Dusty Baker is back in baseball.
You remember Baker, don’t you Reds fans? You know, the manager who guided Cincinnati to three 90-win seasons and a trio of postseason appearances from 2010-13? Or did you scrub Baker from your memory after the Reds
made Baker the fall guy fired Baker with a year left on his contract after the club collapsed in the final days of the 2013 season and got whitewashed in the National League Wild Card Game by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Well, Baker is back. And guess what? He’s winning. Again. Baker’s Washington Nationals have prevailed in 19 of their first 27 games, sporting a run differential (plus-50) that ranks second in baseball behind only the world-beating, too-cool Chicago Cubs. That Baker is piling up wins should not come as a surprise; he is 17th all-time and second among active skippers in victories.
The Nationals hired Baker to replace Matt Williams in November after the baseball lifer had spent the past two years gardening and watching his teenage son play baseball.
The idea that Williams could be let go after registering a record of 179-142 through two seasons—including a National League-best 96-66 mark in 2014—seems ludicrous at face value, but Williams’ missteps in the Nationals’ upset loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 National League Division Series produced sour vibes that lingered into 2015. Last season, the Nationals were the preseason betting favorite to win the World Series, but instead finished 83-79, with highlight/lowest of the season being the dugout fisticuffs between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon in late September.
Enter Baker, who has cast his ubiquitous positive energy into the Nationals’ clubhouse. Baker—a two-time All-Star in his 19-year playing career—tends to connect easily with his players, especially the supremely-talented types.
Baker supervised the enigmatic Barry Bonds for 10 years with the Giants, successfully melded some unique personalities with the Reds (Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos, Brandon Phillips, and Joey Votto come to mind), and has hit it off immediately with Harper, whose otherworldly MVP season at age 22 last summer inserted him into the company of baseball legends. You think Harper’s former manager would have been cool with his star addressing the media in a ‘Make Baseball Fun Again’ hat following the first game of the season?
“Baseball at every single level, and if you’re in high school, college, Little League anything, that’s fun right there,” Harper said in late April. “And to be able to have the opportunity to play for Dusty, that desire and that mentality that he brings every single day to let us just have fun, to let us enjoy this game, with all the rally caps and all the stuff we were doing and just going crazy and everything you could imagine. And he just lets us play, and that’s what the game is all about.
“That’s where that comes from, ‘Make Baseball Fun Again,’ right there. And those are the things where you can go out on a daily basis, enjoy the game, have fun and he lets us do that and there’s no other guy I’d want to be playing for right now.”
Baker’s players also happen to be making him look really damn good. The rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross has been lights-out, with each starter owning an ERA under four. Strasburg, pitching for a new contract this winter, has been particularly effective with 40 strikeouts and just eight walks in 36 innings pitched.
Offensively, Washington is just skating by, ranking 22nd out of 30 teams in park-adjusted run creation. (Baker sticking to his tired practice of slotting on-base percentage sinkholes in the leadoff spot hasn’t helped matters. Baker practiced similar lineup folly with the Reds, regularly batting all-speed, no-on-base players like Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and Drew Stubbs in the No. 1 spot.) The Nationals’ offense has been propped up by Harper and ex-Met Daniel Murphy, who is batting within a sniff of .400 and has reached base in nearly half of his plate appearances.
The team’s schedule ranks 17th in baseball to this point, but they do have the benefit of playing in the NL East, which features two rebuilding teams (Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies) and the Miami Marlins, who haven’t finished with a winning record since 2009. Despite its hot start, Washington is only a game-and-a-half clear of the defending NL champion New York Mets. But while it may prove difficult for the Nats to hold off the Mets in the NL East, Baker’s bunch should certainly be in Wild Card contention when the calendar flips to September.
I had no qualms with the Reds firing Baker after the 2013 campaign. Baker had been with the Reds for six seasons, coaching largely the same core throughout that period. I thought certain players may have been getting too comfortable under Baker and that a shake-up would do the team good, but I don’t agree with the way Baker has been scapegoated by a segment of the Reds’ fanbase.
So here’s to hoping Baker keeps winning, because baseball is better with him in it.
(But Dusty, for for the love of God, please stop batting Michael Taylor in the leadoff spot.)