Originally posted on Saturday, October 14th, updated on Friday, October 20th.
I’m not a Washington Nationals fan. I’m a lifelong New York Mets fan and the Mets are in the same division as the Nationals. Despite my lack of a real rooting interest, my heart was broken last week when the Nats lost Game 5 of the National League Division Series to the Chicago Cubs. My heart ached for Dusty Baker, a longtime great manager who is cursed with his teams’ perpetual inability to close out post-season series. Ultimately, the loss likely cost Dusty his job as the Nationals announced this morning that they would not be renewing his contract for the 2018 season, a decision that Baker said was “hard to understand.”
Going into last Thursday night’s game, Baker’s teams had lost in the 9 previous games when they had the opportunity to clinch a series in October. In Game 5 last Thursday, in the 2nd inning, when Michael A. Taylor hit a three-run home run off Kyle Hendricks, Nationals fans had to feel optimistic that Baker’s curse and the hex that seems to follow their team were about to be lifted. The Win Probability Expected (WPE) was 82%. What does that mean? It means that the statistical odds of a team winning a game in which they hold a three-run lead with no outs in the bottom of the 2nd inning is 82%. A hypothetical computer simulation could replay the game from that point a million times and the Nationals would win 82% of those simulations.
When the Nationals took their 4-1 lead last Thursday night on Taylor’s home run, I had a thought flashing through my head: is this the season that Dusty Baker manages his way into the Hall of Fame? Would he become the first African-American manager to be enshrined in Cooperstown and perhaps, the first with a toothpick hanging out of his mouth on his plaque?
If the Nationals had gone on to win, Baker would have broken the “curse of Bartman” and finally led his team to a win in a post-season clinching scenario.
Unfortunately, Washington and Baker fans are not accustomed to being happy for very long in post-season clinching scenarios and it didn’t take long for the Cubs to come back from their 4-1 deficit. The Nats’ 3-run lead was almost completely surrendered in the top of the 3rd inning by starter Gio Gonzalez, who gave up a double with two walks, a run-scoring ground ball and a run-scoring wild pitch. Gonzalez had just come off one of the best seasons of his career; his 2.96 ERA was 5th in the N.L. However, Nats’ fans have been down this road before with Gonzalez in a clinching game. In 2012 (with Davey Johnson managing), Gonzalez was handed a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of the NLDS against St. Louis but surrendered three of those runs, setting the stage for an epic failure by closer Drew Storen, who gave up four runs in the 9th. The Cardinals beat the Nats that year 9-7 to advance to the NLCS.
Anyway, Baker wasn’t willing to let Gonzalez continue and, after one inning of scoreless ball by Matt Albers in the 4th inning, brought Max Scherzer out of the bullpen to start the 5th. Scherzer, in his Game 3 start, didn’t allow a single hit until the 7th inning. Scherzer is likely to win his third Cy Young Award this year. If you have a lead with Max Scherzer on the mound, curses be damned, you’ve got the winning hand. And so it seemed as Scherzer quickly dispatched with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. But then the baseball gods, not ready to end the post-season misery for either Baker or the Nats, concocted the most improbable and foul brew of events. First it was an infield hit by Addison Russell, followed by a bloop single by Ben Zobrist, a hard-hit double by Addison Russell (just out of the reach of a diving Anthony Rendon at 3rd base), which gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead.
As disappointing as it was to surrender that lead, Scherzer seemingly did his job to limit the damage, striking out Javier Baez, which should have ended the inning. But the ghouls that torture Baker and Nationals fans weren’t done. Catcher Matt Wieters couldn’t handle the strikeout pitch; Baez raced to first and Wieters threw the ball into right field, allowing another run to score. The ball should have been called dead because, at the end of his swing, Baez’ bat hit Wieters on the head. But it wasn’t called dead.
Wieters then committed catchers interference on the next batter, loading the bases, which allowed a fourth run to score when Scherzer hit the next batter (John Jay) on the foot. All told, Scherzer, Wieters, the Nationals and the ghosts and goblins at Nationals Park had turned a 4-3 lead until a 7-4 deficit. The Win Probability Expected had plummeted from a high of 82% in the 2nd inning to 20% when the top of the 5th inning ended.
ESPN.com’s Sam Miller calculated the odds of the bizarre and unlikely sequence of events in the top of the 4th inning at approximately 2.2 billion to one.
Anyway, after the disastrous 5th, Dusty’s team did not wither away. Washington pecked away at the Cubs lead and, down 9-7 in the 8th inning, seemed to have Chicago’s closer Wade Davis on the ropes. Davis had never saved a game in his career while getting more than three outs but manager Joe Maddon was asking him to get seven outs for this save in this game. Davis walked the first two batters of the inning but pinch-hitter Adam Lind hit the first pitch he saw into a double play. The Nats followed that with two more singles, which plated a run and put the tying run on 2nd base. Alas, Trea Turner never had the chance to drive in that run because Washington’s backup catcher Jose Lobaton was picked off first base by Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. Curses!
Davis, bailed out by the double play and a pick-off, gutted out three outs in the ninth inning, striking out Bryce Harper to end the game and the Nationals season.
For the 10th time in 15 years, one of Baker’s teams was on the brink of advancing to the next round of the playoffs, needing just one win to seal the deal, and for the 10th time his team failed to win. Here is the record, going back to 2002, when his San Francisco Giants were one game away from winning the World Series.
MWP = Maximum Win Probability Expected. This indicates the high point of the statistical odds that Baker’s team would win each game.
|Dusty Baker: Games in which his Team could Clinch a Post-Season Series with a Win|
|SF||2002||NLDS||5||ATL||Won 3-1||100%||Russ Ortiz & four RP stranded 12|
|SF||2002||NLCS||5||STL||Won 2-1||100%||9th inn. walk-off single by Kenny Lofton|
|SF||2002||WS||6||ANA||Lost 6-5||97%||Ortiz & four relievers blow 5-0 lead in 7th/8th|
|SF||2002||WS||7||ANA||Lost 4-1||60%||Giants: 9 LOB (5 in final 4 innings)|
|CHC||2003||NLDS||4||ATL||Lost 6-4||65%||Chipper Jones: 2 HR. Sosa makes final out|
|CHC||2003||NLDS||5||ATL||Won 5-1||100%||K. Wood: 8 IP, 1 ER, 7 K|
|CHC||2003||NLCS||5||FLA||Lost 4-0||50%||Beckett: CG 2-hitter, 1 BB, 11 K|
|CHC||2003||NLCS||6||FLA||Lost 8-3||95%||Bartman Game: Marlins 8 runs in 8th inn.|
|CHC||2003||NLCS||7||FLA||Lost 9-6||78%||K. Wood: 5.2 IP, 7 hits, 7 ER, 4 BB|
|CIN||2012||NLDS||3||SF||Lost 2-1||66%||Rolen error in 10th yields go-ahead run|
|CIN||2012||NLDS||4||SF||Lost 8-3||57%||Giants: 3 HR, 11 hits|
|CIN||2012||NLDS||5||SF||Lost 6-4||59%||Latos: 6 runs (incl Posey Grand Slam) in 5th|
|CIN||2013||NLWC||1||PIT||Lost 6-2||50%||Cueto: 3.1 IP, 8 hits, 4 ER|
|WSH||2016||NLDS||4||LAD||Lost 6-5||63%||Nats erase 3-run lead v. Kershaw, lose in 8th|
|WSH||2016||NLDS||5||LAD||Lost 4-3||77%||6 pitchers give up 4 runs in 7th|
|WSH||2017||NLDS||5||CHC||Lost 9-8||82%||Scherzer blows 4-3 lead, gives up 4 runs in 5th|
|MWP = Maximum Win Probability Expected (the best % chance of Baker's team winning)|
|Boldface in Gray: Baker's team had, at some point, a lead in the game|
This is stuff out of a serial horror movie and the ending of last Thursday’s game in Washington ended shortly after midnight, in the early morning of Friday the 13th. Unfortunately for Dusty Baker, this was Friday the 13th Part 13.
Going back to the 2002 World Series, Baker’s teams have had 14 opportunities to clinch a series. His teams lost 13 of those 14 games, the lone exception being Game 5 of the 2003 NLDS when the Cubs knocked off Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves. In 9 of those 13 losses, Baker’s team surrendered a lead, sometimes in the most horrific way, starting with the 5-0 lead surrendered in the 7th inning of Game 6 of the World Series, eventually won by the Anaheim Angels.
And of course there was the “Bartman” game, Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, when a fan seemed to prevent leftfielder Moises Alou from catching a foul fly ball off the bat of Luis Castillo down the left field line. (Alou, by the way, later admitted he would not have caught the ball anyway). At the time (with one out in the 8th inning), the Cubs had a 3-0 lead with a runner on 2nd base. By the time Castillo came to bat again in the inning, the Marlins had scored 8 runs and went on to win the series in the 7th game and beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Some of the failures of Baker’s teams in October can be attributed to his decisions, particularly with his handling of his starting pitchers. The Bartman at bat to Castillo wound up in a 9-pitch walk, putting starter Mark Prior’s pitch count over 110. Baker left him in for three more batters, all of whom reached base, the last of whom (Derrek Lee) hit a two-run double that tied the score. However, what is forgotten is that the second of those batters (Florida rookie Miguel Cabrera) hit a ground ball that went straight through the legs of shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Baker didn’t make the normally sure-handed Gonzalez do his best Bill Buckner impersonation but the error is part of the tapestry upon which Baker’s October curse is woven.
Anyway, Baker’s been criticized since then for leaving in his starting pitchers too long, most notably when (with Cincinnati), he left Mat Latos in Game 5 of the 2012 a couple of batters too long. After surrendering three hits and a walk, Latos surrendered a grand slam to the Giants’ Buster Posey, putting the Reds down 6-0 and effectively ending their season.
So, as the data-driven baseball industry scrutinizes every bullpen move a manager makes, the old-school Dusty has developed a quicker hook. In Game 3 of this year’s NLDS, Scherzer had tossed 6.1 innings of no-hit ball until Ben Zobrist hit a double to deep left-center. Scherzer, who is well-described as “Max Effort Max,” had thrown 98 pitches and, clinging to a 1-0 lead, Baker decided to go to his bullpen. He brought in left-hander Sammy Solis to pitch to Chicago’s power-hitting lefty Kyle Schwarber. Cubs manager Joe Maddon countered with right-handed Albert Almora, who hit a game-tying single. Baker was criticized for bringing in a young pitcher with a 5.88 ERA instead of hanging for one more batter with his ace. No matter what move Baker makes in a close post-season game, it always seems to go wrong.
This is a website about the Hall of Fame and the question before us today is whether Dusty Baker, despite so much October misery, is a Hall of Fame worthy manager. When interviewed after Game 5 on early Friday morning last week, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, while not committing to bringing Baker back for 2018, referred to Dusty as a “Hall of Fame manager.” As we found out this morning, the team’s ultimate decision was to part ways with a manager who had just led his team to back-to-back division titles (with 95 regular season wins in 2016 and 97 wins in 2017).
Cooperstown Cred: Dusty Baker (22 seasons as MLB manager)
- 1,863-1,636 (.532) in 22 seasons with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals
- 1,863 career wins is 14th most all-time; all but one manager with more wins is in the Hall of Fame
- Career: 227 games above .500; 17th best in MLB history since 1901.
- Led teams to 9 playoff appearances, tied for 5th most in MLB history (behind Cox, Torre, La Russa, Stengel)
- Won 90 or more games in 10 of his 22 seasons
- Won 95 or more games in 6 of his 22 seasons
- 3-time manager of the year (1993, 1997 and 2000)
- As a player: .278 BA, 242 HR, 1,013 RBI in 19 MLB seasons
What follows is a brief biography of the baseball life of Dusty Baker followed by a discussion of whether he will make it into the Hall of Fame.
Playing and early coaching career
In Atlanta, Georgia, on April 8, 1974, a 24-year old outfielder named Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker was in the on-deck circle when one of the most important moments in baseball history was taking place. Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run that night, breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time record.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Baker in the 26th round of the 1967 player draft, when he was 18 years old. Baker was a California kid and it was an adjustment for him going from a virtually all-white high school in California to playing in the minor leagues in the segregated south in the late 1960’s. Baker had a few cups of coffee with the Braves from 1968 to 1971 before becoming the team’s full-time centerfielder in 1972 and told the Washington Post recently that Aaron had told his mother, on the week he was drafted, that he would look after Baker as if he were his own son.
Baker had four solid seasons as a starting outfielder in Atlanta and then, after the 1975 season, was the key player in a 6-player deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that sent him back to his home state. The trade sent Dusty from a cellar-dweller to a team perennially challenging for the post-season. In his second season in L.A., the Dodgers won the N.L. West and advanced to the World Series, thanks in part to Baker’s efforts in the NLCS against Philadelphia, a series in which he was named the MVP (hit .357 with 2 HR, 8 RBI and a 1.295 OPS). The Dodgers lost the World Series in both 1977 and 1978 (to the New York Yankees) but Baker was one of the team’s post-season stars, hitting .324 throughout the playoffs for both seasons.
In 1981, the strike-shortened season, the Dodgers finally broke through against the Yankees, capturing their first World Series title since 1965. Baker only hit .213 in the ’81 post-season but his teammates came through to give Dusty his first (and only) taste of World Championship bubbly. Baker spent two more campaigns wearing Dodger Blue before playing his final three seasons as a part-time player in the Bay Area for both San Francisco (in 1984) and Oakland (in ’85 and ’86).
Baker began his coaching career with the Giants in 1988, serving as manager Roger Craig’s first base coach. Dusty took over as the team’s hitting coach in 1989 and, coincidentally or not, left-fielder Kevin Mitchell and first baseman Will Clark each had career years with the stick, finishing 1st and 2nd in the MVP balloting, leading the Giants to their first pennant since 1962. The earthquake delayed ’89 series between the Giants and Oakland A’s ended in a four-game sweep for Oakland.
San Francisco Giants (1993-2002)
The Giants, under Craig’s leadership, slumped in 1991 and 1992, finishing with a 72-90 record in ’92 and Craig was fired on December 1st. A couple of weeks later, Baker was hired, with General Manager Bob Quinn calling the novice manager the “perfect fit” because of his “outstanding communicative skills, first-hand knowledge of Giants’ personnel throughout the organization and the respect and admiration of the players on the major league club.” Baker had a nice “welcome gift” as a first-year manager in the form of the reigning N.L. MVP Barry Bonds, who signed a six-year free agent contract with the team a week earlier.
Bonds delivered another MVP season in his first year with San Francisco. Along with third baseman Matt Williams and second baseman Robby Thompson, the Giants offense flourished and the Giants went from a 72-win team to a 103-win team. Alas, this was the final season before the advent of the Wild Card and the Giants fell one game short in the N.L. West to the 104-win Atlanta Braves.
Having lost Clark to free agency and Thompson to injury, the ’94 squad regressed and went 55-60 in the strike-shortened ’94 campaign. Things got worse in 1995; the team’s best starting pitchers from 1993 (Billy Swift and John Burkett) signed free agent contracts elsewhere in the 1994-95 off-season. With limited offensive production outside of Bonds and Williams and a pitching staff that had the lowest ERA in the N.L. outside of Colorado, the Giants sagged to a 67-77 record. The ’96 edition was even worse, finishing at 68-94. Still, despite finishing 41 games under .500 for a three-year period, Giants ownership stuck with Dusty.
The 1997 version of the Giants resumed their winning ways, despite the controversial trade of the four-time All-Star Williams to Cleveland for a package featuring underachieving second baseman Jeff Kent. Baker gave a vote of confidence to the newly acquired second sacker, installing him behind Bonds in the lineup, and the buttoned-up Kent flourished in the role. The Giants returned to the playoffs in ’97 before getting dispatched in a three-game sweep by the Florida Marlins. With Bonds and Kent anchoring the middle of the lineup, the Giants averaged 91 wins per season from ’97 to 2002, getting to the playoffs again in 2000 and 2002 when, as we’ve seen, the team was on the brink of winning the World Series before blowing that 5-0 lead in Game 6.
With Baker at the helm, the Giants 6-year run was fueled by Kent and Bonds (and, for the last few years, his PED fuel). Managing those two distinct personalities was no easy task. Remember that Kent was a nobody in the spring of 1997, a new player on the team. But that didn’t stop him from putting Bonds “in his place” (teammate J.T. Snow’s words, not implying any racial overtones) when he refused to give up a front-row seat on the team bus when the superstar player insisted, “Dude, get in the back, that’s my seat.” Kent’s reply was “I’m not moving, I was here first. You came after me. You sit in the back.”
Both Bonds and Kent were notoriously prickly with each other and with the media. In March 2001, my last year at ESPN, I sat down to interview Kent (at the time the reigning N.L. MVP) and, just because I uttered the name “Barry Bonds,” he stood up and said “I’m leaving if that’s what this interview is about.” I had to calm him down, reassuring him that it was a baseball-related question. The point to this story is that not just any manager could keep the cohesion of those teams together with his two biggest stars maintaining a Cold War posture towards each other (which once or twice erupted into fisticuffs) in the dugout or clubhouse. Pitching coach Rich Donnelly told the New York Times, “how Dusty handled that? It was probably like Arthur Mercante, the great referee. ‘O.K. Break, now box.’ And everything was wonderful.”
“On the field, we’re fine, but, off the field, I don’t care about Barry and Barry doesn’t care about me. Or anybody.”
— Jeff Kent (to Sports Illustrated, in 2002).
Chicago Cubs (2003-2006)
While Bonds and Kent were feuding with each other, Baker was feuding with Giants management and, without a contract for 2003, decided to leave. It didn’t take the three-time manager of the year much time to find another gig; he signed a four-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, a deal that made him the second highest paid skipper in the game to Joe Torre. The Cubs had gone 67-95 in 2002, finishing next to last in the N.L. Central. In his first season at Wrigley Field, Baker secured the N.L. Central with a 88-74 record (a 31-game improvement) and, as we’ve seen, led the Cubbies to within one game of their first World Series since 1945. Oh, but for the Bartman game, the game that may well have infected the “Curse of the Billy Goat” to its new manager.
Sadly for the long-suffering fans, the tease of 2003 was not followed up by another trip to the post-season; Cubs would not return to October baseball in the final three years of Baker’s contract. The team actually improved to 89 wins in 2004 but that was only good for third place in the Central. In 2005, the Cubs sagged to 79 wins, followed by a full plummet to a 66-96 record in 2006, the worst season in the managerial career to date for the toothpick chewing skipper.
Cincinnati Reds (2008-2013)
After a year off to serve as an analyst for ESPN, Baker returned to the dugout with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008. Unlike his first two managerial stints, Baker was not able to score a first-year turnaround but, in 2010, he did lead the team to its first playoff appearance since 1995. The Reds were swept in the NLDS by the two-time defending N.L. Champion Philadelphia Phillies. After an off year in 2011, the Reds won 97 games in 2012, winning the division title and earning a matchup in the NLDS with Dusty’s former squad, the Giants.
As we’ve seen, Baker’s October curse was especially acute in 2012, with the Reds blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Giants. Having won the first two games in San Francisco, the Reds had two opportunities at home to close out the series. In Game 3, a 1-1 pitcher’s duel, reliever Jonathan Broxton allowed the first two runners in the top of the 10th to reach on singles. Broxton struck out the next two batters and then induced a bouncing ground ball to third base. No problem, right? Manning the hot corner for the Reds was 8-time Gold Glove Glove Award winner Scott Rolen, a candidate for the Hall of Fame this year. But Rolen couldn’t combat Dusty’s October curse. He briefly bobbled the grounder, allowing Buster Posey to score the go-ahead run, giving the Giants a 2-1 lead, one they would not relinquish. The Giants won the next two games easily and wound up capturing the Fall Classic a couple of weeks later.
In 2013, the Reds won 90 games, which was only good for third in the N.L. Central. They lost the Wild Card Game to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baker was fired after the season.
Washington Nationals (2016-2017)
In a game moving towards analytics, the “old school” Dusty Baker, at 64 years old, seemed like an unlikely candidate to get another job as a big league skipper. But, as fate would have it, two years later a perennial contending but dysfunctional franchise was in need of a “players manager.” In short, they needed the guy who successfully managed Barry Bonds for 6 seasons.
The 2015 Washington Nationals were considered a pre-season favorite to win the World Series. They already had a strong starting rotation (Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg) and, in the off-season, added Max Scherzer. This was the season in which their young phenom, Bryce Harper, would break out as a legitimate MVP. But despite their great collection of talent, the Nationals faded in the second half of the season, finishing with just 83 wins (a year after winning 96). Taking the blame was second-year manager Matt Williams and so, in a bit of irony, Baker’s former star third baseman in San Francisco was replaced by his former skipper.
Baker immediately returned the Nationals to their winning ways and has led the team to two straight N.L. East titles but, as we’ve seen, also two painful Game 5 exits in the NLDS.
Will Dusty Baker Make it into the Hall of Fame?
So, with so many post-season failures, is it possible that Dusty Baker could wind up in the Hall of Fame anyway? Will his regular season record and well-earned reputation as a turnaround artist be enough to give him a plaque in Cooperstown?
There are really two questions in play here. The first is “will he?” The second is “should he?”
For the “will he” question, my belief is that Dusty Baker will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Managerial candidates are voted upon by what are now known as the “Eras” Committees (formerly known as the Veterans’ Committees). The 16-member panels are normally populated by six to seven Hall of Fame players, one or two Hall of Fame managers or general managers, a few other MLB executives and a couple of long-time media members.
There are three factors that make me think Baker will get the call for the Hall.
- He is well-liked well-respected in the game, especially by current and former players alike. No matter what members fill that 16-person committee, he’s likely to have some strong advocates from the ranks of the players. Whether he’s on the committee or not, you can bet the farm that Hank Aaron will be putting in a good word for his former teammate. Same goes for Willie Mays, who’s been around the Giants clubhouse for decades and knows Dusty well.
- He has the numerical longevity (14th in career wins) to qualify on the “volume of work” test. He also has, despite the disappointments, the 9 different squads he has led to the post-season, which is the 5th most in history. Former players are likely to give him a pass for the bad luck of the Giants pitchers blowing the 5-0 lead to the Angels, the Bartman play, the Gonzalez error, the Rolen error and Scherzer’s 4-run inning in Game 5 this past Thursday.
- He would be the first African-American manager to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
This last point is the most important and will not be overlooked when it comes time to vote for him. It’s not just that Baker would be the first; he’s the only candidate we’re likely to see for two decades. He is the only black man in the top 50 of all-time managerial wins. Frank Robinson is 55th, but he wasn’t a great skipper and he’s already in the Hall of Fame as a star player. Cito Gaston won two World Series titles with the Toronto Blue Jays but he only won 894 games in his career, which is 73rd on the all-time list.
In 2017, Baker was one of just two African-American managers in the majors, the other being Dave Roberts, who beat Baker and the Nats in the 2016 NLDS as the skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Roberts, who will soon be managing in his first World Series, is a rising star but he’s only 45 years old and has only been in the dugout for three years. It will be anywhere from 15-25 years before, maybe, if he maintains his success, Roberts will be a Cooperstown candidate. It’s been 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line. There will be enormous institutional pressure to put a deserving black candidate into the Hall of Fame. Because of Baker’s ranking on the all-time wins list, any claims that his induction was influenced solely by the color of his skin can be easily dismissed.
Dusty Baker will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, as early as in 2019 if he doesn’t get another job for 2018.
Now, to the other question: if we are to be absolutely color-blind, does the body of Baker’s work in the dugout merit a Cooperstown plaque.
The argument against comes down to three points. The first is the obvious, that we’ve already beaten to death, that his teams have lost 10 straight games in post-season clinching scenarios. The second point is the argument that the reason for those failures is that Dusty Baker is not a great in-game manager, a deficiency that is magnified in October.
In the crushing Game 5 loss last week, can you blame him for the 4 runs allowed for Scherzer? No, of course not. Can you blame him that Jose Lobaton got picked off first base in the bottom of the 8th inning, ending a rally? Not really, but the argument goes that failure in the fundamentals falls onto the managers’ shoulder. I heard somebody say that (or maybe I read it, I can’t remember). I don’t buy it. If there was any coaching shortcoming in that situation, it would fall on first base coach Davey Lopes, a former manager and all-time great base-runner. Theoretically, Lopes should have warned Lobaton about Willson Contreras’ arm behind the plate. Perhaps Lopes did do this and this was just poor execution from a backup catcher on the base paths. Remember, Lobaton beat the throw but was ruled out (on instant replay) because his foot came off the bag for a split second. (By the way, the Nationals led the N.L. in stolen base percentage in 2017; we can give some of the credit for that to Lopes and the manager who hired him).
The third point against his Cooperstown candidacy is that Baker’s overall managerial record is skewed by reaping the benefits of Barry Bonds’ PED use. It’s true that Bonds turned himself into Superman starting with the 2000 season. In 2002, Bonds posted a 11.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), fueled by 46 home runs, 198 walks, leading to a ridiculous slash line of a .370 BA .582 OBP, and .799 SLG. The ’02 Giants made it to the playoffs as the N.L. Wild Card, finishing 3 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The first and third points of the argument against are compelling. The record is there. Baker’s teams have a history of disappointment in the post-season and would likely never have even made it to the playoffs or the World Series in ’02 without the production from the chemically enhanced left fielder.
Let me now make the argument in favor, starting with the basics.
- His 1,863 wins are the 14th most in the history of baseball. It’s kind of apples to bowling balls but, for whatever it’s worth, being 14th is the managerial equivalent of 563 home runs (Reggie Jackson), 1,844 RBI (Carl Yastrzemski), or 324 wins (Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan). The only manager with more wins than Dusty is Gene Mauch, whose teams lost 135 games more than they won.
- Dusty’s 1,863 wins is more than relatively recent inductees Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog. Of course, it’s also true that Lasorda and Williams each won two World Series titles and that Weaver and Herzog won one each.
- Baker’s record of being 227 games above .500 is 17th best in MLB since 1901. Only Billy Martin and Davey Johnson are ahead and not in the Hall of Fame. Baker is ahead of Lasorda, Williams, Herzog and Casey Stengel on this list. Martin and Johnson, by the way, have been candidates on recent Eras Committees and have fallen short. Both were great turnaround artists but also wore out their welcome with multiple teams and thus, are way behind Baker when it comes to longevity. Davey is 31st on the all-time wins list (491 wins behind Baker) while the fiery, brawling Martin is 38th on the list (610 fewer wins than Dusty).
There is precedent for inducting a Hall of Fame manager from the modern era (since 1901) who doesn’t own a World Series Championship. It’s Al Lopez, who won the A.L. Pennant (but lost the World Series) with the 1954 Cleveland Indians and the 1959 Chicago White Sox. With Lopez being 453 wins behind Baker on the all-time wins list, it would seem that we have a title-free managerial comparison. There is a difference, though, and a big one. Lopez managed a remarkable 15 consecutive seasons without a losing record. In a mostly 154-game schedule, Lopez’ teams averaged 92 wins per year from 1951 to 1965.
How do we reconcile the great overall regular season record owned by Dusty Baker with the post-season failures? Is there a formula to account for a manager’s ability to exceed expectations, such as turning a 72-win team into a 103-win team? Well, in fact, there is a formula and it won’t surprise the avid statistically minded fan to know that it’s a formula created by sabermetric pioneer Bill James. The formula was designed by James to credit every manager with points for certain achievements, including total wins, wins above .500, exceeding expectations and post-season success.
You can find more details on James’ site here, but the basics of the formula are this:
- One point for every 40 wins
- One point for every 10 games above .500
- For an individual season, one point for every 5 games a team exceeds expectations (see below for details)
- Three points for a Division Championship, three more for a pennant (6 total) and three more for a World Championship (9 total)
Here’s how the “exceeding expectations” points work: you take the team’s wins and losses from two years prior, add it to two times the previous year’s wins and losses, and then add 162 wins and losses (which is the natural drift to the center). EXAMPLE: the 1991 Giants went 75-87; the 1992 Giants went 72-90; in Baker’s first season, the team went 103-59. Based on James’ formula, the “expected” record would have been 76-86. Therefore, Baker’s team exceeded expectations by a whopping 27 games over .500 and is credited with 6 points.
Anyway, James wrote this piece in February 2013: by the formula, Baker had accumulated 94 manager points through the 2012 season. Since then, Dusty’s teams have won 282 more games (that’s 7 points), finished 78 games over .500 (8 points), won two division titles (6 points) and earned 4 “exceed expectations” points. That’s 25 more points for a total of 119 on a scale that James says puts a manager into the Hall of Fame if they’re above 100.
So, let’s take a look at the Bill James points rankings for managers who debuted in 1967 or later (to start in the LCS era but to give Dick Williams credit for his debut in the dugout in 1967).
|Manager||Years||James Points||Wins||G > .500|
|*Tony La Russa||1979-2011||196||2728||363|
|*Hall of Famer|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
In the James methodology, Baker gets a lot of credit for managing teams to records above expectations, better than even Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Joe Torre, and fellow turnaround artists Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and Billy Martin.
By itself, this chart doesn’t confer a Cooperstown plaque; it’s based on a formula devised by one man, albeit the smartest man about baseball statistics who has ever walked the earth. The point is what the rankings tell us about the men they’re ranking. It’s giving Dusty Baker credit for his longevity, his propensity to manage winning ball clubs, and his ability to guide his team to exceed expectations. Throughout his career, Baker has been given credit for being a great players’ manager, for creating a winning atmosphere. After two years under Matt Williams, he was the perfect hire in Washington and he led the team to two consecutive Division Titles.
The Hall of Fame is filled with players who were great players in the regular season but didn’t produce much in October. It’s rare for a Cooperstown-enshrined manager to fit that description but if there were ever a manager worthy of the ultimate honor without a championship ring, it’s Dusty Baker.
Personally, I’m on the fence. I do have a problem with the lack of post-season success. There’s a certain randomness of bad luck (or a curse) that has followed Dusty Baker in October baseball. However, this is a man who was respected enough to be hired four times and was allowed to skipper his squads for 3,500 regular season games and 55 more in the post-season. Is it fair to penalize him for 10 bad losses out of 3,555 games managed? Maybe yes, maybe no; the Hall of Fame isn’t always fair and we do normally expect our Hall of Fame managers to have won World Championships.
Overall, I think the historical significance of being the best African-American manager in history with the likely advocacy of Aaron, Mays and probably multiple other Hall of Fame players will win the day. Dusty Baker’s going to get into the Hall of Fame and there’s a good chance it will happen by the summer of 2019.
Thanks for reading.