“In Dusty’s five seasons here he’s taken us to the postseason twice and has proven he can lead our teams to championship-caliber play on the field. He’s the right manager to continue the building process that will take us deeper and deeper into the playoffs in the future.” —Bob Castellini, Reds President and CEO
On October 15, 2012, a scant four days removed from the most devastating loss of the 2012 season, the big man of the Reds, he of the big wallet, reaffirmed his commitment to the Baker Era in Cincinnati. Now, following the most devastating loss of the 2013 season so far, I find those words ringing back in my ears. Would that I could find hope in Mr. Castellini’s proclamation. But, I cannot.
I have seen too much.
I have the baseball fan version of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m bone weary from having a one way argument with my flat panel television each time it shows me images of cognitive dissonance—human beings trying their best to win baseball games while doing the dopey and the dogmatic. I’m exhausted from insisting to my fellow Reds fans that simply taking a LEAD to the mound in the ninth inning is infinitely more important than it ever will be debating WHO takes the mound in the ninth. I’m worn to the nub watching outs being given away so a man in scoring position can be moved further into scoring position. If Run Expectancy isn’t your cup of tea, how about the simple expectancy of smart baseball for a change? As was memorably implored in my favorite cult movie, The Warriors:
I’m sure Mr. Castellini believes that players win games. That is undeniably true. It is also an irrefutable truth that managers can position those players to a winning advantage—or misalign them to crippling disadvantage. Mr. Castellini surely believes this, too. After all, he gave Baker an estimated $3.5M per year to do that voodoo that he does so well.
Blame the players if you must. Point to all the balls not centered on the barrel of the bat or the pitches thrown too far up in the zone. But understand that this is the easiest dodge in the world. As always, we play the intellectual equivalent of running after the fat kid in a schoolyard game of tag because he’s the easiest to catch. Baseball is a game of overwhelming failure for even the best of hitters. Every game provides a parade of examples where a hit here or a pitch there could have changed the outcome. If you insist on blaming the players on any given night, you have plenty of ammunition.
Is that all there is?
When a team is in sync, when players are hitting on all cylinders, managers become largely superfluous. Baseball is seldom played on that level. Most managers earn their money dealing with flawed teams, whether the culprit is a lack of payroll or a lack of health. In Dusty’s case, his employers have by most accounts done well by him. Walt Jocketty solved the most pressing problem on the team—the lack of a leadoff hitter—to spectacular result in the off-season. When Cueto went down, the draft & development people had Tony Cingrani—plucked in the third round of the 2011 draft—waiting in the wings. No Sean Marshall? No problem. Here’s Manny Parra and his Incredible Sinking Slider.
The injury to Ludwick on Opening Day put undue stress on bench players who were never expected to contribute as starters. Izturis is an insurance policy middle infielder, and the front office deems that more valuable than a good pinch hitter with no glove. Heisey’s injury was just bad enough to hamstring the Reds, but not bad enough to seek an outright replacement.
At a certain point, you have to believe that money has become an issue—and that takes us back to the owner. Ludwick is on the credit card for the next two years. The Reds were not about to strip mine their future further by trading the organization’s remaining prospects to fill a three-month hole in left field while raising payroll further. Players like Marlin Byrd, who would have been the perfect rental, were not available in April and by the time the Mets dropped their outrageous demands and were ready to deal in August, the Reds had no intention of acquiring Byrd at the expense of Ryan Ludwick’s playing time. As frustrating as it has been seeing the Reds stand pat, you have to think there was no one on the market who could significantly impact the team. And moving to block the Pirates was not worth making changes that might adversely affect the roster down the road. At least, that would seem to be the thinking of the front office.
Bob Castellini has stopped putting items in the shopping cart. Jocketty has a rep as a guy who trades to make his teams better. From the few accounts I’ve read, the breakup with the Cardinals had to do with a difference in methods, between DeWitt, who wanted to build from within, and Jocketty, the old school wheeler and dealer. Ironically, Jocketty has had to measure his trades in Cincinnati carefully, while relying more on the farm system.
Given the way Aroldis Chapman has been used, he was the one player who could have been traded early in the season for an impact bat at third base without a big loss in everyday production. But, the Reds’ front office believes in the Myth of the Closer.
And therein lies the real problem. Philosophy.
I used to think the evaluation of Baker, the manager, was an easy equation. Do you believe Baker’s personal relationship with the players—his clubhouse bona fides as it were—outweigh his less than stellar game management? By now, it’s become clear that the owner, if not the GM, believes that that both reside on the same positive side of the scale. How can we have an argument on the merits when we cannot even agree on the parameters of the debate? If old school is good school, if new school is viewed with a jaundiced eye, then what is in store for the Reds in the future?
Which brings me back to cognitive dissonance. Bob Castellini’s cognitive dissonance to be precise. He’s paid Dusty Baker a goodly chunk of change because he believes in Baker’s Hank Aaron-old school-bunt happy-aggressive baseball philosophy. He’s also gone all in with Joey Votto—an intellectually curious, process-driven, analytical thinking ballplayer—a method that is anathema to everything Dusty Baker stands for and advocates to all within his sphere of influence.
On one side of the scale Bob has placed Joey Votto and $225M. On the other, he’s placed Dusty Baker and $7M. I’m not a businessman, but I can do the math. The dichotomy is stunning.
Do you still believe? I have a better question. What does Bob Castellini believe?