What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve been more that critical of recently-fired Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker. Baker features prominently if not positvely in the Dubsism List of 25 Defining World Series Moments, and he’s a “top ten” guy on my list of worst coaches and managers who got more than one job. There’s a lot of completely fair criticisms of this guy and a baseball skipper; the biggest are what I’ve always said about him:
OK, there’s two ways to describe what an idiot Dusty Baker is. There is the math-based approach, which in baseball invariably means a big dose of that Bill James’ Sabermetrics used for telling us the ways that a baseball team will score the most runs. The theory of operation behind Sabermetrics is that a team who gets more base-runners score more runs. It is all really pretty logical when you think about it. Dusty Baker has refused to accept this.
The other way to look at is with simple common sense since this is a simple concept to grasp; more base runners equals more runs. The speed of the runner isn’t terribly important; it’s just more of a bonus, largely because there are all kinds of ways base-runners can score without the need for speed. Baker rejects this; his belief is that slower runners “just clog up the basepaths.” This is why we are still waiting for that Dusty Baker-led world Series winning team.
Obviously, you can add this year’s Washington Nationals to that list. That led to the Nats’ decision to part ways with Baker after two seasons. That firing gave me pause to re-evaluate my position on Dusty Baker the manager, because I thought his being fired by the Nationals’ was 100% uncut U.S.D.A. bullshit. So, now I had to wonder why I was so ready to defend a guy upon whom I’ve spooned so much of my own criticism.
In short…I was wrong; dead wrong. The question then became how was I so wrong?
To find the answer, I only had to look down the street from Nationals Park to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I quickly realized that Baker has something in common with President Trump; he’s an incredibly polarizing figure. Much like our 45th president, people either love Baker or they hate him; they’re really isn’t much middle ground when it comes to the sentiments on either. Being as polarizing as he and Trump are, both their supporters and detractors live and die in a world of absolutes where there is no allowance for an impartial review of the data points.
That’s the big problem inherent in the “with us or against us” mentality…it’s incredibly anti-intellectual. Decisions and opinions are subject to the data available at the time they are made. The power of intelligence is the ability to look at different data points and to allow those points to form your conclusion. Conversely, the definition of anti-intellectualism is to take those data points and accept only those which fit your narrative and discredit or ignore those that don’t.
Baker is the perfect example of this. In psychology, its called “confirmational bias,” which is just a egg-head way of saying “people believe what they want to believe.” I came to this realization last night when I had to balance two things which seem to contraindicate each other. Upon the news of Bakers’ firing, Twitter exploded with a lot of “good riddance”-type of stuff. What I couldn’t understand is for all that vitriol; if this guy really is such a terrible manager, how did he manage to get hired four times?
The answer lies in the demographic breakdown between the people who love Dusty and those who don’t. The line almost purely breaks between those in baseball and those who are fans. The hate-fest on Baker comes almost entirely from fans; you can spend a lot of time combing the internet trying to find more than a handful of examples of baseball people saying bad things about him. To me, if the guy really sucked as bad as a manager, you would think you could find somebody will to go on the record somewhere in baseball willing to dish some dirt on the record. Try it for yourself…if you’ve got some time you want to kill.
In other words, I’m changing my own conclusions because there’s no way that new data points can’t mean new conclusions and it is high time to review the data points on Dusty Baker.
Honestly, this is the point where I really don’t listen to anybody…unless they are like me and have a career history of having jobs which involve making decisions that effect the livelihoods of other people. Whether you are a manager in business or baseball, you have to make decisions every day that are going to be scrutinized, and not of all of them are going to be the “right decision.”
We have two huge problems in the way we view decision-makers in this country. One is directly related to aforementioned “polarity.” If a manager makes a “bad” decision, he’s an idiot and the worst excuse for a manager ever. If he makes a “good” decision, he’s a genius. There’s also a factor involved about when in his career a manager makes those “good” or “bad” decisions. Both Terry Francona and Joe Maddon made a lot of “good” decisions early in their managerial careers leading the baseball writers to label them “good” managers which left them exempt from serious scrutiny over some of the strange decisions they both made in last year’s World Series.
Dusty Baker’s real problem came from the fact that for first ten years of his career, he languished in relative baseball obscurity in San Francisco because nobody in the Eastern time zone pays attention to anything in California until the play-offs. That’s why nobody remembers Baker’s inaugural rookie campaign in 1993 when he took a Giants team which finished 72-90 the previous year to a 103-win season. But nobody saw that team in October because that impressive win total was only good enough to finish one game behind the rising dynasty known as the Atlanta Braves.
It’s easy to say 1993 was the year the Giants added Barry Bonds, but that pick-up didn’t have anything to do with the fact Baker managed to get 20-win seasons out of John Burkett and Bill Swift, and got a career year out reliever Rod Beck. Remember this, because there’s going to be a in-depth discussion over Baker and his pitching staffs in a bit.
The sub-total on Baker’s days in the Bay Area is that in ten seasons, he led the Giants to five 90-wins seasons and seven winning seasons in all. Despite what you may think of Dusty, you can’t tell me that’s not pretty damn good. But before we start building a statue with a toothpick in its mouth, there is the matter of the post-season. Again, more on that later.
At least 75% of the population in this country lives in the Eastern time zone, including me now. But having spent large portions of my childhood on Pacific time, I know that in most sports people in Chicago and New York don’t stay up for those regular season games with a first pitch at 10 p.m. ET. Just ask Mrs. J-Dub how many West coast ball games end up on the DVR to be zipped through over morning coffee.
But post-season games, at least in the “Dusty in San Francisco” era, almost never started later than 8 p.m. ET. That’s when Baker hit the big stage, where unlike the old show business adage wishing good luck, he literally broke his figurative leg. In 1997, Baker’s Giants looked like they were the ones on the wrong end of a gill net being swept by the eventual World Series Champion Florida Marlins. 2000 saw Dusty Baker lead the Giants to 97 wins, he takes home the NL Manager of the Year Award, but San Francisco rolled over against the NL pennant-winning New York Mets.
As far as the post-season is concerned, it really does get worse from here. There’s really no denying the conclusions to the 2002 World Series and 2003 National League Championship Series managing the Giants and Cubs respectively were nothing short of embarrassing. One was clearly Dusty’s fault, but the other wasn’t. In other words, early in his exposure to the vast majority of baseball fans, he unfortunately did some things which cast the die for every thing he did to be scrutinized and mocked…you might be noticing a theme at this point.
Now for some serious crow-eating on my part. I found myself terribly guilty of subscribing to this narrative until I watched Baker in the 2017 NLDS against the Cubs. There were so many times I was waiting for the “Dusty being Dusty” moment in that series and it never came. That gave me pause to wonder if in fact this old dog had learned some new tricks, until I considered the possibility the knock on Baker’s handling of pitching staff might be so much banana juice.
The genesis of this narrative comes largely from Cubs fans, who will build their case around the injuries to young phenoms Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, with the accusation being Baker’s modus operandi is to burn through arms with high pitch counts. It’s actually pretty easy to build a valid-sounding argument which supports that.
Start with the assumption that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were two of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, were both considered potential aces, and were both big-fastball strikeout pitchers. In 2003, they were both pivotal components in taking the Chicago Cubs to the post-season. During that season, the argument is that Baker over-used Prior and Wood by having them throw 120-125 pitches per start, which in turn put stress on their arms and led to the injury problems for both of them.
If you stop right there, that argument starts to make sense. But we’re not stopping there, because to buy that as the foundation of the “Dusty destroys pitchers” argument, you have to ignore some key points.
First, let’s look at why Baker might have relied heavily on his young fireballers. Go look at the Cubs roster from 2003 and pay close attention to the bullpen. Of all the guys who pitched more than 60 innings (there’s six of them), only setup man Kyle Farnsworth and closer Joe Borowski were reliably not shitty. This means Baker depended on all his starters to get to the seventh inning in order to limit how much time liabilities like Sergio Mitre and Antonio Alfonseca spent on the mound.
Let’s be honest. If you’re a dominant, fastball-reliant strikeout pitcher, you should be able to get to the seventh inning on 120 pitches. If you can’t, you aren’t the fireballer being advertised, or you weren’t prepared to carry that load at the major-league level, neither of which are the manager’s fault.
The Cubs’ fan argument against Baker (and I’ve heard it more times than I’d care to admit) from this point focuses on a somewhat cherry-picked version of Prior’s and Wood’s injury histories: This means getting a litany which reads like this:
Prior starts the season on the disabled list missing two months with an injury to his Achilles tendon, but his lackluster performance upon his return leads some to baselessly speculate his trouble was actually an arm injury. This was never confirmed by a medical professional of any sort, but it still finds it’s way into the “Dusty destroys pitchers” narrative.
Wood went on the disabled list for two months with a strained triceps. He left after two innings of his seventh start of the season, at which time he had a 3-3 record with an ERA of 3.68 and 51 Ks against only 13 walks. That doesn’t sound like a guy worn out from the previous season.
Prior suffers a compression fracture in his left elbow as a result of being struck by a line drive. Even so, having missed the majority of June due to the injury, Prior goes Prior goes 9-2 in starts in May and July where he deal mores than 100 pitches. Again, this doesn’t sound like a guy whose arm is falling off.
Wood underwent shoulder surgery in August and missed the rest of the season. At this point, nobody realizes until now Wood has no history of shoulder injuries, because by now the “Blame Dusty” narrative has taken hold, as false as it may be.
Prior spends three stints on the disabled list due to tendinitis in his shoulder, an affliction often associated with over-use/misuse. Granted Prior’s numbers are fading at the end of 2005, but he had the entire off-season to get rested and ready for 2006; a season in which he doesn’t make his debut until June 18th.
Wood doesn’t even make it out of spring training before recurring injuries to his knees required surgery. He doesn’t make his debut until May 18th and even then, he’s really a limited-duty reliever in between stints on the disabled list.
The end for both Prior and Wood as Chicago Cubs comes as they both have structural issues with their shoulders.
This now-debunked narrative followed Baker to Cincinnati, where the minute Edinson Volquez needed “Tommy John” surgery, the intellectually-lazy cry was “SEE!? DUSTY DESTROYS PITCHERS!” The justification for this from Reds fans generally quotes Volquez’ 2008 season when he posted a 17-6 record with a 3.21 ERA, followed by a 2009 campaign which saw him post a 4-2 record with a 4.35 ERA before being shutdown for the aforementioned ligament replacement surgery.
This brings us to all the stuff the Dusty-haters love to overlook on this point.
Once what Cubs fans want to believe about Baker and his alleged mishandling of pitchers has been sufficiently debunked, that leaves whatever Reds’ fans might want to say essentially without a foundation. They love to point at Edinson Volquez as “yet another example that Dusty burns out arms,” and that narrative is as false in Cincinnati as it was in Chicago. At the time of his injury in 2009, Volquez had only pitched 48.2 innings in 8 starts, not counting the one-inning start in which he was injured. That’s an average of 6.025 innings per start, and he never throws more than 110 pitches in any of those. If you think that’s “over-using” a starting major league pitcher, then you fundamentally misunderstand baseball.
The final nail in the coffin for the “Dusty destroys pitchers” argument is the 2012 Cincinnati Reds who won the NL Central division thanks in part to a starting rotation that was amazingly durable. That club featured four starters all of whom pitched over 200 innings, made at least 32 starts, and none of whom had an ERA higher than 3.75.
Feel free to try to blame Dusty for Johnny Cueto’s back spasms in the 2012 play-offs…it’s all you really have left.
PART I -The Numbers Don’t Lie
“Dusty being Dusty” is the statement you hear at some point when one of the anti-intellectuals is about to give you another installment in their never-ending “Dusty Sucks” litany. Like I said, I was a believer in this stuff until recently. Watching the job Baker did with the Nationals over the past two seasons provided the data point which made me re-evaluate Dusty Baker the manager.
Save your breath telling me about how the Nationals had a ton of talent. Don’t forget that when Baker took over that team, the Nationals were coming off a disappointing 83-79 campaign which had Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon going hands-on in the dugout because then-manager Matt Williams had completely lost control of the team. Under Baker’s tutelage, the Nationals notched 95 and 97 wins in his two seasons in Washington.
Now take a look at the Cincinnati Reds. Do you know how many times the Reds played October baseball in the decade before Dusty arrived in Cincinnati? Exactly zero. In fact, the Reds finished above .500 in that time only once. In six seasons in Cincinnati, Baker took the Reds to the play-offs three times. To put that in perspective, that’s as many times as the Reds made the post-season in the forty years between the end of “The Big Red Machine” and the dawn of the Dusty era.
As far as the numbers go, here’s the bottom line. If Dusty never manages again, his 22-year managerial career totals look like this;
That last number is the real issue with Baker’s legacy as a skipper. The only guy with more managerial wins and no championships is Gene Mauch. If Dusty never manages again, he’s a sure-fire winner of our Gene Mauch Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given annually to a guy who has been around forever, but never won anything. But if you stop to think about it, you still had to have a serious amount of success to win that award.
There’s more than one hall-of-famer in that list, and the “Dusty-haters” should start preparing themselves for the idea that Baker has a better chance than you want to admit of being the first non “pure” manager (not a “player-manager” like Frank Robinson or Hughie Jennings) to get into Cooperstown without a World Series win.
PART II – The Post-Season
Here’s the “red-meat” for the “Dusty-haters” as this is really the most valid criticism of Baker. Sharpen up your crayons, Gang…fill my in-box with the tales of Baker’s managing of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series as if he weren’t even in the stadium. Be sure to tell me your opinion of how badly he botched Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. I’ll be here waiting to hear about his toothpick, his wristbands, and the fact he hasn’t advanced a team past the divisional round since that infamous NLCS against the Florida Marlins.
2002 is simply indefensible. The only thing I can say is at some point everybody screws the pooch. I’m fairly certain that Dusty isn’t the only guy in any line of business to have a monstrous mistake in the last fifteen years, nor is he the only one to be judged by a group of people who only make “correct” decisions believe they know how to second-guess everybody else’s decision-making process.
This is the part where the “Dusty-haters” share in the anti-intellectualism of the anti-Trump crowd because this is where everything either Dusty or “The Donald” does gets viewed through a prism of “confirmational bias” salted with a big dose polarity…in other words, neither of those crowds are big into facts.
Take 2003 for example. The “Dusty Destroys Pitchers” argument is born to cover two inconvenient facts; the whole catastrophe of Game 6 starts with Mark Prior uncorking a wild pitch, and Kerry Wood’s serving up wood-finders to blow a lead in Game 7. Forget the fact the Cubs were ahead in that series 3-1 until Josh Beckett changed the momentum by tossing a complete game shut-out in Game 5. Forget the fact the Cubs had leads in both Games 6 and 7. The “Dusty Sucks” chants ring in my ear just like the “Trump colluded with Russia” non-sense…neither of them hold up factually.
If you doubt that, consider the best opportunity for Reds fan to trot out the “Dusty Destroys Pitchers” mantra. 2012 sees Cincinnati capping off a 97-win with a trip to the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Cincinnati had a 2-0 lead over the eventual world champions, but Game 3 proved to be another momentum-changer. This time, the game went into extra innings tied at 1 until the Reds allow Buster Posey to score after giving up a pair of 2-out singles, then committing a passed ball and a throwing error. It was Buster’s bat that broke the Reds in Game 5 with his sixth-inning Grand Slam.
This is the part where you are asking how does this fit the “Dusty Destroys Pitchers” argument. What Reds fans will have you believe is their ace Johnny Cueto came up lame after facing one batter because Baker again over-used his pitchers during the season. Sure, Cueto pitched 217 innings, but his arm wasn’t the problem. Instead, Cueto missed most of the NLDS with back spasms, which were more than likely caused by his twisting, jerky delivery and/or the 35 extra pounds hanging over his belt. This injury forces Baker to press Mat Latos into service as a replacement for his best pitcher; Latos is the guy who gives up the back-breaking Grand Slam to Posey.
Wherever the blame might actually lay for the Reds fold-job in 2012 doesn’t matter nearly as much as it gave more credence to the idea that Baker simply isn’t a post-season manager. Again, this comes from his first exposures in the post-season to fans who hadn’t seen him on an every-day basis in San Francisco. I’ve come to the conclusion that is massively unfair, considering Baker has been tagged as a “bad” manager, while a “good” manager like Joe Maddon treated us to a World Series in 2016 in which he made several decisions from which he largely remained immune from criticism.
There’s a big reason for that. First, baseball fans love to believe they know more about making pitching changes or line-up moves more than any manager they don’t like. That’s because fans look at such moves in hind-sight, which means they judge those decisions based on what happened afterward rather than understanding the thought process behind making the decision itself.
Here’s the test. Let’s say you go to a nice restaurant and you decide to order the steak. You enjoy your meal, but 12 hours later you come down with food poisoning. Was ordering the steak a “bad decision?” No, because the fact you got a bad chunk of meat lands in the “stuff happens” category. Now, if before you ordered you saw a guy walk out of the kitchen with a garbage bag full of dog collars, then having the steak is a bad decision.
Some people love to use the saying “it’s better to be lucky than good.” That’s pure crap, especially in baseball. What most call “luck” is a direct result of being in the right place at the right time. Professional gamblers aren’t “lucky,” they make calculated decisions based on situations, probability, and statistics. In that sense, baseball managers are professional gamblers; their decisions are intended to increase their teams chances of winning, but at the end of the day all managers need their players need to perform to make things go their way.
Last year, Maddon went to the “All You Can Eat” Dog Collar Buffet and never once got sick. Maddon won a World Series despite some decisions many might call questionable, particularly in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. This year, Maddon got a green meat attack from a Dodger Dog. It happens. “Good” decisions can have “bad” outcomes and guys get away with “bad” decisions all the time.
I’ve already outlined Baker’s issues with his player’s not showing up in October in 2002 and 2013, but this year’s Nationals could fill an entire dairy case with milk cartons featuring the faces of all the players who went missing. Bryce Harper was just coming off a knee injury and had only 18 at-bats before the play-offs. He and Daniel Murphy hit a paltry .211. It only got worse from there. Anthony Rendon dribbled a measly .176, Trea Turner only had a .217 OBP with a single stolen base. Ryan Zimmerman hit .150, and all tolled, the Nats hit .186 and slugged (if you can call it that) just .335.in the series.
This brings us to the exact moment where I changed my mind. Mrs. J-Dub is a Nationals fan, so we’ve seen more then our fair share of their games. As we are watching Game 3 against the Cubs, it became pretty clear in the 7th inning that Washington’s ace Max Scherzer was done, and it was time to go to the bullpen. Dusty went to lefty Sammy Solis to face Kyle Schwarber, and in response, Cubs manager Joe Maddon hit for Schwarber with Albert Almora, who is a much better hitter against lefties.
Now, because Almora tied the game with a solo homer, the “Dusty-haters” immediately pounced with their shop-worn noise about this being more “evidence” that he’s a failure who can’t get the job done in October. Of course, the “Dusty-haters” would have said the same thing if he had left Scherzer in the game and he dished up a home run to Schwarber, and they would have said the same thing had Maddon not hit for Schwarber and he took Solis deep. In other words, we are back to that crap where decisions get graded on the outcome.
To understand why that is a pant-load, you have to understand why Baker would bring in a left-handed pitcher in that situation. The “Dusty-haters” don’t understand that he was baiting Maddon into making that switch to get Schwarber out of the game. Consider the following:
Not only is it incredibly easy to be a “Monday Morning Quarterback” (or manager in this case), especially when you have the aforementioned dose of “Confirmational bias” to bolster your narrative no matter what happens. In the case of Dusty Baker, that means ever since his indefensible botching of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, every time Baker makes a decision that doesn’t work, it’s more “evidence” that he’s a terrible manager. Conversely, this is the mentality which completely ignores anything positive the guy does; if the Nationals advanced to the World Series or had even won it; there would be a narrative about how it was “in spite” of Baker.
That’s the same type of anti-intellectualism dominating the political landscape in this country right now, and I’m done listening to all of it.
Call it anti-intellectual or just plain lazy; the “Dusty-haters,” the anti-Trump crowd, and generally anybody else in this country who has locked themselves into the cognitive prison of absolutism are simply longer worth listening to because their message will never change despite whatever you might add to the discussion. Tell how many times you’ve heard somebody say something like “(insert person they don’t like) is terrible because they are (insert discrediting label here) and nothing you can tell me will change that?”
That’s EXACTLY who I’m talking about. You’ve heard them because they’re everywhere. You might even be one. If you send me comments about Dusty Baker which start with “Name one time…” or “What about when…”, you ARE one of them.
Dusty Baker made some colossal mistakes the first few times anybody saw him as a manager on the national stage. Since then, everything he’s done has been viewed through that prism. As I’ve said, there no defending what he did in the 2002 World Series, but every other criticism of him since then is almost completely without merit once you boil off the confirmational bias.
Like him or not, Dusty Baker makes teams better. With the exception of the Chicago Cubs, every team Baker left was a 90+ win play-off team. As far as the Cubs are concerned, Baker took a 67-win team in 2002 and led them to the NLCS in 2003. Baker’s biggest problem in Chicago was he made an all-to-easy scapegoat for a host of other problems. But there’s a reason it took the Giants nearly a decade to get back to the World Series after Dusty’s departure. There’s a reason why the Reds haven’t topped 79 wins since Baker got booted out Cincinnati.
If the “Dusty-haters” want to try to re-justify their sentiments with the argument about his post-season record, let me remind you the baseball is a game where the best team doesn’t always win. More often than baseball fans would like to admit, winning in the post-season is a total crap shoot. The classic “old-school” example is the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates who took down the vaunted New York Yankees in a seven-game series in which the Bucs were outscored 55-27.
But there’s no need for the “Wayback Machine” to see this in action. There’s no denying the Indians were better than the Yankees all year long, then they dropped three straight to lose the ALDS this year. There’s really no debating the 2014 San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals weren’t the two best teams in baseball because they were both wild-cards. There’s also the “Dusty-haters” favorite season in 2003 when Baker’s 88-win Cubs knocked off the 101-win Braves in the NLDS.
Now the Nationals have hired Dave Martinez to replace Baker, which he’s going to find to harder than we all might think. Despite the fact the Nationals are loaded, they are also on their sixth skipper in ten years, and the bar has been set that 192 wins in two seasons isn’t good enough. Combine that with the fact the National League still features formidable established opponents like the Dodgers and Cubs, up and comers like the Rockies and Diamondbacks, and plenty of other teams with “surprise” potential, and Martinez has a tough row to hoe in front of him.
If that weren’t enough, take a look at the near-term future in Washington. Bryce Harper becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Daniel Murphy is also in his “walk” year, not to mention he turns 33 this year. Speaking of the “Father Time” factor, Max Scherzer will be 33 and even though he’s an odds on favorite to take down this years Cy Young in the NL, he’s starting to show signs of being a high-mileage car. Subtract one year in age and add a late-season collapse and there is solid reason to be concerned about Gio Gonzalez. While Stephen Strasburg is the youngest of the “Big Three,” he’s also got a serious injury history…can he make 30 starts in his 30th year?
Given all that in Washington, given that the Cincinnati Reds are now a borderline-irrelevant franchise, and given the fact both the Giants and Cubs became dysfunctional franchises for nearly a decade after Dusty’s departure, perhaps Baker’s biggest problem is he never saw the bag full of dog collars.