Coming off a sweep of the A's in Oakland, the Reds look more and more like serious challengers to the Cardinals in the NL Central. While it was their pitching that got the job done in Oakland -- three quality starts, capped by Johnny Cueto's seven shutout innings on Wednesday -- they're in the race, one game behind the Cardinals, thanks to their bats. The Reds are second in the NL in runs scored and second in OBP, and they lead the league in average and slugging. There's some help from Great American Ballpark there, but the performance is real: The Reds are second in the NL in True Average, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures overall offensive performance, including base-stealing, and adjusts for home park.
The Reds' hitting is very good and their pitching features a stable rotation plus two quality relievers in Francisco Cordero and Arthur Rhodes. Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman are candidates to bolster that pen as soon as next month. As pointed out in the June 21 edition of Sports Illustrated, GM Walt Jocketty has a track record of making his teams better at the trade deadline, so the Reds can expect to get help from the front office as well.
Where they do not have an edge is in the dugout. Dusty Baker has a long-standing reputation as a leader of men, a baseball manager whose tactical shortcomings are compensated for by his people skills. A closer look, though, shows that Baker's success as a manager seems to have been tied directly to the ability to write Barry Bonds' name on the lineup card every day. Since leaving Bonds and the Giants after 2002, Baker has a 513-531 record and has managed one team, the 2003 Cubs, to a postseason berth, and he burned out two pitchers in the process. In his last seven seasons as a manager, Baker's questionable personnel choices, including an abiding love for veterans, and his refusal to prioritize on-base percentage over other traits, have chipped away at his team's performances. Whether it was burying Matt Murton and Hee Seop Choi on the bench in Chicago, or giving away runs by leading off such OBP nightmares as Corey Patterson and Orlando Cabrera, or famously overworking Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Baker has repeatedly made poor choices since leaving San Francisco, where he at least had Bonds' greatness to paper over his mistakes.
Baker's fingerprints are all over this Reds team. He has penciled Cabrera into the leadoff spot in 39 games, a bit more than half the time, despite the shortstop's execrable .281 OBP. He limited the playing time of good defender and on-base guy Chris Dickerson to open the season, instead playing OBP sinks Jonny Gomes and Laynce Nix. (Dickerson subsequently broke a bone in his right wrist and is out until at least July.) Gomes is having one of the best seasons of his career, but as a poor defensive left fielder his .285/.342/.491 line is less valuable than it appears. Baker does seem to have changed in one regard: His best starter, rookie Mike Leake, has yet to reach 110 pitches in a start. So Mark Prior's career didn't die in vain.
Now the Reds are apparently on the verge of signing 35-year-old Gary Matthews Jr., giving Baker another veteran that he can use to interfere with the progress of Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce. Matthews is done, not even the good fourth outfielder that he was at his peak, unable to hit from the right side (.227 with a .359 SLG since 2007) or play a good center field. Any at-bats that Matthews takes from Stubbs, Bruce or Chris Heisey are wasted, and make no mistake -- if the Reds sign Matthews, he will play, because Baker likes experience.
Baker's inadequacies are a problem for the Reds, who find themselves as serious contenders for the first time in a decade. They cannot afford to throw away value on their manager's whims, not when their primary competition, the Cardinals, is being helmed by a man who squeezes value from his entire roster. Tony La Russa's approaches may not always produce the most entertaining baseball -- as much as any individual, he's responsible for 12-man pitching staffs and late-inning matchup baseball that drags games past everyone's bedtimes -- but the man is constantly looking for an edge. La Russa's cerebral, academic approach to the game doesn't always yield the right answers, but you're always left with the idea that he's asking the right questions.
Take La Russa's most famous decision, to bat the pitcher eighth at times. This is a nonstandard practice in modern baseball, but the rationale is impeccable: to put more runners on base for the fulcrum of his lineup, Albert Pujols, without moving Pujols down in the order and costing him plate appearances. La Russa's decision was subsequently affirmed by sabermetricians, who used simulations to point out that batting the pitcher eighth could yield an extra five to 10 runs per season. It's a small thing, but your manager should be finding the small things. Do that four times a year and you've added two to four wins, enough to swing a division title in most seasons.
Quantifying the impact of a manager is a delicate thing, because a significant part of the job is invisible, and to some extent, not quantifiable. Baker has, throughout his career, been given credit for having interpersonal skills that outweighed his tactical and strategic shortcomings. Perhaps he has those skills, but if he does, those skills seem to have been connected in a large way to writing Barry Bonds' name into the lineup. They haven't translated to his subsequent jobs. La Russa, on the other hand, won with the White Sox, won with the A's and keeps winning with the Cardinals and now has one wild card, 12 division titles, five pennants and two World Series championships on his resume . Perhaps he doesn't get the "leader of men" tag, but the one he has -- "winner of division titles" -- is a lot more important. The Cardinals' edge in the dugout could well make the difference in this year's NL Central race.