The other day, Bill James wrote something that compared Ned Yost to Dusty Baker or suggested that Yost is the new Baker, something like that. I'd run the quote but it seems to have disappeared from Bill's site. Anyway, it was something along the lines of saying Yost received criticism from the same group that criticized Baker for so long, namely the sabermetric crowd that loves to criticize while ignoring some of the obvious strengths that each manager brings.
The Washington Nationals hiring Baker to replace Matt Williams is certainly interesting for several reasons:
(1) He's 66 years old, which is old for a manager in 2016.
(2) He's MLB's only African-American manager, which saved baseball the embarrassment of being without a black manager for the first time since 1988 (the Los Angeles Dodgers have to yet name their replacement for Don Mattingly).
(3) Baker apparently wasn't their first choice.
That was Bud Black, but his contract negotiations with the Nationals fell apart. Now, no offense to Black, but he doesn't exactly have an accomplished career. In nine seasons with the San Diego Padres, he never made the playoffs and finished with a winning record just twice. He seems like a nice guy and he's well respected, but did he do more with less? Not really.
Baker, on the other hand, made that claim in his introductory news conference Thursday. Sort of. His quote was:
"Beyond compare, this is the best talent. That’s why I was excited about coming here. Most of the other teams were at bottom or near bottom and had to be built from the bottom. I asked Al Attles, how come I always get teams and have to build ’em up? He said, 'Dusty, you do more with less.' I told him I was ready to do more with more."
OK, so Al Attles -- the former Golden State Warriors coach -- said it, not Dusty, but Dusty quoted Attles. Is the claim true?
Baker got his first job with the Giants in 1993. The team went from 72 wins to 103 wins, one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in history, although back in those two-division days the Giants lost the National League West title to the 104-win Atlanta Braves. It wasn't all Baker, of course. The Giants signed Barry Bonds as a free agent and he won MVP; Bill Swift won 21 games and John Burkett won 22; Robby Thompson had the best year of his career and Matt Williams went from a .227 average and 20 home runs to .294 and 38. But other than Bonds, it was basically the same team as the 1992 version.
It was also sort of an accident. The Giants finished under .500 the next three seasons. Then, under Baker from 1997 to 2002, they made the playoffs three times, averaging 91 wins per season.
It's hard to evaluate how a manager does "more with less." Those Giants teams had the best player in the game in Bonds and another MVP winner in Jeff Kent. But it's also true that during those six seasons, the highest individual pitching WAR season was Russ Ortiz's at 4.2 in 2001. The Giants won a lot of games without great pitching staffs.
We can compare the Giants' actual record against its Pythagorean record to see if they "outperformed" their raw totals of runs scored and runs allowed:
So, an average of 1.5 wins better per season. Nothing spectacular; you can argue that the Giants won about as many games as you would have expected.
After parting ways with the Giants after they lost the 2002 World Series -- the Giants won 100 and 91 games the next two seasons under Felipe Alou, then Bonds got hurt in 2005 and the team got old -- Baker went to the Cubs. Chicago had lost 90-plus games in three of the four previous seasons, including 95 in 2002. Baker once again engineered a big turnaround, winning 88 games, enough to lead a weak NL Central.
That season ended in the infamous 2003 National League Championship Series loss to the Marlins. When Mark Prior and Kerry Wood both broke down in 2004, Baker was widely blamed for their injuries. He had pushed them hard in 2003, especially down the stretch, and some of that criticism was probably fair. Some teams had started doing a better job of protecting young pitchers by 2003, but Baker and the Cubs were behind the curve. Of course, who knows, those two may have gotten injured anyway. Wood had already undergone Tommy John surgery.
The Cubs won 89 games in 2004, then 79 and 66 -- and Baker was canned. Lou Piniella replaced him and the Cubs made the playoffs with 85 and 97 wins in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Baker's record versus expected record with the Cubs:
Baker sat out a year and then got his third job with the Reds in 2008. The Reds were coming off seven consecutive losing seasons, and this time Baker didn't manage a quick turnaround. After two initial losing seasons, however, he won two division titles and a wild card over the next four seasons. As he did with Bonds on his Giants teams, Baker had an offense built around one of the game's premier hitters and on-base guys in Joey Votto. The 2012 team also had five starters make 161 of the 162 starts, and the Reds led the NL in fewest runs allowed.
The playoffs ended in disappointment. The Reds were swept by a better Phillies team in 2010 and then blew a 2-0 lead in the division series to the Giants in 2012, when they were again plagued by bad luck. Johnny Cueto got injured in the first inning of Game 1 and couldn't start again and then there was a weird strategic call in Game 5. Down 6-3 with two runners on in the sixth inning, Jay Bruce was running with Ryan Hanigan at the plate. Hanigan struck out, Bruce was caught stealing third and the rally was over. After the wild-card loss to the Pirates in 2013 (on the heels of losing their final five games of the regular season), the Reds fired Baker.
Now Baker becomes that rare manager to manage a fourth team. Once again, like Bonds and Votto or Sammy Sosa and Derrek Lee with the Cubs, he has a lineup lynchpin to build around in Bryce Harper. He has won with veteran teams and developed young players. Eddie Matz, however, summed up why Baker may be the perfect fit for the Nationals:
What Baker does have -- a skill that was on full display Thursday -- is the ability to loosen up a room full of uptight people. The ability to relax the mood and put smiles on people’s faces. That may not seem all that important, but anyone who spent time in the Nationals' clubhouse this past season can tell you it’s absolutely crucial.
In other words, he's not Williams. Not to dismiss those clubhouse issues, but the Nationals also suffered a ton of injuries in 2015. I think Baker is a fine manager; maybe he'll have to adapt a bit to some of the new data (although the Nationals had the second-fewest shifts in the majors in 2015 as is) and he's 19-26 in the postseason, but hey, not everyone can be Ned Yost.
In the end, my guess is that the health of the club will decide whether Baker ends up doing more with more.