Immediately following the Reds’ Wild Card Game loss to the Pirates, general manager Walt Jocketty gave every indication that manager Dusty Baker would be back for the 2014 season. Three days later, Baker was out of a job.
As a Reds fan, I’ve got mixed feelings about the news. Baker has never been a favorite of the new school stats crowd, which I tend to lean toward. But he won at least 90 games and made the playoffs three times in the last four years. That should count for something. And the players always seemed to respect him and respond to him (at least until the last couple of weeks of the season). That was evident in their reactions Friday, particularly from Jay Bruce:
“I understand that it’s a business and when teams don’t accomplish what’s expected of them there are changes, but any way you slice it, Dusty was an integral part of turning the organization around,” Bruce wrote in an email. “The Cincinnati Reds became relevant again with Dusty at the helm, and that’s something people should never forget. From a personal standpoint, I’m thankful to have had Dusty there with me from the time I was 21 years old. He taught me so many valuable things about the game of baseball, things that have helped me become the player I am today, and I’m very appreciative of that. Aside from the on field aspect, he took an interest in myself and the other players on a personal level that far exceeded that requirements of a manager.”
On the other hand, there’s a reason sabermetricians are so critical of Baker – his tactical decisions could be frustrating to watch sometimes. Like an over-reliance on bunting in key situations. Like insisting on building a lineup in which the No. 2 hitters had the lowest on-base percentage in baseball while often hitting between Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto. Like talking about runners getting on base not necessarily being a good thing because “clogging up the bases isn’t that great” (admittedly, that one was pre-Reds).
Of course, no evaluation of Baker would be complete without mentioning his teams’ lack of success in the playoffs. In baseball’s modern era, only Gene Mauch has won more games as a manager without winning a World Series title. Some of it boils down to sheer bad luck – the Bartman Game immediately springs to mind – but there’s a definite pattern of playoff failure.
As for the Wild Card Game loss, it’s hard to pin that on anything Baker did during the Wild Card game (even if he may have left Johnny Cueto in too long). Realistically, the Reds lost the instant they lost home-field advantage to the Pirates. Above all else, that may have been the biggest issue. Following a three-game sweep of the Dodgers on Sept. 8, the team looked flat down the stretch. They lost two out of three each to the Cubs, Brewers and Mets and ended up getting swept at home by the Pirates to end the regular season. In the closing weeks of the season when the team needed to make a push, they looked like they stopped responding to Baker.
Considering where they were before they hired Baker, the Reds are in much better shape now. That should be appreciated. But maybe it was time for a new voice to carry them to the next level. Maybe, as Baker himself said Friday, it was time for a change.