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Dusty Baker’s return to baseball is great for the Astros, and for MLB

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Dusty Baker could become the first manager to take five different teams to the playoffs after getting hired by the Houston Astros in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal.

Dusty Baker in profile wearing sunglasses while he was managing the Nationals.

The Houston Astros’ turbulent offseason calmed down a little Wednesday with the hiring of Dusty Baker to be their new manager, a move that is exciting but maybe not for the reasons you think.

The Astros have been rudderless for nearly three weeks after firing both manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Both were suspended for the 2020 season by MLB for an elaborate electronic sign-stealing scheme that happened under their watch.

Since the punishment was handed down, none of it levied on the offending players themselves, the fallout across baseball has been immense. Players on opposing teams are angry, and the Astros have shown little remorse, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed around the game.

The Astros needed reestablish credibility or integrity, or whatever you want to call it, and in Baker they have both. Baker has managed 22 seasons, and won at least 86 games in 14 of them. He’s 15th all time in managerial wins. His reputation within the game is impeccable.

“He’s a winner, and more importantly, a strong leader who has earned the respect of not only his players, but of virtually everyone that he has touched in baseball,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a statement.

A common, though maybe dated, concern levied at Baker is that he overworks his pitchers. The most notable examples are Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who helped take the Cubs to within one game of reaching the 2003 World Series, but both later suffered injuries that limited their effectiveness.

Baker addressed their use in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in June 2016:

“Prior and Wood, that’s all I hear about. Where was my pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, in this whole equation? People think I was the pitching coach, the everything coach. That was one of the saddest days in my life when they told me about Mark Prior’s (shoulder injury) when I got to spring training (in ‘04). I was like why did we just find out when we got there in springtime? Then I had to go along with the lie about his Achilles hurt and all that. They were like, ‘We’re trying to protect you.’ I said, ‘Don’t protect me, I’m grown.’”

Prior, now the pitching coach for the Dodgers, never pitched in the majors after age 25. But he absolved Baker of fault in an August 2016 editorial for Sports Illustrated:

Others — mostly Cubs fans — still blame my manager, Dusty Baker, for the series of injuries that derailed my career. They believe he overused me in 2003 and blah, blah, blah. Only, here’s the thing: I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me. I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened during that season — beyond us failing to bring a World Series Championship to Chicago, of course. No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.

Baker is 70 years old, which makes him the oldest manager in the majors by 10 years over Terry Francona. There’s tremendous value in having someone with five decades in a baseball uniform inside the clubhouse. With participation in more than 4,000 major league games presumably comes great wisdom.

The Astros are the most analytically-driven organization in baseball, but it’s not like Baker is immune to new ideas. Baseball has changed a lot since 1993, but so has he. Baker even spoke as part of a panel on baseball analytics at the Sloan Sports Conference in 2018.

“A lot of people said, ‘Dusty’s not into analytics,’” Baker said at the conference. “I was into analytics years ago, we just didn’t have a name for it.”

Also on that Sloan panel was Brandon Taubman, who was the Astros assistant general manager at the time, but has since been fired by Houston and placed on the ineligible list by MLB. Imagine listening to that panel two years ago; the knowledge that Baker would be the one employed by the Astros in 2020 would have been shocking, if not unfathomable.

While Baker has won 1,636 major league games as manager, he has also never won a World Series, coming just a few innings short with the Giants in 2002. But even without a championship ring, Baker’s success is evident.

At all four of his MLB managerial stops thus far, he won more games in his first season than the team had the year before. His last two teams, the Reds and Nationals, won fewer games and missed the playoffs in the first season after he left.

First-year improvement under Dusty Baker

Team Year before Dusty (record) Dusty's first year (record) Improvement Playoff apps. with Baker
Team Year before Dusty (record) Dusty's first year (record) Improvement Playoff apps. with Baker
Giants 72-90 (1992) 103-59 (1993) +31 3
Cubs 67-95 (2002) 88-74 (2003) +21 1
Reds 72-90 (2006) 74-88 (2007) +2 3
Nationals 83-79 (2015) 95-67 (2016) +12 2

With the 1993 Giants, Baker benefitted greatly from the addition of Barry Bonds, who signed as a free agent and won MVP in his first season. But any manager needs good players to win, and Baker inherits a cupboard full of talent in Houston.

The Astros team have won more than 100 games three years in a row, and are the prohibitive favorites in the American League West again in 2020. Baker’s streak of improving teams in his first year as manager seems likely to end, but that’s only because Houston is coming off 107 wins last season.

Baker is one of only three managers to reach the postseason with four different teams, along with Billy Martin and Davey Johnson. Barring catastrophe, Baker should become the first ever to do it with five teams this season.

The biggest question right now is whether Baker will manage the American League team at the MLB All-Star Game in July. Following precedent, MLB could choose Baker to fill Hinch’s shoes, or it could select a different active AL manager for the midsummer classic. Selecting Baker would be fun for a two reasons.

The first, Baker played eight of his 19 major league seasons with the Dodgers, and the 2020 All-Star Game will be played at Dodger Stadium. The second, the National League team will be managed by Dave Martinez, who took over the Nationals after Baker was let go following the 2018 season.

After two seasons off from baseball, it will be nice to see Baker’s familiar face back in major league dugouts.