As crushing as last season’s postseason loss to the Giants was, I wrote that Dusty Baker deserved to be rehired. Not that he was necessarily the best guy for the job, only that he’d earned his return with 97 wins in a season when Votto’s knee and Madson’s elbow had shredded.
In the aftermath of another terribly disappointing finish, I’ve reached a different conclusion. But maybe not for the reasons you expect.
And before I get started, I want to be crystal clear about this: The failure of the Cincinnati Reds is not primarily Dusty Baker’s fault.
Today, Dusty Baker is an easy, convenient explanation for all the Reds deficiencies. But it’s wrong to exonerate the players. They themselves are ultimately responsible for their shortcomings on the field.
And as I’ve been saying all year, the front office was seduced by the comfortable status quo. Other than the Stubbs-for-Choo trade, the Reds have been far too complacent to expect to win the division. The Chapman disarmament, not fully responding to Ryan Ludwick’s injury, and the trade deadline paralysis, were all steps that created strong headwinds for the team’s success.
That all said, just as criticizing the manager isn’t the same as saying everything was his fault, acknowledging the failure of the players and GM doesn’t absolve Dusty Baker.
My case for replacing the Reds’ manager is not about lineups and bunts, (collectively known as the Baker Tax). As Chad Dotson pointed out, a different manager may not be better when it comes to in-game tactical decisions. Dusty Baker is far from the only graduate of the Old School. If the Reds replaced Baker with Jim Leyland, you’d be cringing at just as many sacrifice bunts and his misuse of the #2 lineup spot. Ask Tigers’ fans.
The reason the Reds need a new manager isn’t the Baker Tax. It’s the Baker Ceiling.
Dusty Baker is first and foremost a player’s manager. He reasonably believes, based on his own considerable experience as a major league player and then as manager, that if he can put his own players at ease they’ll perform better. It’s a genuine and thoughtful formula from a man who deeply cares about his team and wants more than anything for them to win.
Baker implements his approach, in part, by assigning defined roles to players — whether a lineup spot, a position on the field, a fixed pitcher-catcher battery, or a relief pitching duty. Then, once the role is assigned, Baker resists change. Other managers, like Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays, routinely switch batting orders and fielding positions around.
Again, for Baker, it’s about making the players comfortable to help them play relaxed.
Part of that is minimizing the threat that the player will lose his role. The theory goes, you don’t want players looking over their shoulders at other players or their manager.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Dusty Baker’s philosophy. Managers and head coaches in other sports have been successful with it. For certain teams at specific times, it’s absolutely the right approach. There’s even an argument that Dusty Baker was the right manager for the development of the Reds in recent years.
But at other times, a club needs someone like Lou Pinella.
Being a player’s manager is directly at odds with holding players strictly accountable for their performance. It also conflicts with vigorously challenging your players to do better. Over time, it begins to show. As the Reds slouched toward elimination, we witnessed horrific base running mistakes, batters swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone, players going half speed down the first base line and the careless fielding errors, many at first base.
The Reds too often play like no one on the field or in the dugout is concerned with fundamentals.
But the problem with Baker’s recipe goes beyond the culture of unaccountability.
His approach of keeping the players loose also ill-prepares them to win at the end of the season. Dusty Baker tries to shield his team from pressure, consciously downplaying the “must win” importance of any regular season games.
Due to its private nature, we generally don’t know how a manager handles his clubhouse. But in this case, we do have a peek inside from, of all the unlikely places, Marty Brennaman’s pre-game interviews with Baker himself.
Several times in the past few weeks, the Reds Hall of Fame announcer has prefaced a question to Baker with the notion that the Reds faced an important series or stretch of games. Each time, Dusty Baker clearly rejected the premise, explaining that he didn’t want his players thinking that way because it put too much pressure on them.
Jeff Brantley, after hearing those interviews and presumably with a bit of additional inside information, characterized Baker’s approach as “well, we’ll just get ’em tomorrow.” According to the Reds broadcaster and former closer, it’s Baker’s failure to put pressure on his team throughout the year that best explains why, “when it comes down to crunch time ballgames, they come up short.”
You can’t take the stress off your players all season and expect them to handle it when it inevitably arrives at the end. Brantley made the point last night that the Pirates, in contrast, had lived under pressure all season. “They pushed and pushed and pushed all year because people kept telling them they were going to collapse.”
I’ve been at games this season when, in contrast to Dusty Baker, Clint Hurdle and Mike Matheny, were managing like the game had great importance. It adds up. And it’s become a pattern now with the Reds. When the team reached for a faster speed this week, they not only couldn’t find it, they slipped out of gear. It was painfully obvious last night that one of the teams was ready to face the pressure and one wasn’t.
If the Reds’ organization wants to go farther than they did the past two seasons, they have to make a fundamental change in their approach. They need a new voice at the top — one that preaches and follows through with accountability, mental toughness and attention to details.
I doubt Dusty Baker would do it and it’s not even fair to ask him.
He’s taken this group of players as far as he can.