Reds manager Dusty Baker has long been a punching bag to of his many critics. The offenses that are most often cited: Dusty's supposed skill at ruining arms, his preference for veterans and his tendency to give far too many at-bats to the likes of Neifi Perez and Corey Patterson. Even his repeated references to the fact that he played with Hank Aaron have become a running joke.
That's all in good fun, and there's some justification for that criticism. But perhaps we should take a closer look at Baker's performance this year. With the Reds six games ahead of second-place Pittsburgh, I think the case can be made that Dusty is -- wait for it -- somewhat underrated as a manager.
Yes, that suggestion is going to be met with laughter in some quarters. After all: Kerry Wood! Mark Prior! Hank Aaron! I've been guilty of repeating those punch lines and, let's be honest, Dusty remains pretty deficient in many of the areas that are obvious to people who actually, you know, watch the games.
Baker's in-game management has not improved one iota over the years. He insists on using leadoff hitters with sub-.300 OBPs. His catcher must always bat eighth and his shortstop must always hit first or second. Those are his rules, and Baker rarely wavers, no matter the personnel at his disposal.
Further, his bullpen usage has been curious, to put it lightly. He uses Sean Marshall -- one of the best relievers in either league over the past three years -- as a situational lefty, and Baker has a bizarre predilection for using guys like Logan Ondrusek in the eighth inning. Plus …
Wait. Wasn't I supposed to be defending Dusty?
The point, of course, is that Baker's weaknesses as a manager are on full display each and every day while his strengths may not be as visible to the naked eye. Baker is reputed to have a talent at managing the individual players and the atmosphere in the clubhouse.
All available evidence suggests that the reputation is well-deserved.
Players clearly love playing for him, and he's very vocal about standing up for his guys. No, we can't quantify it, but it's a real skill, in my opinion.
What can be quantified is the fact that this year's Reds have overachieved, and Baker has to be given some credit for getting the most out of this club. Since Joey Votto's surgery, Baker has mixed and matched, plugged holes and led the Reds to 20 wins in 28 games. I dare say no one on earth could have predicted, with an offense that had been struggling all season even with Votto, that Cincinnati could have extended its lead in the NL Central by five games without their MVP.
Baker also takes heat because, purportedly, he doesn't play some players enough (Devin Mesoraco, specifically), or he sits some players too often, or rests them at odd times (during important games, for example). Much of that criticism is overblown. Mesoraco is a talented rookie, but it's reasonable to ease him into more playing time when you have another catcher (Ryan Hanigan) who plays great defense and gets on base at a good clip.
As noted by one of the Reds' beat reporters, there's a rhyme for Baker’s reason.
He keeps guys rested (Scott Rolen is the best example of recent years), and he gets everyone enough playing time to keep them sharp. (Importantly, he hasn't given anyone more playing time than they deserve; there are no Corey Patterson/Willy Taveras disasters on this year's club.)
Even more interesting, one data point in favor of Baker’s ability to keep players fresh is that his teams have traditionally finished strong. The overall winning percentage of Baker's teams is .524. The winning percentage of those same teams during September is .558. The September winning percentage of Baker's five previous playoff teams: .621.
Finally, even his critics will be forced to admit that most of the well-worn accusations leveled at Baker largely don't apply to this year's Reds team.
He abuses pitchers? Well, Baker has used the same five starters all season long, without injuries or overuse. Four of those starters are age 26 or younger. This is the single biggest clichéd criticism of Baker over the years, but evidence of pitcher abuse during his Cincinnati years has been almost nonexistent.
He prefers veterans? Well, at times this season, Baker has had three rookies -- Mesoraco, Zack Cozart, and Todd Frazier -- in the starting lineup together. Cozart has more at-bats than anyone on the team and Frazier has emerged as, perhaps, the most important player on the club (Non-Votto/Cueto Division). Okay, Frazier is at least the most important former Little League World Series star on the current roster.
Dusty Baker isn't perfect, by any means, but if you can see past the goofy stuff he does every night, you might find that, overall, he's done a pretty good job with this year's Reds, under some difficult circumstances.
Besides, did you know that Dusty played with Hank Aaron?