Dusty Baker the Right Manager for the Reds at Right Time

One doesn't expect brainiacs and bigots to agree on very much, but the subject of Dusty Baker as the new Reds manager appears to have forged a united outrage based on some loosely contrived rend

Jerry Dowling

One doesn't expect brainiacs and bigots to agree on very much, but the subject of Dusty Baker as the new Reds manager appears to have forged a united outrage based on some loosely contrived rendering of the so-called "facts."

The bigots, having already made up their minds, will not be addressed here other than to suppose they'll just remain in the dark. As to the brainiacs, who pride themselves on reason, we have a couple questions.

The Reds introduced Baker as their 60th manager in a Monday press conference at which club owner Bob Castellini and General Manager Wayne Krivsky extolled the new man's virtues as a leader. Players love playing for Baker, he has established a good track record and it's easy to forget that as of about four years ago he was the hottest manager in the game. It seems the one hurdle between Baker and managerial greatness is the last third of Game 6.

In 2002, Baker managed the San Francisco Giants to the World Series with a club he helped build around Barry Bonds and a cast of role veterans acquired from other clubs. The Giants held a 3-2 lead in the World Series and took a 5-0 lead to the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 6, needing only nine outs to win it. But the Anaheim Angels rallied for three runs in the seventh and eighth innings for a 6-5 win, then took Game 7.

A year later, Baker moved on to Chicago, where he took the Cubs to within five outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945.

For details about what followed in the eighth inning of Game 6 in the National League Championship Series, consult your local Cubs fan.

Baker tacked up another winning season in 2004, bringing the Cubs their first back-to-back winning records in more than three decades. The Cubs faltered in 2005 and 2006, due especially to key injuries on and off the pitching staff, and by no account did the situation bring out the best in Baker. But the Cubs didn't go out of their way to provide players either.

Before we excessively credit Lou Piniella for cleaning up Baker's mess in Chicago this summer, we should remember that the Cubs also splurged in the free agent market to sign key contributors Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano. No doubt, Piniella insisted on it as a condition of his employment, and the Tribune Company, seeking to sell the club, veered way out of character with the spending spree, perhaps in the hope that a championship would max out the property's value.

The 2005 and 2006 seasons wore on Baker and his reputation. He took off 2007, monitoring baseball from the television side at ESPN, and if his commentary didn't exactly help us see a deeper game, at least he's rested and ready for a new challenge.

The two loudest knocks against Baker's field management have it that he works his pitchers into the ground and that he's so reliant on veteran players that he won't let young talent flourish. Rather than accept the criticisms at face value, let's open them up a little and see what's inside.

The people who view baseball through calculating devices have done the game an invaluable service by smashing to bits the rustic images propagated by baseball's old witch doctors. In exchange for those images, though, the number crunchers risk peril from their own images that they create.

Case in point: Baker is known far and wide by now for working pitchers harder than any manager in baseball and, as it happens, Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior collapsed under his watch. Which introduces Question No. 1: Can we name a single pitcher, with real confidence, who Baker has destroyed?

The Baseball Prospectus people, along with many big league organizations, love pointing out that young pitchers should be kept on low pitch counts to enhance their effectiveness and durability. Agreed, at least for the sake of argument.

The numbers also show that Baker runs his starters at high pitch counts relative to other managers, and he's the manager most likely to work relief pitchers on back-to-back days. It doesn't follow, however, that Baker's management destroyed Wood or Prior.

Wood's arm started falling off right at the end of his incredible run as a 20-year-old in 1998, five years before Baker showed up. Wood missed the entire 1999 season after Tommy John surgery, and not until 2002 did he last a whole year without missing a start. In 2003, Baker worked Wood for 211 innings, actually a shade less than his 213 2/3 innings for 2002. Wood responded with his best season: 14-11, a 3.20 ERA and league leadership for his 266 strikeouts and 6.48 hits allowed per nine innings.

The next year, Wood went on the disabled list with a strained triceps. Since then, he's limped back from time to time after surgeries to his knee and shoulder. Do we blame Baker, who walked in halfway through this movie?

Baker's culpability is simply unknowable. Maybe he could have been gentler, but Wood's history indicates he probably would have broken down for any manager. And it's worthwhile to bear in mind two other points, which also apply to Prior.

First, Wood and Prior are strikeout pitchers who need more pitches to complete their innings. In 2003, Wood took 32 starts for 211 innings, an average of 6.59 innings per start. Prior took 30 starts for 211 1/3 innings, an average of seven innings per start. Granting that Prior was only 22, when did it become unreasonable for a ball club to ask its horses to take the ball every fifth day and go seven innings?

Second, we have to remember that the 2003 Cubs smelled a rare opportunity to win. If you're sitting in Chicago, it's 2003 and you're looking at a chance to be a division winner for the first time in 14 years, a pennant winner for the first time in 58 years and a world champion for the first time in 95 years, who among us would take a step back and say, "Maybe we shouldn't use our best pitchers so much?"

Quoting the 2006 Baseball Prospectus entry about the Cubs: "The challenge for (General Manager) Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker is to remember that when you're not a perennially great ball club, you have to take your chances to make the best of the shots you might get."

No doubt, by 2006, as Hendry and Baker again put Wood and Prior on the disabled list, they well remembered taking that shot in 2003. By the way, the Cubs also rode 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano for 214 innings in 2003, and he's still going strong. Then again, Zambrano is more efficient with his pitches for being less reliant on the strikeout.

As to Prior, there's a lot going on that's got little or nothing to do with Baker's care and feeding of pitchers. In 2003, Prior missed three starts after smashing his shoulder in a collision with the Atlanta Braves' Marcus Giles. He came back to go 10-1 down the stretch. Prior missed the first two months of 2004 with an achilles tendon injury, which certainly isn't an arm problem.

In May 2005, Prior took a line drive in his right elbow off the bat of Colorado's Brad Hawpe, resulting in a compression fracture. In retrospect, at least, the Cubs brought Prior back too soon, but that's an organizational call that goes higher up than the field manager. Prior took 18 more starts that year, five of which lasted longer than six innings.

Since then, shoulder trouble has limited Prior to nine starts. Without pretending to expertise in orthopedics or pitching mechanics, one wonders if Prior compromised his shoulder by favoring his elbow.

Whatever is the case, Baker's responsibility is again unknowable. Indeed, he'd go into legend as a miracle healer if either Wood or Prior prospered in the last three years.

During his years with the Giants from 1993 through 2002, Baker introduced Russ Ortiz, Kirk Rueter and Shawn Estes to his pitching rotation. None was a dynamic talent on the order of Wood or Prior, and all would up with reasonably good careers. If they all declined in their early thirties, that happens.

The smart organization, by the way, doesn't manage pitchers with 10 years in mind. The body is bound to break down because the throwing motion is unnatural. It's a rare, very fortunate pitcher who survives to his mid-thirties.

The smart organization squeezes its pitchers for those five or six years when they're under the club's contractual control, then lets someone else overpay for them when they're about to break down.

To the idea that Baker doesn't allow young players to flourish, we ask another question: Can we name a single good, young talent who Baker has squandered? The Giants and Cubs organizations aren't known for introducing the game's top prospects.

But if you've got an argument that Matt Murton is a reliable everyday outfielder were it not for Baker, go ahead and make it. If you've got a case that Baker destroyed Marvin Benard's blazing talent, the stage is yours. Do you look at Jay Canizaro, Calvin Murray, J.R. Phillips, Buck Coats or Ronny Cedeno and wonder what might have been? No one else does.

Baker has never managed young talent such as the Reds will present to him. If Baker can't handle it, we don't know that yet, but we'll find out. That said, the Monday press conference clued us that this club is not in rebuilding mode.

Castellini went out of his way to say the Reds want Adam Dunn back, which means they're very likely to pick up their $13 million option for 2008. Baker mentioned that players are in touch with him about coming to Cincinnati and, as he said, "We are a few parts away, but I can attract players to come here. ... In this division in modern baseball, if you can add a couple players for each team, you can win."

Nobody's perfect, including Baker, as he will be the first to say. But the stock criticisms don't withstand scrutiny and, if Baker doesn't manage the most mind-blowing game, he will provide leadership for a club that needs it. And he might bring good players to a club that needs them.

To say Baker isn't the right manager assumes the Reds are rebuilding. The hiring of him says they're not.

And what fan, besides a bigot or brainiac, could be unhappy with that news?

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