Dusty Baker gets the axe in Cincinnati, but did he deserve it?
For most managers, three playoff appearances in four years — particularly with a small-market team — will earn you a contract extension or at least allow you to keep your job. For Dusty Baker, it wasn’t enough. The Reds won 90 games this year and earned a spot in the NL Wild-Card game, but less than 72 hours after they were steamrolled by the Pirates, owner Bob Castellini decided a change was needed, firing Baker with one year and between $3.5 and $4 million — a high salary for a manager — remaining on his contract.
On the one hand, it’s a shocking move. The 64-year-old Baker had been at the helm of the Reds for six years, compiling a .524 winning percentage. Following a pair of sub-.500 finishes in 2008 and 2009, they won at least 90 games in three of the past four years, with 91 wins and an NL Central flag in 2010, 97 wins and another division title in 2012 and one of this year’s wild-card berths. Baker finished as runner-up in the NL Manager of the Year voting in both 2010 and 2012, and while hardly the darling of statheads, he had a strong reputation as a player’s manager. In the aftermath of Cincinnati’s elimination via a 6-2 defeat in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, general manager Walt Jocketty said that he expected Baker to return.
Three days later, Baker was out. “Just the way we played lately was a factor,” the AP reported Jocketty saying on Friday. “But I think the way the season ended was kind of the final decision. The last six games certainly played a big part in this.”
The Reds entered the season with a franchise record $107.5 million Opening Day payroll, up around $25 million from 2012, and after first-round eliminations in their past two playoff appearances, they were expected to advance further this month. Such was the weight of expectations that they didn’t celebrate upon merely clinching a playoff berth on Sept. 23, and they never did get to break out the champagne. When they lost, it left Baker with a 2-7 postseason record as Reds manager; they were swept by the Phillies in 2010, and squandered a 2-0 lead to the Giants in last year’s NLDS before going one-and-done this year.
Embroiled in a three-way division race all year long thanks to the improvement of the Pirates, the Reds spent just 12 days with a share of first place, none after April 22. Despite injuries to top starter Johnny Cueto, setup men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton and leftfielder Ryan Ludwick — not to mention relatively subpar seasons from Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier — they maintained a stranglehold on a wild-card berth. After taking two out of three in Pittsburgh over the season’s penultimate weekend, the two teams were tied, just two games behind the NL Central-winning Cardinals.
Alas, they closed the regular season with five straight losses, two to the lowly Mets at home and then three to the Pirates in Cincinnati, costing them homefield advantage for the Wild-Card Game. They lost that game, and the boisterous Pittsburgh crowd, witnessing the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 21 years, was a factor, rattling Cueto, who started but was knocked out in the fourth inning after surrendering two homers and four runs.
Indeed, the Wild-Card Game displayed some of Baker’s ongoing tactical flaws. Despite lefty starter Francisco Liriano having set a record for the lowest OPS allowed against lefties, Baker led off with lefty Shin-Soo Choo, who posted a stellar .423 on-base percentage in that role during the regular season but hit just .215/.347/.265 in 221 PA against southpaws, his OBP propped up by 13 hit-by-pitches. Baker could have played switch-hitting rookie call-up Billy Hamilton, or at least batted Choo lower in the lineup. Baker batted struggling leftfielder Ryan Ludwick (.240/.293/.326) second, part of an ongoing pattern of placing low-OBP hitters in the number two spot, though to be fair, Ludwick did collect three of the Reds’ six hits that night. He stuck with Cueto, who made just two starts after June 28 due to a strained lat, after the Pirates went up 2-0 in the second and 3-0 in the third, showing a wealth of trust in his nominal ace — an approach suited to April or July or even early September, but reflecting a lack of urgency in an elimination game where Cincinnati’s odds of winning were down to 14 percent (via Win Probability Added) after three frames. The Reds scored in the fourth inning, but Cueto yielded a one-out double in the bottom of the next frame before getting the hook; when that run scored, the Reds’ chances of winning sank to 11 percent.
Furthermore, Baker never got Aroldis Chapman into the game, rigidly adhering to the “closer = ninth-inning lead only” usage pattern and instead watching as lesser pitchers J.J. Hoover and Logan Ondrusek allowed Pittsburgh’s fifth and sixth runs. Bringing in Chapman in the fourth inning would have been deemed a radical move, but there’s no merit in holding your best pitcher back as you run out of season — and in the grand scheme, out of rope. At the very least, using Chapman instead of Alfredo Simon in the sixth or Ondrusek in the seventh when the score was 5-1 and asking him to work two innings to hold the line wouldn’t have been out of place.
It may suffice for angry talk-radio callers channeling the late George Steinbrenner, but one loss is rarely reason enough reason to fire a manager. That said, one can go back to last year’s Division Series against the Giants and identify key decisions that backfired as that series slipped away: pulling Chapman after a 15-pitch scoreless ninth inning in favor of Jonathan Broxton, who yielded the deciding run in Game 3 in the 10th; leaving Mat Latos in long enough to allow six runs in the fifth inning of Game 5; killing a rally in that game by having Jay Bruce try to steal third with no outs and two on after the score had been cut to 6-3.
Indeed, while Baker is one of just six managers to win division titles with three teams, SI’s Tom Verducci pointed out elsewhere today that Baker has a history of near-misses dating back to potential clinchers in the 2002 World Series and 2003 NL Championship Series that opened him up to endless second-guessing. A better tactician might have prevailed in at least some of those situations.
The scuttlebutt from well-connected reporters such as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal and CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman is that Baker lost his ability to motivate his players, and offered up his own job when Jocketty tried to fire hitting coach Brook Jacoby. The relationship between Baker and Jocketty was said to be strained over personnel. In each of the past two springs, he backed Chapman’s decision to remain in the bullpen instead of moving to the rotation. He wanted the speedy but raw Hamilton on his roster sooner than September. He was disappointed that while the Pirates acquired Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau in August, the Reds didn’t add anybody of similar impact; Byrd, who could have filled the Reds’ gaping hole in leftfield instead, went 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs in the Wild-Card Game.
In turn, Jocketty, who as general manager of the Cardinals worked with Tony La Russa for more than a decade, may have wanted a more tactically adept manager, or one more in step with the changing game. The chief complaint against Baker is his lack of respect for on-base percentage; as manager of the Cubs (2003-2006), he disdained the type of high-walk “base-cloggers” who had come into vogue in places as diverse as Oakland and the Bronx, this despite having managed the record-setting Barry Bonds for 10 years with the Giants (1993-2002). After ranking eighth or lower in the league in walks in five of the previous six years, this year’s Reds actually led the NL in that category, with Votto (135) and Choo (112) finishing first and second both there and in on-base percentage, and the team as a whole finishing third in scoring.
Even so, at least some of those walks owed to Baker’s uneven batting orders, with pitchers willing to go after outs against lesser hitters behind them. Cincinnati’s number two hitters batted .228/.281/.350 as a group — hardly atypical during Baker’s reign, alas — and Phillips, who spent most of his year either batting second or fourth, hitting just .261/.310/.396. The fact that Phillips drove in 103 runs with those high-walk players ahead of him while Votto drove in just 73 became a flashpoint for the ongoing old school-new school debate. While that’s not explicitly on Baker, the inference is that he didn’t agree with the hitting philosophy of his best player, one whose 10-year, $225 million extension kicks in next year, making him likely to outlast any manager.
That said, Baker has shown capability of evolving. Roundly blamed for overworking young hurlers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior — both of whom subsequently developed career-affecting arm injuries — during his days in Chicago, he eventually adapted to the era of pitch counts and workload constraints. In his 2012 rotation, all five members of the Reds’ rotation made at least 30 starts, and four out of five reached 200 innings, a feat unseen since the 2005-2006 White Sox, and finished with an ERA+ above 100 (i.e. better than league average). Only twice did a Reds starter go over 120 pitches, with a high of 122; nine teams had more such outings, and four others had as many. This year, four starters exceeded 30 starts, 190 innings and 100 ERA+, and only three topped 120 pitches, with a high of 125. In other words, his rotations have become some of the game’s best and most durable, lessening the need for Chapman to join the ranks
No manager can please all of the people all of the time, and every manager runs out of rope. They’re hired to be fired, as the old saw goes. It remains to be seen whom the Reds tab as a successor, or whether their strengths will be in areas where Baker came up short; two names said to have surfaced, those of pitching coach Bryan Price and Triple-A manager Jim Riggleman, may be in the hunt because they’re of lesser stature and thus less likely to clash with Jocketty than Baker was. Whoever takes over will inherit a team with a strong nucleus and an open window of opportunity, but high expectations and big shoes to fill.