My Personal Journey to the Acceptance of Dusty Baker
I can't remember the exact game but I know it was at RFK and I know Dusty Baker was managing a team the Nationals were playing against. It had to be the Cubs because Dusty Baker didn't take over the Reds until 2008, but that is all beside the point. I was sitting there watching the Nationals lose as we often did when they played at RFK. This was in a time before baseball had drained me of all emotion and turned me into a stat obsessed fan. I was still an emotional fan full of anger at the fact that the Nats were losing even though it was a near foregone conclusion before the game began. My friend was visiting from out of town and could see my anger and he looked at me and said, "Don't worry. Dusty will [mess] it up."
As the game went along Dusty Baker did indeed mess it up, or at least that was my perception at the time. Dusty Baker is thought of as a manager who rides his starting pitchers too hard and pushes them into high pitch count after high pitch count, but the Dusty I saw that day was a different Dusty. It was a Dusty that didn't have a starting pitcher to ride and because of this he went to the bullpen early and often and as I have often said a bullpen is governed by the law of diminishing returns. The more relievers that are brought in the better the chance that one of them simply doesn't have it that day and talent matters far more than handedness or playing match-ups. Dusty Baker played match-ups and it ended up benefiting the Nationals.
Never mind the fact that neither the 2005 or 2006 Cubs were very good my bias had been confirmed and Dusty Baker was a poor manager that couldn't manage pitching. He over managed and tinkered just enough to turn his decisions against himself and his team. This is was I thought and what most people thought when Dusty Baker was let go by the Cubs. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were perpetually injured and the Cubs had back to back losing seasons and Dusty Baker was to blame for all of it. Then he went to the Reds and built them into a 90 win team. The stigma of being Dusty Baker stuck with him and his reputation remained. He road his starting pitchers too hard, over managed the bullpen, preferred speed to OBP at the top of the line-up, and valued contact outs over taking a walk. In baseball perception is reality and this is the perception of who Dusty Baker the manager was.
Then something changed in my perception of Dusty Baker and it had nothing to do with Dusty Baker. It had to do with Ron Washington. Many of the faults people laid at Dusty's feet were the same as they laid at Washington's, but like Dusty he was a highly successful manager. He helped the Rangers to become a winning organization and reach the World Series in back to back years, but all people saw were the on field decisions they deemed not ideal and I wondered how much those one field decisions really mattered. Ron Washington got more out of Josh Hamilton than any manager since, he kept his pitching staff focused while they pitched in a hitters park and crippling Texas humidity, and most importantly he just kept winning.
It's funny how much baseball hates winners that don't do it the way they're supposed to. Dusty Baker and Ron Washington won, but they weren't following the way of advanced stats. They managed the personalities in the clubhouse and went with their gut for on field decisions. They bunted too much and cared about walks too little, but there was something else there. To me the sabrmetric revolution has always been about discovery. If our current way of looking at something that is working doesn't explain why it's working then we're looking at it wrong. Because of how much people disliked the managing style of Ron Washington I figured they were looking at it wrong and then I looked back at the career of Dusty Baker.
Dusty Baker is the most successful manager that is nearly universally considered terrible at managing in the history of the sport. With his years of success it's hard to conclude that perhaps people are just looking at his managing style incorrectly. There has to be more to the behind the scenes parts of managing than we, the fans, realize. Dusty Baker is an engaging personality. Listen to his press conferences and read the recent profiles of him in the Washington Post and it's hard to dislike the man, and it's easy to understand how he can relate to the younger generation. Dusty Bakers is a lover of music, food, and good times. Who doesn't want to talk to a man that smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix or was teammates with Hank Aaron. Dusty Baker might be like a grandfather to modern players but he's the grandfather you want to please, not because he'll make you cut a switch, but because he's just that cool.
My view softened on Dusty Baker I questioned people that blamed him for pitching injuries by asking which pitchers. Everyone blamed him for Prior and Wood, but Kerry Wood pitched just as many innings the year before Dusty Baker took over the Cubs than when he did, and as we've learned more recently pitchers just get hurt. The modern focus on innings limits and pitch counts has done nothing to quell the tide of Tommy John's surgeries. Dr. James Andrews office is as busy as ever, and yet when Dusty Baker is brought up he's blamed for Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Dusty Baker has his faults, but he's won in the past, and if he can do it with the Nationals I don't care if it's with his finger on the pulse of modern theories or if he does it going with his gut and old school mentality. All I care about is if the Nationals win, and as of this moment I believe that Dusty Baker will get the most out of the men under his leadership.