We had great plans once upon a time, didn’t we? Grand hopes for the future. Remember that interview after the clinching game in 2010 when you said you loved Cincinnati? We loved you, too, that night. You were our compassionate player manager, our feel good field general. And we’ll always have that glorious weekend in San Francisco. However, it’s time to admit that this relationship just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not you. It’s us.
We’re young. We’re full of potential. And we simply need more than you can give us.
Breaking up is hard to do.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Rumor has it a new deal to keep Baker in Cincinnati is already in the works. It’s a well-known fact that the owner is a big fan of Johnny B. Baker. The Reds are a conservative baseball organization. They value relationships. They treat employees like family. So, Dusty Baker is likely coming back.
I fear it’s a mistake.
The conventional wisdom says Dusty deserves to return. 97 wins. Two Division Championships in three years. Conventional wisdom says players win games, not managers. And the players failed to get it done this week, right? And if the Reds were not to extend Baker, the front office would take a hit from the traditional media. The CW says you have to keep managers that pilot teams that win nearly 100 games.
A manager can maximize a team’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. Some feel that what plays out across a 162 game slog is not impacted by managerial moves in a significant way. Not me, but some. But, almost no one denies that game management has the potential to become a huge advantage or disadvantage during the playoffs, where the difference between winning and losing can be razor thin.
Confession: I’ve never been much for conventional wisdom. I’ve never been much for giving too much credit to managers for won/loss records. Nor have I put much stock in playing pin the tail on the manager during losing seasons. I pay attention to game management because it’s the one thing I can see, can objectively evaluate. Hopefully. But it mostly comes down to the play on the field. Plenty of good managers have suffered with mediocre teams. And plenty of outstanding teams have succeeded with less than stellar game management (see, e.g., Ron Washington, 2011 World Series, Game 6). Records are overwhelmingly the product of players, yeah?
Who provides a manager with those players? The Reds won 97 games this year because Walt Jocketty traded for Mat Latos. They won 97 games because the Reds GM signed Ryan Ludwick and extended the contract of Bronson Arroyo. It was Walt Jocketty who signed Aroldis Chapman and traded for Sean Marshall when Ryan Madson went down. Jocketty made the somewhat unpopular move to acquire Jonathan Broxton at the trading deadline. Without Walt Jocketty’s guidance, the farm system doesn’t produce the very players that Dusty Baker appears to undervalue.
A national controversy is underway over the decision by the National’s front office to shut down Stephen Strasburg. What about Dusty Baker’s decision to shut down Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier to provide continued playing time for Scott Rolen? Because make no mistake, that’s exactly what Dusty did. He effectively shut down Frazier in favor of another of his vets. Even the voice of the Reds, Marty Brennaman, said on the eve of Joey Votto’s return to the lineup, “if Todd Frazier isn’t in the lineup, you aren’t putting your best team on the field.” Yet, Baker remained unmoved. According to Paul Daugherty, when Dusty was asked why Scott was starting over Todd, he said,
“Rolen starts because he’s old and this could be his last rodeo. Frazier, Dusty said, will get his turn.”
I find that statement impossible to fathom. Can any team successfully chase championships when meritocracy isn’t a core clubhouse value? If Alex Rodriguez, he of the gazillion dollar contract, could be sent to the bench for poor performance, couldn’t Drew Stubbs or Scott Rolen sit for a player who by all accounts had transformed the clubhouse and the play of the team when he was finally called up from AAA Louisville in May? When Joey went down, Todd Frazier became arguably one of the two most valuable players in the everyday lineup.
Owner Castellini said that owning the Reds was a public trust, but by trading Frazier’s considerable contributions for Rolen’s last chance, Baker effectively said forget that, team takes a back seat to “my guys.” Baker’s unspoken philosophy has always been My Relationship With My Players Trumps All. It’s made for great player-manager relationships. Players love Dusty Baker. You hear it all the time. Why wouldn’t they?
It’s not as if Baker didn’t have options. He could have chosen to keep Rolen at third and put Frazier in right field. But as far back as September, Dusty rejected out of hand the thought of moving Jay Bruce to CF, even though he’d capably played there years ago when Junior was moved to RF. In spite of overwhelming evidence that Drew Stubbs was not going to contribute to the team’s offense, his defense was deemed too valuable to bench.
Some say Dusty has never been a friend of pitchers. They say his reckless use of arms is legendary. Forget Wood, Prior and the sad case of Rob Nen—who had a tear of the labrum that Baker knew about—yet was allowed continue pitching. Many have felt that Dusty was unfairly maligned in Chicago. So, focus instead on his use of Reds hurlers, how he effectively ended Aaron Harang’s career in Cincinnati by pitching him in relief on three days rest in a meaningless game in May 2008. Worse, Baker sent him out on short rest four days later, the result being that Harang threw a total of 239 pitches in three games over the course of eight days. Harang was essentially done for the season. The handling of Harang was not an isolated incident. In 2011, Baker cavalierly allowed Carlos Fisher to throw 95 pitches in a relief appearance, only to send him out there to pitch again 3 days later. Dusty’s advocates often cite the way he has handled a remarkably healthy starting staff this year, probably not realizing that he also left his starters in to pitch 110+ pitches 88% more often than the league average. As Jonny Gomes once said, “That’s Dusty. You want the ball, you get the ball.”
A fact Aaron Harang knows all too well.
Let’s discuss Dusty Baker’s performance in the NLDS, not to nitpick or second-guess, but to understand what moves were or were not made, how they impacted the playoffs, and the difference managing in postseason versus the regular season. Let’s be clear: there’s no doubt in my mind that had Johnny Cueto been healthy and Joey Votto been 100%, the Reds would have moved on regardless of how the games were managed. But what are managers for, if not to find solutions under duress, to give their team the best chance to win? In every game in GABP, Baker made choices that put the Reds behind the 8-Ball, IMO. Could different calls from the bench made a difference? You judge:
Game 3: with 2 outs and runners on second and third against Jonathan Broxton in the top of the 10th, Dusty chose not to walk Joaquin Arias even though that SINGLE act would have accomplished the following: (1) gotten the Giants’ closer out of the game, (2) brought a slower runner to the plate, (3) burned the Giants’ last player on the bench, and (4) forced Tim Lincecum to close, something he hadn’t done in his career. Lincecum was left out of the rotation because he couldn’t be counted on to throw strikes. How would that have played out in a tense bottom of the 10th? We’ll never know. Dusty passed because as he said in the postgame press conference that he feared Hector Sanchez, a cold, backup catcher who had yet to appear in the series and the proud possessor of a .295 OBP.
Yet, Baker’s biggest failing may have been forgetting where his team was the mightiest.
Game 4: I was a bit surprised immediately after Game 3 that I wasn’t reading about the possibility of handing the ball to LeCure and J.J. Hoover and asking them to get the team to the fifth or sixth inning and turning it over to the back of the bullpen, but quickly discarded that idea, realizing that Leake, who started all season, would be a much better option. And if Leake didn’t have it, the Reds surely wouldn’t wait long, would they?
With the best bullpen in the major leagues, why didn’t Baker and his coaches leverage that advantage? There was no sense of immediacy in the way he managed the entire series in GABP, but it was probably the most pronounced here.
Game 5: Baker stayed too long with Latos. It wasn’t simply single-triple-groundout-error-walk-single-slam. Far more was going on around and inside Mat Latos. The staff failed to address the psychology unfolding on the mound. After 4 scoreless innings, Mat began to unravel when home plate umpire Tom Hallion’s strike zone shrunk to the size of a music box. He sulked. He smirked. He pouted. He sarcastically grinned and shook his head as Price left the mound after a visit. At one point, Hallion went toward the mound to address Latos. After the error by Cozart, Latos, down on one knee, stayed there, looking as if he was feeling sorry for himself. He rose, but never threw a strike to the following batter, walking Scutero. A rope by Sandavol should have been the death knell for Latos, but Dusty saw none of the nuances unfolding before him in the 13 agonizing minutes that elapsed before Posey strode to the plate.
What was Dusty saving his bullpen for? Again, he managed as if it was June, not October.
In the sixth, Cain was faltering. After surrendering 2 runs an inning earlier, Ludwick homered, Bruce walked, Rolen singled and it looked like Bruce Bochy was about to make the very same mistake Baker had just made the inning before: leave his starter in too long. But not content to take the gift Bochy was about to give, a fateful decision was made to hit-and-run. Forget that the numbers said that Ryan Hanigan was more likely to strikeout vs. the fly ball pitching Cain—just the fact that Baker had sent the runners on the previous pitch–tipping off catcher Posey–made it a desperate and doomed call.
The Reds never hit well after returning home from San Francisco. That has been a concern all season. People that blame Brook Jacoby forget that Dusty, a fine hitter in his day, has always been the architect of the philosophy called Swing Early and Swing Often. Having once announced “you don’t walk your way out of a slump,” I can’t help but feel the message sent to young players like Fraizer and Heisey was clear: you want playing time, be prepared to be aggressive at the plate. I remember Yankee announcers in May saying the Reds led the majors in first pitch swinging at 31%. I wondered if a young team could hit successfully over the course of a long season swinging impatiently. Especially in a ball park that almost goads hitters into swinging from the heels.
There is so much to be concerned about if Baker returns:
Can young hitters ever learn patience?
Can young pitchers continue to stay healthy?
Will Chapman ever get a chance to start?
Will youth ever win out over vets?
Can the clubhouse remain happy if tenure trumps talent?
A team only gets so many chances. From the time umpire Ken Burkhart robbed the Reds of victory in Game One of the 1970 World Series, to Game Seven when the Reds finally subdued the Red Sox, five long years had elapsed. Devastating injuries, Gene Tenace and the New York Mets pitching staff all conspired to keep the Big Red Machine from finding it’s legacy—and Carlton Fisk came within a whisker of making it six years wandering the desert for Cincinnati and its fans.
How long do we wait on a manager who famously does things his way and knows no other? Dusty Baker is a good man. He may be the right manager for a big market team with veteran players with established habits and egos that need constant attention.
Dusty Baker is also a tale of two managers: the Clubhouse Manager who pays dividends inside the clubhouse—and the Tactical Manager who exacts a penalty at a cost no one can seem to assess.
The Reds need a manager who can maintain team camaraderie while leveraging the ever-growing investment of the owner and general manager.
My question is …
Why can’t the Cincinnati Reds have both?