Dusty Baker will manage the Houston Astros in 2020. This is bad news. Let’s explain why by using a question and answer formula:
- Does a manager even matter in wins and losses? This is a tricky question. The manager does a few important things: he sets a tone in the clubhouse, he decides which players play, and in which spots. Most of this decision-making comes in in the pitching decisions, but it also appears in lineup selection and batting order.
- What’s wrong with a little old school? Dusty is notoriously old-school. He complained about walks, infamously, during his time in Chicago, not wanting players clogging up the base paths. This is the comment that we would have made fun of endlessly, back when we were proud of being the smartest fans of the smartest teams.
Analytics aren’t just a bunch of dorks doing dork things. It’s doing what baseball has always done: using statistics and measurements to strategize. Analytics just uses the data more intelligently: ERA and wins tells you less about pitcher performance than FIP and xFIP. Batting average tells you less OBP about a player’s offensive value. Every manager, now matter how jurassic, uses data (even if it’s the eyeball test, which is still a form of data) to make decisions. He’s fast, let’s pinch-run him. His spring speed is 29.0, let’s pinch run him.
3. Why do analytics matter so much in baseball? Let’s recall the Sig Megdal myth of origin story. He goes from his graduate program in UC Davis to watch people gamble in Reno. The odds are the odds at the blackjack table. Yet he watched people make decisions, over and over again, based on hunch and feeling, and not on the numbers. Don’t hit on 14 when the dealer is showing a face card. You may win that hand, because you’re hot, and congratulations if you leave that day with $200 in your pocket. But if you use that strategy over and over again, hundreds of times, you’ll lose in the long run. People know this, but believe in things like streaks.
4. What does this have to do with baseball? Teams play 162 games. Small-sample sizes even out. You have to play the smart odds, and even if it loses you a game, it will in the end give you the best possible chance to win. A shift against a pull player may result in a hit the other way that results in the other team winning. But over the course of a season, shifting selectively is the smart play. It saves runs. Having players with a higher OBP bat higher in the lineup will result in more runs. Having players swing instead of bunt increases run-scoring odds, and you should avoid bunting unless it’s a late-game situation when a single run is more valuable than it would be otherwise. Here’s the thing: everybody knows this. Or at least every regular reader of this blog. Does Dusty really believe in it? Are we really hoping that we have a guy on the bench who can explain this to him? I’ve listed to sports radio jocks, color commentators, and casual fans mock advanced statistics. We cannot have a manager who begrudgingly employs analytics.
5. So what about Dusty? I don’t know what he’s learned. All I know is that 70 year-old men aren’t the most receptive to new ideas. Dusty was let go two seasons ago. Of the many teams with managerial openings, none opted for Dusty. We did. I can’t see that decision as wanting to be on what Luhnow called the bleeding edge. We’re now on the dulled edge of baseball innovation with this hire.
6. What’s the future like? I suspect, a rather bleak one for players like Kyle Tucker. What Steamer projection could you show Dusty to convince him that Tucker should play over Reddick? What information would dissuade him from going for the L on L match-up in a tight game, even though a player had reverse splits? We don’t need a manager who just goes along with these decisions, we need one who will be able to communicate them to players so that they’ll believe in them. Instead we’re now the breeding ground, with this hire, for the next Lucas Harrell/Bud Norris complaints about shifting and “treating players like robots.”
One thing is for sure: if you believed in what Luhnow did as a GM, you cannot in your heart like this decision. It’s the most un-Luhnow hire of all time. It’s safe, it’s dull, and it’s most likely damaging.