With Dusty Baker, Nationals Accept Mediocrity

By Zach Bernard

For a moment, the Nationals really had something with Bud Black.

You would be fair in arguing against Black’s managerial resume with the San Diego Padres. His .477 final winning percentage in over 1,300 games and failure to make the postseason (save one Wild Card playoff in 2007, before it was considered “the playoffs”) should be concerning to anyone looking to hire a new manager.

On the other hand, it seemed like Black was always in the middle of a constant rebuild in San Diego and was never given a fair shot at success. The 2015 Padres were grossly underwhelming, which led to his dismissal, but patchwork lineups of star talent don’t typically work in the modern era, so point the finger at A.J. Preller for that one. Nobody ever seemed to question Black’s philosophical tendencies, and his pedigree as a disciple of Mike Scioscia’s highly acclaimed coaching staff of the early-aughts helps him maintain respect in baseball circles.

Bud Black and the Washington Nationals seemed like a genuinely perfect match. Black’s level-headed but far more reasonable approach to managing games pairs marvelously with a team of stars that simply needs guidance. Thus, when he was offered a one-year, $1.6 million contract for 2016 by the Nationals brass, can you blame him for being, in his words, “deeply offended?”

So, a man with the reputation of someone that can turn the Nationals culture around, walked away. And thus, in his place, the Nationals gave a contract to Dusty Baker.

Dusty Baker has seen mighty fine success in his managerial career. In ten years with the San Francisco Giants, he led them to numerous postseason berths and was only a few outs away from defeating Black’s Anaheim Angels in the 2002 World Series before his bullpen’s catastrophic fallout allowed the Angels to come back in Game 6 to tie the series. He managed the dueling egos of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and almost won a championship, which is no small feat, but he could never shut the door.

He then took his resume to the Chicago Cubs, where “In Dusty We Trusty” became a buzzphrase around Wrigley Field as the Cubs shockingly won 88 games and the NL Central in 2003 (after winning only 67 games the year prior). Every baseball fan knows what happened to the Cubs in the playoffs, and Dusty’s ascension on the North Side faded quickly. Soon, he was viewed as a lethargic presence on the Cubs whose player-friendly style ultimately destroyed the team’s promising chemistry. He managed his last Cubs game on October 1, 2006.

One year later, the Cincinnati Reds decided Baker was the right fit to lead young, talented players like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Johnny Cueto, and for awhile, he was. The Reds went to the playoffs in 2010 for the first time in 15 years, but were famously no-hit by Roy Halladay and eventually swept by the Phillies. Another NLDS appearance in 2012 saw them take a 2-0 series lead over San Francisco, but the Giants surged back to sweep the final three games of the series. He was dismissed the following season.

His moderately successful but ultimately underwhelming stint with the Reds was a microcosm of his managerial career: he’ll get you there, but he won’t help you shut the door. Following his dismissal in Cincinnati, many — including yours truly — saw that as the end of Dusty’s run as a sought-after manager, because how does the saying go? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on… You? Fool me thrice…

Alas, the Nationals’ swirling vortex of organizational chaos saw Dusty Baker as the ideal fit to manage Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, and the plethora of supreme talent the Nats throw onto the field every game. Nevermind Baker’s 3,100+ games managed and startling failure to ever win a championship, or his unflattering reputation for managing bullpens, or his strategic ineptitude in the modern baseball era. Remember this gem from his final season with the Cubs?

“On-base percentage is great if you can score runs and do something with that on-base percentage. Clogging up the bases isn’t that great to me. The problem we have to address more than anything is the home run problem.”

You may be saying, “Zach, give him a break, everyone says things they come to regret.” Sure they do, but if they regret them, chances are they don’t repeat them, and Dusty made almost the identical claim with the Reds two years later. Also, remember Matt Williams’s obsession with bunting runners over? Per Extra Innings by the Baseball Prospectus team, Dusty ranked ninth among all managers in sacrifice bunts between 2009-2011 with 154 (full disclosure: Bud Black ranked sixth).

It’s almost as though Dusty was totally blind to the logical fallacy in devaluing on-base percentage while at the same time relying so heavily on the sacrifice bunt. Why do teams sacrifice? To move a man that previously got on base.

Plain and simple, the Washington Nationals went cheap with the hiring of Dusty Baker. They knew he was hungry to put the uniform on again and liked his history as a player’s manager, so they were able to scoop him up for far less than what Bud Black would have otherwise (and reasonably) demanded.

With this hiring, the Nationals are telling their fanbase they are fully content with okay baseball that may or may not result in an NLDS berth, and that bunting or bullpen follies will be forgiven until the pitchforks come out two years from now. If they achieve anything beyond that, color this writer surprised.

Author’s Note: I know last week, I wrote a piece on baseball having an issue with hiring managers of color and used Dusty as an example of a qualified manager. Indeed I did, but in the piece and in my general thoughts, I find him to be suitable for a rebuild effort, as a mentor for young players who need big league guidance. I did not see him as the leader of the team that, entering 2015, claimed themselves the elite National League franchise. I stand by the idea that guys like Dave Martinez or Sandy Alomar Jr. would be more qualified to manage this group.

With the hiring of Dusty Baker, the Nationals solved one of baseball’s problems while simultaneously failing to solve their own.