I’m a little reticent to wade into too much of the criticism of Dusty Baker for, well, being Dusty Baker, but since it seems like that’s the hot topic of the day, allow me to offer a brief, somewhat distanced, observation on the question of the Reds’ lineup.
Here’s a pretty stark fact: as of this writing (roughly 11:00 Wednesday night), the Reds have exactly three players who have accumulated at least 100 plate appearances, Joey Votto, Ryan Hanigan, and Todd Frazier, with an on base percentage of at least .330*. Votto, of course, easily eclipses that threshold with a downright ridiculous .478 OBP, and Hanigan also check in with a very respectable .361 mark, but Frazier barely qualifies for the group with an OBP of .331. Yes, that’s correct, the third best on base percentage on the entire Reds’ roster right now is a paltry .331. That’s not good. It also means that’s there’s not a whole lot that Baker could do to make much difference at the margins, as moving around a handful of low OBP guys at the top of a lineup is about as close to the baseball definition of rearranging the deck cares on the Titanic as you can get (not that the Reds are doomed or anything).
To make matters worse, it’s not exactly clear that either Hanigan or Frazier should first on the depth chart given the Reds’ current roster. Hanigan is a very underrated catcher in my opinion, but he’s splitting time with top prospect Devin Mesoraco, and the rookie obviously needs regular playing time to learn at the big league level, so giving Hanigan 75% or more of the team’s at bats from the catcher position probably isn’t a great idea. Frazier, on the other hand, presents problems with where to play him. I gather that putting him in leftfield in place of Ryan Ludwick is a popular idea, and Frazier has indeed been the better hitter than Ludwick so far this season, but Ludwick’s league average wRC+ of 101 isn’t awful by means, and since Frazier isn’t a natural outfielder, he gives up some of that offensive advantage over Ludwick in the field, making this a very marginal upgrade at best.
From a pure performance standpoint, there’s a much stronger case for starting Frazier at third base, his best position, and benching Scott Rolen, who’s hitting a measly .197/.258/.333 through his first 37 games played. On the other hand, this probably won’t happen in the near term, both because of the value of the brand name Rolen brings to the table, so to speak, and because Rolen wouldn’t exactly be a great fit for a bench role, since his playing ability is limited to one position. Given that, Frazier might actually be best utilized in a utility role of sorts, as long as he gets to spell Rolen at third semi-regularly.
Now I’m not trying to say that the Reds don’t have a problem with getting on base — they certainly do — nor am I really trying to defend Baker, per se. Heaven knows I’m far from a fan of Dusty, and the constant stream of nonsense he uses to justify poor decisions should embarrass everyone in the team’s front office, to say nothing of the pride he obviously takes in being ignorant of a couple of decades worth of progressing knowledge of the game. But Dusty, like any manager, can only go to battle with the tools he has, and right now that tool box is decidedly lacking in on base skills. Who should you blame for that? I don’t know. Maybe you can blame Walt Jocketty for saddling the roster with low OBP role players like Ludwick and extending Rolen through the twilight of his career. Maybe there just weren’t any viable, high OBP alternatives on the market to acquire (in the interest of full disclosure, I thought Kosuke Fukodome made a lot of sense for the Reds over the winter, but he just got released by the White Sox after hitting .171/.294/.195, so this stuff is hard). Maybe it’s an organizational failing, and someone needs to sit down and think about working on this with future prospects.
No matter who’s to blame, however, at the moment everyone in the front office would be well advised to spend their time figuring out how to add some on base ability to the top of this lineup, because it’s just not there right now. And that’s true whether Dusty Baker sufficiently appreciates it or not.
*That’s according to Fangraphs right now, and I’m not sure if they’ve updated their numbers to include Wednesday’s game yet, so this could be different by the time you read it. But not by much, so the basic thrust of this post holds.