Ode from an Apologist

A while back, I alluded to a future column on Dusty Baker. This is it.

Ol’ Dusty was ousted at the end of the 2017 postseason, when his Nationals team failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time since the 2012 season. Over the past two seasons, Baker has guided the Nats to 192 regular season wins, but lost back-to-back five-game series in the NLDS. This year was particularly painful, as the Nats hit, pitched and fielded better than the Cubs, but were unable to turn that into a series win.

There’s a good chance this was Dusty’s last turn as a manager. He’s almost 69, which is well past the point when most guys have lost a few miles off their managerial fastball (though in Dusty’s defense, his teams have averaged more than 94 wins per year in his last four seasons, so there’s no sign he’s losing it).

Perhaps more than his age, what might keep Dusty from ever perching himself atop the dugout steps again is the modern general manager. Today’s front offices increasingly want a manager who is going to unquestionably adapt the GM’s ideas and strategies, which is why so many neophytes are getting jobs. We saw that play out in late November, when Yankees GM Brian Cashman opted to let one of the game’s best managers walk so he could bring in Aaron Fucking Boone, a trade that is not likely to help the Yankees but will be appreciated by Sunday Night Baseball viewers.

So Dusty’s likely done. And if he is, it ends a damn fine managerial career, even if the conventional wisdom (at least among my crowd) doesn’t always recognize it that way.

Despite leading four separate teams to the postseason, chalking up 1,863 victories (all-time) against 1636 losses, earning three MoY honors and getting votes another nine times, and most often getting better results than both his managerial  predecessors and his successors, Dusty’s skills have often been downplayed by baseball’s fans. That’s because Dusty had the misfortune of turning in his worst effort when he piloted one of the game’s loudest franchises.

Baker’s Chicago run was undoubtedly his worst. From my vantage point in the Chicago suburbs, Dusty seemed to be going through the motions over the final two-plus seasons on the Northside, all the while crafting sad excuses for his team’s sad play. He struck me as a guy who needed a break, which Jim Hendry ultimately provided for him. And that break did him a world of good, as there were no more 2005-06 seasons on his resume.

But because Cubs fans have an out-sized voice in baseball discourse, Dusty’s Chicago term, rather than his more successful stints with his other three franchises, have continued to define him. What’s worse, the definition isn’t terribly accurate.

Baker earned a reputation in Chicago as the game’s preeminent arm shredder. He also got tagged as a guy who wouldn’t work with young players. The first trait isn’t any more true of Dusty than anyone else, and the second simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it.

Yes, Baker never should have rode Mark Prior as hard as he did during the 2003 season. And yes, it’s possible that workload contributed to Prior’s injury-racked career. Baker deserves to get dinged for that, even if it’s quite possible Prior’s shoulder was destined for the operating table regardless how babied he was.

And the rest of the Baker CV isn’t littered with tattered shoulders and torn UCLs brought on by Baker’s indifference to arm health. He’s got a few Tommy Johns and some other assorted ailments, but no more than you’d expect out of any manager who was around for 22 big league seasons. He may have worked his starters a little harder than seems prudent to us wing preservation speculators, but the track record on the injury front is comparable with his managerial peers.

That leaves Dusty as Kiddie Hater, the game’s anti-Roy Moore. It’s accepted fact that Dusty will never give time to a promising youngster when a grizzled vet can do the same job at half the productivity. Again, the facts don’t support that contention.

Baker made his bones with the Giants, a team run by an executive with a legitimate (if expired) reluctance to build with homegrown kids. Brian Sabean once gave up a first-round draft pick for the right to sign the perpetually mediocre Michael Tucker, which he could have done a few days later at no cost to the Giants. That’s how little he valued the draft at the time. But that time was a full year after Baker was gone from SF, showing the Giants’ aversion to kids always began at the top.

The simple truth is, Dusty wasn’t given much in the way of young position player talent to work with in either of his first two stops. The Giants organization preferred vets to kids, and acted accordingly on the team-building front. And the Cubs were in a decades-long stretch where the organization was unable to produce any position-player talent from the farm. But those teams had some young arms, and Dusty wasn’t afraid of putting them on the hill.

Moreover, when Dusty got to Cincinnati and Washington, he had no trouble turning over at bats to his kids, and was rewarded with various Vottos and Bruces and Turners and Difos during his final eight seasons.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of how the Dusty narrative differs from the Dusty record is with one Matthew Henry Murton. Cubs wisdom claims that Baker buried the promising Murton, short-circuiting his career. Not only is this wisdom inaccurate, it’s about the exact opposite of what happened. Over the course of his five-year career, Murton played more games for Baker (195 games over 2005- 2006) than he did any of his other managers. He also performed much better under Dusty (105 OPS+, 2.9 of his 3.3 career WAR) than he did under any other skipper. The truth is, Dusty extracted more out of the marginal Murton than anyone else came close to doing.

And a look at the guys he never gave real looks to reveals something else. They couldn’t play. There’s not a single young player that he buried who was able to unleash his talent elsewhere when freed from Dusty’s clutches. Not one. A couple of guys blossomed later, but they were guys that Baker found playing time for (Rich Aurilia and Edwin Encarnacion), who just took more time to develop. The more logical conclusion to draw from this was that Dusty had a pretty keen eye for spotting big league talent. Unfortuntately, that will never do for the Baker bashers.

If this is indeed it, Dusty Baker exits the game as an excellent baseball manager, of his history’s best. I don’t think he’s Hall of Fame good, at least not until the Hall starts inducting combo platter candidates based on the sum of a player’s entire baseball career, where Baker’s productive 18-year playing career can supplement his managerial case. But with or without Cooperstown’s call, I hope the future story of Baker’s managerial tenure better reflects his record and abilities, rather than the lingering bitter feelings of some misguided fans.

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