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Guest Column: RJ Johnson
by alex ciepley
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. Today a column on the big guy in the dugout from RJ Johnson.
Dusty Baker: Manager of the Year
Dusty Baker hates on-base percentage, ignores pitch counts, and cannot figure out how to bring young talent along. Did I leave anything out?
Oh, right: he has an ungodly penchant for preferring Proven Veteran Leaders. Can't leave that one out of the mix.
Baker-bashing seems to have become the favorite hobby of many sabermetrically minded baseball fans. Giants can't win the World Series? Dusty went to his bullpen too soon. Cubs can't clinch the National League pennant? Dusty didn't go to his bullpen soon enough. Given enough time, I'm positive that these same folks will be able to blame Dusty for the Kennedy assassination, global warming, and New Coke.
The Assault on Mount Baker generally follows this progression:
* Dusty doesn't do things according to sabermetric Hoyle.
* Dusty doesn't feel like explaining why he does what he does.
Therefore, concludes Stathead Nation,
* Dusty must be some sort of antediluvian throwback doomed to failure.
The only problem with all of it is that Dusty's teams keep on winning.
As much as anyone, I want to grasp the Cubs success in words and theories before the fact. Reading Bill James and "Moneyball" makes me think I can understand successful baseball strategy from a statistical perspective. But our man Dusty seems to happily thumb his nose at folks who swear by sabermetric wisdom.
All while he and his teams keep... on... winning.
Looking at 2003 in hindsight, Dusty must have had some clue what he was doing. For instance, he kept putting the ball in the hands of the best starter. The better the starter the more innings he pitched:
Starter ERA IP ===================== Prior 2.43 211.1 Zambrano 3.11 214.0 Wood 3.14 211.0 Clement 4.11 201.2 Estes 5.73 152.1 Cruz 6.05 61.0 (starting and relief)
Prior stays at the top because without the DL time, he would've been at around 230 IP.
Same thing with the bullpen. The better your ERA, the more appearances you got (although not quite so linear a progression as the starters):
Not quite as clean as '03, but chalk that up to the injuries to Wood and Prior.
The bullpen has been more musical chairs this year than last, with injuries to Borowski, Remlinger, and Mercker. This has left Hawkins and Farnsworth as the only two relievers who have been healthy full-time. And even Dusty's patience has worn thin with Farnsie, but only because his August has been execrable with a 16.20 ERA for the month. From May through July Farnsworth had a 2.63 ERA over 42 appearances, reason enough to use him. [NOTE: the preceding paragraph was written before Kyle blew up for 6 ER in the 7-15 loss to the Astros.]
So, Dusty apparently has the ability to know which pitchers to use even if he doesn't have a nifty theory to explain it all. What about his hitters?
Well, again Dusty seems to be going by the notion of the best guys get the most time, even down to bench deployment. Here are the top guys in plate appearances and their OPS, again note the nearly linear progression.
Player PA OPS ===================== Lee 525 910 Patterson 524 827 Alou 518 887 Ramirez 466 931 Sosa 410 879 Barrett 404 839 Walker 350 847
The two biggest anomalies here are Aramis Ramirez, who lost time due to his groin injury, and Corey Patterson, who was looking rather pedestrian for the first half of the season, bouncing around the lineup:
April 820 OPS May 691 June 932 ! July 562 ???
Let's face it we all scratched our heads when Dusty named Patterson the Cubs' leadoff hitter in the wake of the Nomar acquisition. Yet here's his August to-date:
Aug 1140 OPS !!!!!
This includes 12 multi-hit games, five of which took place in Chavez Ravine and Petco Park, neither of which is hitter friendly.
What did Dusty see in Patterson that made him think he might thrive in the leadoff spot? Damned if I know, but apparently Dusty had some inkling and was willing to back it.
Dusty uses the Lemons in a similar fashion. Last year, Tom Goodwin was a surprisingly good contributor off the pine getting 184 PA to generate a 691 OPS (not great but certainly better than Doug Glanville's utterly anemic 556). This year, Tom has dropped down to Glanville's neighborhood --565 OPS-- and so have his PAs (down to 91) which are fewer than Jose Macias and his *cough* robust 664 OPS (155 PAs). But wouldn't we like to see [fill in the blank] supersub instead? But the Cubs don't have him, and so Dusty has to make the best use of the pieces he has.
Did I hear someone say, "Rey Ordonez and Neifi Perez"? Yeah, they both suck offensively, no doubt about it. But consider the circumstances: Ramon Martinez is playing everyday and wearing out; the Cubs have been winning because of pitching more so than offense at that point, so Hendry gets Dusty the part he wants: a defensive shortstop. To Dusty's credit, Ordonez got all of only 67 PAs. Neifi is in Iowa in case Nomar's Achilles tendon or wrist goes bad and we are looking at more Martinez. Some folks --myself one of them-- often echo Davey Johnson's old quote, "Defense is for when you're ahead." But Dusty wants his pitchers to know the defense behind them can turn a double play at any time and remembering some of the more statue-like Cub infields of years past --think Cey and Bowa in 1985-- I won't fault him for his preference.
Especially as it seems to be working.
As of August 25th's 4-2 victory over the Brewers Dusty Baker now has a career .548 winning percentage; if this year's WP holds he would finish his first two years at 178-146. Dusty would be the first since Charlie Grimm in 1945 and 46 to have winning seasons in his first two years as Cubs manager and the first since Joe McCarthy in 1926 & 27 to have winning records in both years and to increase his win total in the second season.
Dusty's winning and it steams Stathead Nation because he's Not Doing It According To Plan. Dusty seems to be winning because he does have a plan--unknown and unknowable though it may be to outside observers before the fact-- because he has a better grasp of how to motivate and communicate with everyone on his team --contrast Dusty getting Sammy Sosa to drop down in the batting order with Don Baylor's inept declarations when he came to town of how Sammy was going to steal more bases-- and because he has a loyalty to his players that is neither foolish nor reflexive (again, compare Tom Goodwin '03 to '04). Maybe what Baker is doing doesn't show up in an abstract about OPS and Markov Chains, but it keeps showing up in the win column.