The back-and-forth of the past 24 hours involving Bud Black, Dusty Baker and the Washington Nationals is now over: The Nats just announced that Dusty Baker is their new skipper. He has a “multi-year deal” according to James Wagner of the Washington Post.
Baker’s hiring comes after a deal with the club’s first choice — Bud Black — fell through due to financial terms and contract length, according to multiple reports. Black is an established manager who wanted a contract in the range which established managers get. The Nats, either because they were lowballing him or because they simply don’t understand the manager market, felt that a short deal — two years — and low money — $2 million — was sufficient. When Black backed out they went to Baker.
Which isn’t to say that Baker is a bad choice. And that’s the case no matter how much snark and joking has come to surround almost any mention of Baker over the past couple of years. He’s become something of a figurehead for old school managers who are no longer in vogue and became a target of baseball analysts who lament the days when managers didn’t pay attention to pitcher workloads and did not seem on the surface to be carrying out a front office’s plan as opposed to their own. And while there may be some truth to that as a descriptor of Baker, it’s pretty old and not really accurate conventional wisdom on the man or on the state of managing in 2015.
Baker got a lot of criticism for his handling of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in Chicago. And it’s absolutely the case that they were worked harder than you would like to see young pitchers worked. But if we’ve learned anything in the past several years, it’s that any pitcher, even the ones whose workload is most closely monitored, can tear ligaments and break down. What’s more, Baker evolved as a manager when it came to his use of pitchers, particularly while in Cincinnati. To the extent you’re using the “oh no, Dusty is going to destroy pitchers” line of attack on him, you’re about a decade out of date.
More troublesome for one’s criticism of Baker, though, is that it ignores the fact that he has won everywhere he’s gone. He won a pennant in San Francisco, made the playoffs in Chicago and won a lot of games and two division titles with the Reds. His successors . . . tend not to do too well. This doesn’t make him some super hero — Baker has always benefitted from taking jobs with teams poised to do good things — but he has not underachieved either and he has not been an impediment to winning.
Ultimately, the value of Dusty Baker is his experience and his history dealing with his clubhouses. Specifically, he has a lot of the former and a lot of success with the latter, making him the anti-Matt Williams in just about every respect. The Nats should want that, right?
Bud Black is a good manager who is well-respected in the game. I think the Nats made a good call in offering him the job and made a mistake in lowballing him. But I also think that, even if the politics behind this managerial move are troublesome for the Nats, the ultimate result — getting Dusty Baker — is a pretty OK outcome. Going from Black to Baker will not be the difference between winning and losing in 2016 and beyond. And winning with Dusty Baker is something a lot of clubs have done in the past.