Nationals Baseball: A conversation with myself about Dusty

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A conversation with myself about Dusty

Dusty? But he's history's greatest monster! He tore off Mark Prior's arm and used it to bludgeon Kerry Wood's arm! 

Dusty's status as the Destroyer of Arms is overblown. Yes, he did ride the Cubs young starters hard but 2003's role in their demise has been overblown, he showed no strong tendency for abuse in his last managerial role, and it's not like the Nats would sit back and let him make Strasburg throw 160 pitches. I'm not worried about this.

Ok then. There are 3 things that Matt Williams did not seem good at. He wasn't good in the clubhouse, he didn't handle relief pitching well, and he didn't seem to win in crunch time. Is Dusty proven to be better at those things? 

Clubhouse, yes. The vast majority of his former players loved him. He's a players coach.

What does that mean? 

It means that he generally lets the players have a strong voice in how they handle their time outside of game time. For example, if a player doesn't want to take BP that day and can explain why, Dusty would be more inclined to let him skip it. This is in opposition to certain Big Marines. But Dusty is an "old-school" players coach, and before you ask that means his leniancy scales with veteran status and somewhat with skill. A rookie will be expected to toe the line in a very standard professional ballplayer manner. A veteran who is still performing will be allowed to do whatever the hell he wants.

Sounds like a decent way to manage. What's the downside? 

In the clubhouse? It can rankle some rookies who expect a talent meritocracy to exist, and it can rankle some vets if other vets abuse the system : see Bonds/Kent in San Fran. In theory teams can get undisciplined but that really hasn't been a Dusty problem. He communicates well the need for professionalism on the field. So to answer your question - I doubt he loses the clubhouse.

Ok what about handling relief pitching? 

If you liked Matt Williams PBN approach you'll love Dusty. Your closer will not pitch before the 9th (in Dusty's last year with the Reds, Chapman pitched 1.2 innings before the 9th). Your closer is so wedded to save situations, Dusty can fall into the trap of not working the closer in enough. He likes the idea of set-up men and 7th inning guys as well, but he's not so committed to these guys that they won't see work. On one hand this does kind of suck, but on the other hand, this is the world that was created and baseball bought into it. Almost all managers will act in a similar manner. Dusty is an less an extreme example then just a little bit more rigid than the norm, which is already very rigid. So to answer this question - no he doesn't handle relief pitching with any skill, but if we're talking about using your best pitchers in high leverage situations hardly any manager does.

And winning in close situations?

Middling - some may point to 2003 and note that the Cubs were this play or that play away from a World Series. That's nice, but the guy has managed for long enough that there is a body of work to look at and his isn't great. 1997 and 2000, two DS losses, with one game won in total. 2003 infamous team meltdown. 2010 swept in DS. 2012 lost DS. 2013 lost WC. In short, he's 0-1 in WC games, 2-4 in DS series, 1-1 in CS series and 0-1 in WS.  His teams don't show any skill at coming from behind (3-3 when down in series) and have trouble putting teams away (3-10 in series clinching games, including two 3 games to 1 lead collapses in 2003 and 2012)

I didn't see any particular pattern late in seasons with collapses or rising to the occasion. I think the eternal optimist can look at these occurances and say he's probably average with some bad luck in short series where anything can happen. The pessimist points to 2 DS sweeps, those pretty bad records in the biggest of big games, and the overall record in general and sees a guy who maybe lacks the ability to give teams that final push they need.

Hmm and why should I be ok with him again? 

Well the Nats were going to hire Bud Black whose record in the playoffs is a sterling 0-0. Dusty's teams win. Since 1997 he has had 5 losing seasons in 16 years, and two of those were his first two in Cincinnati when the team was turning around. Even better, in 10 of those 11 winning seasons the team won 88 games or more. He's not squeaking over .500. He's producing playoff caliber team after playoff caliber team. Sure if your goal is to win the World Series he might have trouble with that, but as the 2013 and 2015 Nationals can tell you - it's real hard to win the World Series if you don't get to the playoffs.

I'll take playoffs. So Dusty may not be the most forward thinking manager and can have issues in the playoffs, but he gets his teams to win. Any other things I should know? 

When you say Dusty isn't forward thinking, the second most commonly cited issue is his problems with "clogging the bases". Basically Dusty was a successful aggressive player wants his teams to swing, not walk, just like he did. His teams generally rank low in walks. (easier to see on the non-Bonds teams). This hurts the offense a little bit as it takes a weapon away. However, the Nats aren't really a walking team themselves so it's already been established that if they hit they'll score, if they don't they won't. Dusty won't really make a dent in the Nats here unless he tries to change Bryce, but he didn't try to change Bonds so I assume he won't.

Because of his old-school "veterans have earned it" mentality, Dusty will give veteran players a 2nd and 3rd chance before going to young players. For the start of 2016 this isn't too much of an issue. Trea Turner is probably in AAA, leaving Michael Taylor as the only young guy out there. This may present a problem if Rizzo brings in a decent 5th OF like say Marlon Byrd. Then again if MAT isn't producing, it's doubtful after 2015 that legions will be clamoring to see more of him instead of a vet. It's more a worry for later in 2015 when we'll probably want Turner up and in the line-up and Dusty might be sticking with a failing Escobar or Espinosa.

Dusty is a player favorite but his style promotes a bunker mentality. We are a family, the rest of the world are outsiders who don't get it. Because he's media savvy this doesn't break down the relationship between the players and the media covering them daily. However, GMs, owners, and broadcasters related to the team have been fair game in the past, and he's not against using the fans as a villain either. If things are going well no one but the aggrieved will care about the petty squabbles. That does matter (it helped push Dusty out in San Fran and Cincinnati) but fans will take it. However, if things don't go well, it feels like things could go south pretty fast. One thing I've noticed in looking at Dusty articles over the past couple weeks is that he doesn't seem to be one to take blame. Expect it to be shifted somewhere.

Ugh. That's a lot of negatives! This isn't good! 

Eh I don't know. You manage for a long time and you are going to pick up a lot of negatives. His strong point - that players seemingly love playing for him - is really strong. Just look at the reaction to his hiring or go back and read about his handling of Joey Votto when he was dealing with anxiety issues. There's good reason for why they feel the way they do and it translates to very good regular season performances. The other things are sub-optimal but we don't know how many games "lost" to strict bullpen management, veteran dependence, or walk avoidance are made up by the intangibles which he does appear to have. We also can't assume that the other guy, whoever it would be, would handle those things much differently. And the whole potential for it being a big messy end? Well if things are going badly that the Nats are missing the playoffs again by a bunch do you really care if the end was a calm, stoic, "everyone agrees this isn't working" end? It's better but it's not the point.

The playoff thing is a bit concerning and the Nats will have to deal with that if the time comes. Let's hope it does.

Focusing on the fact he might not be the best strategic manager misses the larger picture. Managing is more than just strategic decisions. It's motivating players, dealing with the press, getting guys out of slumps and keeping guys hot. It's dealing with people; extremely talented, likely egotistical, special people. Since we can't measure that*, we have to use other things we can measure as a proxy. The best proxy, in my opinion, is wins. Dusty gets wins.

*OK we could probably do a survey of players from every team and measure manager satisfaction but that's not going to happen


1natsfan said...

Did his teams fail in the post season due to his mismanagement or did he get beaten by better or hotter teams?

W. Patterson said...

Hmm and why should I be ok with him again?

I don't recall them asking me so whether I'm okay is moot. I'm just here to watch good baseball and, based on what I've heard, I'll see some good baseball with Dusty at the helm.

Rob said...

If we have the injuries and performance from 2015, it won't matter if we have Earl Weaver at the helm. The Nats need a few more horses.

Harper said...

1natsfan - mostly hotter, if you consider hotter winning at least one series after SF. Really the only one I walk into and say - yeah it'd surprise me if they won this series was the Phillies one in 2010. Of course even then the didn't just lose - they got no-hit and shutout during a sweep.

1997 - Marlins weren't great but did get hot and SF was overacheiving.
2000 - Mets would make WS, so hotter? but SF was a better team and more experienced.
2002 - Angels were great, SF was great.
2003 - Marlins weren't great but did get hot and CHC were good, not great
2010 - Phillies were a little better - a lot more experienced.
2012 - Giants would get hot, Reds were a little better

W Patterson - they did. they sent it to your old email address.

Rob - Zombie Weaver would draw a crowd though.

HammerAce said...

After a day to reflect, I'm not as pessimistic as I was when I first learned about the hire. However, it appears the Nats are set up for another two-year manager, so we'll have to go through this all again in 2017. It would be nice to bring in a long-term guy, but maybe those don't exist anymore.

Froggy said...

Nice positive advanced koolaid spin for Baker, but bottom line is he was not the Nat's first choice for manager.

notBobby said...


It seems to me that Baker was the first choice of the Lerners, but Black was the first choice of Rizzo. In Rizzo We Trust???

SM said...

I'm not sure Dusty Baker is the ideal choice, either. But before we put up a "Beware Mr. Baker"--Dusty, not Ginger--sign, a couple of things.

Baker may not exactly be fond of guys who draw walks, as more than one commentator has noted, but Dusty as a player didn't exactly sneer at them, either. Nor was he particularly a mad strikeout machine. He struck out 926 times in roughly 7100 at-bats, but he drew 762 walks, too.

As you noted, Harper, he didn't exactly object to Bonds drawing all those walks; nor did he try to monkey with Jeff Kent, another hitter who drew a lot of walks. Ergo, not to worry: Bryce is safe.

The other issue is his preference for veterans, a rather common predilection for managers whose big league playing careers ended when they were pushed out by young(er) players. Up here in the frozen northern wastes, the obvious example is Cito Gaston--the beloved of veteran players--whose own career vanished when he was replaced by Dave Winfield. (The obvious irony: 40 year-old Winfield was a linchpin in Cito's 1992 championship Toronto team.)

Dusty, of course, was pushed out in L.A. by Mike Marshall (he of the "Open Toe" surgery, not the superhuman relief pitcher of the same name.) In S.F., it was Jeff Leonard. And when Dusty had one last shot in Oakland, Jose Canseco was already being groomed to replace the Dusty/Dave Collins platoon.

Of course, there's more determining his managing approach than melancholy memories of the twilight of his career. Still, there are intimations of how Dusty might view a talented kid trying to replace a veteran; or how long he might stick with a veteran when every indicator suggests the veteran is finished as an effective player.

None of this is meant either as criticism or grim omen. Just a stroll through Dusty's career and observing the landscape.

Jay said...

The only thing to keep in mind is that Baker may have been their first choice. According to Heyman over at CBS sports the Nats asked Baker might want in salary. Decided they were too far apart and then told Black he had the job. Now why they wouldn't ask Black what he might want before deciding he had the job? I don't know. My guess is that they didn't want to spend for Baker. Figured they could get Black cheaper - he is a sub .500 manager after all and never been to the playoffs. Black said no thanks. They negotiated some. Lerner's said if we're paying that much we'll just take Baker. Either way, I'm ok with Baker.

Adam Peters said...

I watched Dusty closely in Chicago, and here's what I saw.

He shows favoritism to "veterans" to an absurd degree.

He doesn't know how to develop young talent. He'd rather play some washed up veteran (Werth will LOVE him. He'll probably start Espinosa in 160 games too!).

He doesn't have the team work on fundamentals believing that they should know all that before they get to the majors. (he said that once)

He doesn't know how to manage pitchers (see Prior, Mark and Wood, Kerry for more info).

All that said, he did have a Midas touch year in Chicago in 2003. Seriously, everything he did turned out great. The wheels promptly fell off after that though, and he left Chicago in shame after a 96 loss season in 2006.

Harper said...

Hammer Ace - I'm sure they do but 1) this team won't pay 2) you roll the dice on any hire. Dusty could be here 4-5 years if things go well. I'll take that.

Froggy - nope, not first choice. but I would have gone Baker over Black so spin is easy for me.

SM - nice comment. Dusty did eventually walk but given the age at which he did do it I think he sees it as what you do when you can't hit as well anymore, or when you are picking and choosing pitches. I will be curious at if he gives young 20 yr old Bryce the same leeway in doing it as mid 30s Bonds. Probably will, my bet.

Jay - maybe - I think the end result "Eh, Baker will do" is the right take away as far as who's manager.

Adam - ok most of the Nats young talent is here, so other than MAT and Turner his favortism shouldn't be an issue. It might be a bigger issue for MAT (who may need a few years of playing to get going) than Turner who seems to run with his chances pretty well.

This team doesn't want to work on fundamentals anyway. MW pushed it - seemed to go right by them.

Pitchers... eh he was a little better in Cincy and like I said Nats have been micromanaging pitchers from up top for years. Dusty won't even get the chance to do anything, if he wanted to.

I think he's a bit prickly when it comes to his own coverage so Chicago wasn't the right fit for him. DC's more forgiving (at least Non-Redskins Sports wise) I'd expect it to go more like Cincy. Still getting decent results but angering someone upstairs. (Plus those Cubs teams were kind of bad there - I think the real problem was he couldn't accept Cubs needed to re-tool for a couple years)

DezoPenguin said...

You make a good point, Harper, in that the Nationals' team makeup offsets one of Dusty's bigger weaknesses--his love for veterans is only likely to make him play Werth more often than he should (which...well, it's not like we have someone behind Werth that screams "play me instead!" unless Rizzo goes the "sign a corner OF and move Bryce to CF" route in the offseason) and keep Turner on the bench in favor of Escobar (I say Yuney because Espinosa's glove makes him the more valuable guy unless his bat goes full 2013 again). Unless Desmond takes the QO or resigns, and then I expect he'll play Yuney over both Danny and Trea.

That said, I fully expect to see MAT (assuming he plays) leading off because he's a speedy guy and speedy guys lead off in Dusty Baker lineups regardless of whether they actually get on base to use that speed.

Likewise, I doubt that he'll screw up the starting pitching staff or throw Ross's arm off or something. He didn't do that in Cincy.

He'll probably cost us a few games with stupid bullpen crap. On the other hand, the bigger problem for the Nats is assembling enough competent 'pen guys to even have defined roles. The manager refusing to yank "8th-inning guy Blake Treinen" when three lefties are coming up isn't a problem for a team that has a better 8th inning guy *than* Blake Treinen.

Basically, my problem with Baker boils down to this: He *is* Matt Williams, with much, much better people management skills. He is an improvement because of that. Our manager today is better than our manager the last two years; I'm not going to argue that at all. But at the same time, he shows no suggestion that he's the next Joe Maddon or Clint Hurdle, a guy who can make his team better both intangibly *and* in the tangible, tactical aspects of the game. Moreover, I also wonder what it says about Rizzo, the Lerners, and the front office that they're doubling down on the old-schooliness, the "math is for nerds" attitude that Williams brought. Do they have that same distrust for analytics? Will that affect how they build the team going forward?

Sure, of the past six WS teams, five have been managed by Farrell, Matheny, Yost (twice!) and Collins. So yeah, once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. But you know, I'd like to see the Nats strive to excel, not try to tell the Mets to get off their lawn.

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