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Can Dusty Baker resurrect Nationals after disappointing season?
1:12 | MLB
Can Dusty Baker resurrect Nationals after disappointing season?
Tuesday May 31st, 2016

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Before every series, the Nationals' analytics department hands manager Dusty Baker several pages of color-coded printouts of predictive statistics. Metrics, which used to be as rear-facing as autopsies, are now being used to predict results of batter-pitcher matchups.

“Bryce [Harper] is a 10 against every pitcher,” Baker said with a laugh.

Baker started managing in 1993, before advanced metrics or even the wild card existed. Baseball has grown so thick with information that five hours before the Dodgers played the Mets last Friday at Citi Field, a Dodgers staff member asked a Mets groundskeeper to assist him in painting dots in the outfield to use as vectors for in-game positioning of the Los Angeles outfielders. The Dodgers map the coordinates with a rangefinder, cross-reference to spray maps of opposing hitters, and need the dots to be as exact as possible in positioning their outfielders.

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The Dodgers do this routinely at home, but when they tried it in a visiting park—using the visitors’ grounds crew to boot—New York manager Terry Collins, general manager Sandy Alderson and president Jeff Wilpon objected. They walked the outfield to examine the dots, sometimes appearing to rub them out with their shoes. Alderson made a call to the MLB offices, complaining that L.A. was gaining an unfair advantage by using tools pregame that would never be allowed in game. (Electronic devices are prohibited during games.) A Dodgers team source characterized the event as “not a big deal” that resulted from the eagerness of a “naïve” staff member.

We’ve come a long way from the 1980s, when Mets rightfielder Darryl Strawberry played every hitter in the same spot in rightfield so frequently that he killed the same patch of grass every year—a hunk of barren sod known as the Strawberry Patch.

It’s little wonder that when first-year Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was asked what has surprised him most about managing, he responded, “Exercise. I miss it. The job is all consuming. I spend a lot of time at the ballpark. Probably 12 hours a day.”

Baker and Roberts are two of the more recent and fascinating hires in a world in which information has changed what defines a good manager. Do managers even matter any more? Are they nothing more than middle managers who carry out the doctrine of the front office?

Their cases are particularly illuminating because Baker and Roberts inherited good teams with World Series aspirations. New hires typically take over teams that have gone bad. Only two teams replaced their manager after a winning season last year: the Nationals and Dodgers. They drew from entirely different pools to find their man.

Washington went old school when it hired Baker, who has managed more games than all but 16 managers in history. (Only four of those 16 are not in the Hall of Fame: Bruce Bochy, Jim Leyland, Gene Mauch and Lou Piniella.) Los Angeles hired Roberts, who had managed exactly one game previously—on an interim basis for the 2015 Padres between the firing of Bud Black and the hiring of Pat Murphy.

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Nearly one third of the way through the season, and despite the vast differences in their experience, Baker and Roberts are proof that managers do matter—just in a very different way than what baseball always knew them to be. The Mets of the 1980s, for instance, used to say they always were aware of Whitey Herzog in the dugout for the Cardinals because of the way he ran a game. He loved to start runners and to run lefthanded pitching into a game. The ultra-aggressive Billy Martin, who baited umpires and opponents and would let nothing stand in the way of a win—including his own players’ feelings—was another manager who put a personal stamp on a game by the moves he made. Mauch loved the bunt, often to his own team’s detriment.

Today, no manager has that kind of personal strategic imprint. The metrics define how teams play almost uniformly. Nobody bunts. Nobody steals. Nobody likes the intentional walk. The late innings are relay races of high-velocity throwers. It’s paint by numbers. But such front office hegemony has shifted the importance of the manager from strategic to personal. Baker and Roberts are proving that this shift back toward the importance of personality can work.

Baker long has been known as a “players’ manager,” a nod not just for his ability to get along with everyone but also to engender confidence. It’s a trait he picked up while playing under Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

“He stuck with me when others wouldn’t,” Baker said. “I never forgot that lesson.”

In the last week of the 1977 season, Los Angeles had three players with at least 30 home runs. No team ever had four such players (though starting in '95 it would be done 11 times in 15 years). Baker was stuck on 29.

“You’ll do it. I know you’ll do it,” Lasorda kept telling him.

Baker wasn’t so sure. Then, in his final at-bat of the year and facing Houston's J.R. Richard, one of the toughest pitchers in baseball, Baker hit his 30th.

Baker is slow to lose confidence in players, especially veterans, and they love him for it. For instance, Baker stuck with a struggling Ryan Zimmerman behind Harper in the batting order longer than he should have, but he knows Zimmerman is a respected veteran who has earned that patience.

The same slow hand applies to how Baker handles his starting pitchers. His predecessor, Matt Williams, was quicker to make changes, most infamously in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS, when he yanked Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth despite his starter having thrown only 100 pitches in what was a three-hit shutout. The Nationals lost in extra innings. Baker is more apt to let his starters try to work through trouble the third or fourth time around a lineup—to learn something about them or for themselves.

“It’s like the boy who gets stuck in the tree,” Baker said. “If you keep getting him help or a ladder, he’s never going to learn how to climb down.”

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The risk is that Baker lets games get away, which is what happened Saturday against St. Louis. Washington starter Gio Gonzalez, leaking oil from having thrown 40 pitches in the second inning, sputtered in the fifth inning as he neared 100 pitches and while facing Cardinals hitters for a third time. Baker stayed with him after a two-out walk and even after a subsequent single. He let Gonzalez face a righthanded hitter, Randal Grichuk, and lost the bet when Grichuk rapped an RBI single to increase the St. Louis lead to 6–2. What Baker won, however, was a measure of trust from Gonzalez.

As for those color-coded predictive stats the analysts give him, Baker doesn’t use those in the dugout.

“I’ve got tons of stats,” he said. “I use what I can use. I still got my cheat sheet [in the dugout]. I’ve had that for years.”

He held up a one-page card filled mostly with the kind of information the late Earl Weaver wanted: the history of batter-pitcher matchups, some of them highlighted in yellow.

“The thing that’s changed [in the job] is all these predictive stats. I like actual [stats],” he said. “I learned from Hank Aaron. You watch. It’s like that rookie we faced with the Mets, [Ty] Kelly. I see he has his hands all the way up here.” Baker mimics a hitter with his hands well above his shoulders. “How are you going to pitch him? You get the ball up. Hands high, he’s a low-ball hitter. Hands low, he likes the ball up. I tell the guys what Hank used to say: ‘Look and survey the land.’”

He has half-jokingly remarked that, “I don’t know why I do stuff sometimes,” and rattled off three possible sources for a move: numbers, feel or hope.

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Through 52 games, Washington is two wins better than it was at this time last year under Williams. The offense is a bit worse and the pitching staff, mostly because of the maturation of Stephen Strasburg, is much better. But the Nationals do seem more buoyant if only because of Baker’s incessant optimism. Narratives come out of the manager’s office rather than the Washington clubhouse, which takes heat off players. Don’t underestimate the importance of providing such cover in today’s world—one in which the manager, often facing the media three or four times a day, is the pre-eminent spokesman for a franchise.

The ultimate grade for Baker will arrive in October. No major league city has waited longer for a World Series than Washington (83 years). The Fall Classic happens to be Baker’s white whale, too. Only two men have managed 3,000 games without winning the World Series: Baker (3,228) and Mauch (3,942), his doppelgänger in despair. Baker won 103 games with the 1993 Giants but went home because no wild card existed. He is 19–26 in the postseason, including 3–10 with a chance to clinch a series.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Baker turns 67 years old in two weeks. He made his major league debut as a player in 1968—four years before Roberts, now 43, was born. They may be a generation apart, but Baker and Roberts share a similar style. They grow confidence from their players with compassion. Roberts, eternally sunny and known as “Doc” to friends, makes sure he talks to each Dodger every day, typically giving them a hug, handshake or arm around the shoulder.

“I put my hand on each player every single day—literally,” he said.

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When Roberts must confront players, however, he does so unsparingly, as he did when he confronted and benched Yasiel Puig recently for not running hard on a fly ball. When the Dodgers interviewed him for the job, one of the questions they asked Roberts was how he would have handled Joc Pederson in the second half of last year. Pederson was hitting .266 on June 3 but hit .177 over his final 98 games.

“Honestly, I would have sent him down to the minor leagues,” Roberts replied.

Like Baker—and really, all managers; veritable computer labs fill rooms adjacent to clubhouses in all parks—Roberts gets a trove of statistical information. Many of his 12 hours a day at the ballpark are spent reading and interpreting the information.

“Honestly, for me it’s fascinating,” he said. “We have scouting reports on our own players. [Clayton] Kershaw will say to me, ‘Hey, what does it say about me in there?’ I go, ‘No hitter has a chance against you.’”

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Is Roberts a great manager? That’s too soon to know. The Dodgers under Roberts are four games worse after 52 games than they were under Don Mattingly last year. Like Baker, Roberts was hired not for improvement but to win the World Series, which Los Angeles hasn't done in 28 years, a record drought since they moved to California for the 1958 season. It’s a very big ask. No rookie manager has won the World Series since Bob Brenly with the 2001 Diamondbacks. No manager has won the World Series on his first job since Ozzie Guillen with the 2005 White Sox, his second year after being hired. A pattern has emerged: You lose your first job after trying to please your bosses; you succeed on a second or third chance by listening to your instincts.

Roberts has a team of moving parts with little offensive creativity—“The true stolen base, we don’t have it,” he said—that is being carried by the reliable brilliance of Kershaw. Like most managers, he does not put a personal stamp on how his team plays. The Dodgers play percentage baseball. Roberts is there to deploy it with a personal touch. He, too, with his literal hands-on approach, has some Lasorda in him.

You might have noticed, too, that Baker and Roberts share another trait: They are the only minority managers in baseball. Baker, with the Giants in 2002, followed Cito Gaston and preceded Ron Washington as the only African-Americans to manage a World Series team. Roberts is the first minority manager in Dodgers history.

Ultimately they will be judged on whether or not they win the pennant. Baker, while out of baseball for two years, watched his daughter get married in their backyard, saw his son Darren grow into a pro infield prospect who recently committed to play at Cal and hung out with the chief of the Cheyenne tribe. He has returned to the dugout with the same energy and enthusiasm, though he did admit it took a few weeks to adjust to the grind.

“Had to re-learn how to pack,” he said. “And day games after night games…”

Cut from a similar mold, worldly and optimistic, Roberts leads with a positive energy. And just maybe, as the games become more driven by the cold truths of analytics, the human touch is what separates managers even more. You can tell Baker and Roberts enjoy being at the ballpark, still putting on a uniform, and getting young men to follow them without being didactic about it. Few managers, many of whom show the burden of a job with increasing complications, smile as much as they do.

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