who led the team with 49 HR and an obscene .306/.440/.688 triple-slash), the team also had Jeff Kent, who, at age 32, posted career-bests in each leg of his triple-slash (.334/.424/.596), and a then-career-high of 33 long balls. At age 32. And as if that weren’t enough, 35-year-old RF Ellis Burks posted a .344/.419/.606 triple-slash along with 24 HR. Burks, who had only hit 20 HR twice in the first nine years of his career, went on to average just under thirty HR a year for his age-31 through age-37 seasons. If that doesn’t scream steroids, I don’t know what does.
The Giants offense posted the most WAR of any MLB club in 2000, and the 5th-most WAR of any National League club. To be fair, though, when steroids factor into the equation, if your hitting can carry the load, your pitching just has to be average. Additionally, managers tend to have a rather negligible effect over the course of the season on win total (this FiveThirtyEight article goes more in depth, but to summarize: you can’t really prove if a manager is better or worse than average), so as long as Dusty didn’t bench Bonds, Kent, and and Burks every day, this team was basically a shoo-in for the playoffs.
I don’t really have to say much about this season. This wasn’t Bonds’ 232-walk season, but he still got on base three out of every five at-bats (his OBP was .582). If you have a guy that produces 12.7 fWAR in a season you’re gonna make the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Kent also posted 6.7 fWAR at age 34. This team, once again, led the big leagues in offensive fWAR, and finished third in the National League (8th overall) in pitching WAR. Any old MLB manager probably could have taken these guys to the playoffs. Dusty got them to the World Series (where they lost), which is certainly an accomplishment, but they didn’t get the ring, and some of the loss can probably be attributed to the fact that Dusty hit Bonds fourth the entire series. Kenny Lofton and Rich Aurilia, who hit first and second, respectively, in that series, had 34 and 33 plate appearances (again, respectively). If Bonds had hit second in place of Aurilia, the Giants would have had two additional baserunners over the course of the series, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but that probably would have put Bonds in scoring position at least one additional time during the series. Two of the games that the Angels won were decided by one run, so that could have been a huge difference maker. Obviously I’m speaking in hypotheticals, and the likelihood that any of this would have actually happened is relatively unlikely. It also demonstrates the fact that a manager has a rather negligible impact on the game (shifting Bonds two spots in the order would have resulted in two more baserunners in seven games, which is really not a lot). My point: they lost, and Dusty did not optimize his team’s chances at winning. Are we starting to see a trend here?
The Cubs starting rotation in 2003 featured three pitchers that finished in the top-25 in baseball in fWAR. Mark Prior posted nearly 8 fWAR (7.8), and Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood compiled 4.7 and 4.2 fWAR, respectively. All three of these starters also finished in the top-10 in the big leagues in ERA. When your offense is at least league average (which the Cubs were in 2003; they finished 18th in the bigs and 9th in the Senior Circuit for offensive fWAR), it’s hard not to make the playoffs with a pitching staff this deadly.
However, the team only made it to the NLCS, where they lost in seven games to the Marlins. This was the series with the infamous Steve Bartman incident (Game 6). Many regard that as the turning point of the series, but people seem to forget that after the Bartman mishap, Dusty Baker left Prior in to face Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez was, to that point, a career .304/.344/.488 hitter, certainly one of the Marlins’ most lethal sluggers, and Prior was already 114 pitches deep into his outing. Prior allowed a hit, and as if that weren’t already enough, Dusty left Prior in to face two more of the most lethal hitters in the Florida lineup: Miguel Cabrera and Derrek Lee. Unsurprisingly, after throwing 117 pitches (leading up to Cabrera’s AB), and 118 pitches (leading up to Lee’s AB), Prior allowed back-to-back baserunners, granted Cabrera reached on an error. The Cabrera error was a little unlucky, but Lee’s double was a liner right down the third-base line. As much as I would like to hop on the bandwagon and blame Bartman for the loss, Dusty should have taken Prior out after the walk and wild pitch to Pudge. Great management may not lead to wins, but poor management begets losses.
There’s also the fact that a lot of people blame Mark Prior’s early exit from baseball on Dusty’s overuse of him. From 2002 to 2003, Prior’s innings workload more than doubled. We know now that innings should be gradually increased for youngsters to protect their arms, so we need to cut Dusty a little slack, but still, Baker is credited with killing the careers of Prior and Kerry Wood. Whether it’s actually his fault the two of them faltered on their own accord remains unknown, but Baker’s use of them definitely played a factor. Let’s move on.
The Reds finished, you guessed it, first in offensive fWAR in 2010. Led by the likes of future Hall of Famer Joey Votto (side note: he is the perfect baseball player), Jay Bruce (please come back to the Mets), and potential Hall of Famer Scott Rolen, this team cruised to a 91-71 record, and won the NL Central by 5 games over the St. Louis Cardinals. I reiterate: it’s easy to make it to the postseason if you have a good team handed to you. Over 162 games, generally speaking, the most talented teams should end up on top, and that’s what happened here.
The Reds’ 2010 pitching wasn’t anything to write home about, they were roughly league average (17th overall in baseball in pitching fWAR, 9th in the National League). They went on to get swept in the NLDS. There’s not much you can do when you get no-hit in game one and you get only 11 hits in 27 innings over the course of the series, so I don’t think Dusty could have done much to give this team a better shot in 2010. That being said, hitting light-hitting SS Orlando Cabrera ahead of Votto, Rolen, and Bruce in games 1 and 2 certainly did not help.
The 2012 Reds didn’t lead the league in offensive fWAR (they were 9th overall), but they made up for it by leading the National League in pitching fWAR (they were third overall, behind the Tigers and Rays). As I’ve said before, it’s easy to manage a good team to the postseason. The Reds went 97-65 and won their division by 9 games, again over the Cardinals, and then went on to lose in the NLDS in five games to the eventual World Series winners, the San Francisco Giants. All of the games in that series were decided by at least two runs save for game three, which was a 2-1 Giants victory in 10 innings. I’m going to zoom in on that because I think Baker impacted that game the most of any in the series with his game management.
In the 10th inning, Baker put in Jonathan Broxton, which isn’t a bad move in itself. Broxton went on to get back-to-back strikeouts after allowing the first two men to reach base. Catcher Ryan Hanigan then allowed a passed ball, so the baserunners moved up to second and third, but instead of walking Joaquin Arias to get to the pitcher’s spot (and Bruce Bochy let the pitcher hit! That’s even worse than Baker’s blunder!) he allowed Broxton to pitch to Arias, who put the ball in play and got a run in on an error. Obviously the error isn’t Baker’s fault, but if Giants’ pitcher Sergio Romo was standing in the on-deck circle and Baker chose to pitch to the guy who can hit instead of the guy who can’t, that’s just bad managing.
I want to mention briefly that the Reds made the NL Wild Card Game in 2013, but since it was just a one-game playoff, I’m not going to bother doing a whole writeup. The Pirates led the Reds 5-1 by the end of the fourth inning, so, again, there isn’t much Dusty could have done to make it better for the Reds. On to the 2016 Nats.
The 2016 Nationals were second in baseball in pitching fWAR and seventh in hitting fWAR. They won the National League East rather handily (8 games over my beloved Mets) and then lost in five games in the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In this series, Daniel Murphy hit fourth consistently. I couldn’t tell you why, but that’s what Dusty chose to do. He hit behind Jayson Werth. An MVP candidate hit behind Jayson Werth. Anthony Rendon also hit behind Werth. And this wasn’t the last time Baker put together a lineup like this in a postseason series. This, for me, would be the beginning of the end of my patience with Baker if I was a Nationals fan. As if that weren’t bad enough, though, he went on to construct an absolutely heinous lineup for games four and five of the 2017 NLDS, and that’s what prompted me to write this post.
The 2017 Nationals obliterated the NL East (to be fair, though, most good teams would have). They won the division by 20 games with a 97-65 record, finished 6th in offensive fWAR, and 7th in pitching fWAR. Another good team that Dusty got the keys to and couldn’t take to the promised land. One or two seasons with a good team and no results in the postseason could be a fluke, but seven postseason appearances with good teams and a lack of a World Series win seems to indicate something bigger about the manager. But if you don’t believe me, check out the lineup Dusty Baker trotted out for games four and five of the NLDS against the Cubs:
(Image courtesy of @Nationals on Twitter)
The game five lineup was identical except Gio Gonzalez was the starting pitcher. I have so many questions about this lineup:
- Why is Jayson Werth hitting second? You have Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy, and Rendon, all of whom are better hitters than Werth, hitting below him. Why?
- Why is Anthony Rendon hitting sixth? If Baker just flipped Werth and Rendon this lineup would look so much better, but instead he has an MVP candidate hitting at the bottom of the middle-third of the order.
I have other questions too, like why Murphy is hitting behind Zimmerman, why Harper isn’t hitting second, and more. Basically, I think that given the players that are in this lineup, this is one of the worst ways you could have configured it.
The Nationals went on to win the fourth game of the series, but lost the fifth. Whether that is actually due to lineup construction is unlikely, but the point is more that if he had hit Rendon in the two hole instead of Werth, the Cubs would have had to go through Turner-Rendon-Harper in the final inning, instead of Turner-Werth-Harper. Which one looks more daunting? It’s pretty obviously the first combo of hitters. I don’t know if Rendon would have actually reached base in that plate appearance, but he would have had a better chance of reaching base than Werth, I’m nearly certain of that. Yet another example of poor management not maximizing a team’s chances to win. I’m not blaming the loss on him alone, but some of the blame has to be placed on Baker.
Here we have seven examples of a Baker-led teams that made it to the postseason and then couldn’t finish the job once they got there. I don’t work in the Nationals’ front office, but if I did, I think it would be time for the franchise to part ways with Dusty Baker.
(Image Credit: ABC News)