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Looking at Dusty Baker’s Analytics Approach

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Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

On January 29th, 2020, the Astros amidst a scandal that took over every outlet in the baseball world, had to hire a new manager to replace beloved but recently terminated AJ Hinch. The response from Astros fans, was mixed. With Dusty epitomizing a different age of hard nosed baseball. To some, he was a living legend, who has earned respect and a belief he’d be able to shoulder and face against the media backlash of the scandal and hold together the most talented group of Astros that the team had ever assembled. Although the foundation now showed some cracks.

To others, he also was lagging far behind the analytic spectrum, an area where the Astros have notoriously been on the bleeding edge. Many fans were concerned he would abandon one that advantage with a more traditional approach to management than fans had grown accustomed to.

Fangraphs wrote an article when Dusty was hired that is well worth it’s own read, but gives some highlights on why Dusty was hired, as well as quite a few details on his reputation as not an analytics guy:

“Baker was the most experienced of those nine candidates, and the owner of the longest track record of success from among that group. In 22 years of managing, he’s compiled a career record of 1863-1636 (.532); he’s 15th all-time in wins, losses, and games managed, and 23rd in games above .500. With seven division titles and two Wild Card appearances, he’s tied for fifth all-time in postseason appearances, with Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa the only skippers ahead of him from the Divisional era (1969 onward). Along with Billy Martin and Davey Johnson, he’s one of three managers to pilot four separate franchises to the postseason, having done so with the Giants (1997, 2000, ’02), Cubs (’03), Reds (’10, ’12, ’13), and Nationals (’16 and ’17).”

“What we do know is that Baker is well-equipped to provide the calm at the center of the storm. He’s earned a reputation as a players’ manager, one who can shore up the clubhouse chemistry. He managed Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa at the height of the PED allegations surrounding them, and has shown time after time that he has his players’ backs. He got along well with Bryce Harper. He’s a fascinating personality with a wide range of interests and a depth of experience unlike any other manager. There’s nobody else in the game who can claim to be a former Marine who smoked pot with Jimi Hendrix, was mentored by Hank Aaron as he was breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, inadvertently invented the high five, started a winery, and managed a World Series. The way that he’s been welcomed back to the game by veteran scribes in the two days since the first report of his hiring surfaced already illustrates the manner in which he and his back story can deflect attention away from a team’s ailments and misconduct. The Astros need to atone for their sins, but at a time when the game seems to be growing more impersonal, coldly calculating, and less colorful — in both senses of the word — who among us is so hard-hearted that they don’t want to see ol’ Dusty, as human-element as they come, write a better ending to his storied career?”

It’s tough to quantify how analytically minded a manager is, but there are some key indicators, although 2020 is anything but a fair year to judge someone on. But I figured we’d take a look at some of the analytics, and primary areas of concern.

The Shift

One of the areas that I was concerned about was the usage of the shift. In 2020, the Astros rank 7th this year, shifting 42.8% overall and 64.2% vs Lefties. While still ranking in the upper echelon, it pales in comparison compared to prior to Dusty’s tenure when the Astros ranked 2nd at 49.5% (and 77.3% against Lefties).

Of course, strategy is not solely dictated by Dusty, and we don’t know Click’s stance and beliefs although he is generally seen as a strong analytics guy and although he wasn’t leading the Rays, they had generally been very progressive with shifting as well.

Initially, I was going to take a look at year over year results, from both lefties and righties, but with the craziness of COVID baseball and injuries, that’s not really a fair comparison, so I’ll leave it based on shift percentage analytics instead of results based ones.

Speedy Lead-Off:

Dusty has been criticized in the past for utilizing the old methodology of putting your fastest runners in lead-off/early in the line up. The concept, while not incorrect, is flawed as it ignored OBP, which has been found to be a much larger contributing factor than pure speed on creation of runs.

There has been some ... odd choices, such as Reddick hitting in the 2 hole. This was what people had concerns about. With that said, George Springer has continued to maintain his lead-off spot, so there’s that.

Over-using Pitchers:

To this day, Dusty is known as a pitcher killer due to the management of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back in his Chicago days. Since those days, Dusty has evolved with the times, and has been more middle of the pack on pitcher usage, ranking 10th/30 back in 2016.

This year, well, it’s again somewhat unfair to try to rack and stack given the craziness of the roster and challenges we’ve faced.

No matter what manager was in charge of the ship this year, they would have had a tall task ahead of them, and let’s face it, managers can only really get it “wrong” in fans eyes. There has been some questionable calls, and decisions I haven’t personally liked - but I have to take a step back in the analysis and remember we’ve been calling players from the Sugarland Skeeters to fill holes in our roster.

I’d give him a pass overall on this area of evaluation.

Over-reliance on Veterans:

Admittedly, this was the area I was most concerned about to start the season. Kyle Tucker was overdue for a legitimate shot at every day play, particularly with the threat of Springer, Reddick, and Brantley leaving as Free Agents at the end of the season.

To start the season, Dusty said that while Tucker was the future, Reddick was the present and seemingly awarded him the starting role without due diligence.

2020 had different intentions, and Tucker has played his way into a prominent role on the team. While his .259/.314/.544 line is solid in it’s own right it actually masks how well he has been playing after a slow start. Since August 19th (22 games) - Tucker has been hitting a torrid .333/.405/.760 (yes that’s his SLUG not his OPS).

On a 650 AB pace - he’d be on pace for a season with nearly 20 steals, 140 RBI, and 30 home runs.

Overall for the season, there has been a ton of rookies getting their first cup of coffee in the majors, largely due to unforeseen challenges.

Additionally, Jose Altuve went in and requested to be moved down in the line-up as he believed his current production was hurting the Astros saying “ ”I appreciate the respect you’re giving me (but) the guys ahead of me are swinging the bat better, playing better.””

Other Analytical looks:

Stealing 2B (5.1% -> 6.2%)

Sac Bunts (0.6% -> 1.2%)

IBB (0.0% -> 0.4%)

PH (0.51 -> 0.49)

PR (0.25 -> 0.24)

Pitchers/Game (4.0 -> 4.3)

Framing: Maldonado’s framing ability has dropped 3 consecutive years.

Conclusion

It’s tough with both a shortened and injury riddled season, and new leadership throughout the organization to have a full grasp on which of the impacts were directly caused by Dusty. We don’t have a full knowledge of Click’s involvement or beliefs, so some changes were likely and that’s before even getting into any new developments from the “nerd cave”.

With that said, I don’t place any blame on Dusty for the team’s overall record, but I do have some concerns that the “fears” in regards to Dusty’s management style may be a bit justified. We all knew he had an old school feel and different approach than Hinch’s, but the areas that were highlighted of concern - seemed to play out to be true.

Personally, I don’t think you can hold Dusty accountable for pitching usage and changes, and the different stats I found that “rate” managers on it are seemingly very new and need a lot more research before there’s definitive answers to rating a manager on bullpen management. With the loss of Cole, and the rampant injuries and challenges on rotations throughout the league due to an expedited Spring Training / Summer Camp - it’s tough to really put any accountability into Dusty’s hands in regards to the pitchers. I do have some concerns in regards to the change in pitching approaches as we don’t know if Dusty / Click have bought in to the same approach that made Strom one of the untouchable geniuses in the minds of Astros fans. The re-introduction of the Sinker could be just due to timing/injury factors, a difference in development through the nerd cave, or a change in philosophy from leadership - we will only have to wait to see.

The remainder of the stats, show indications of a trend towards a more balanced approach than a pure analytic one.

With that said, it’s seemingly impossible to measure the “intangibles”, which is the qualities that Baker was brought in for. He has seemed to do a good job with the players, fending off the media, and pushing back on the media’s onslaught of our team.

I believed that Dusty was going to be done after 1-year, but the Astros renewed his contract, so obviously have found value in his approach.

What are your thoughts? Have you liked Dusty at the helm? Has he been more or less analytically inclined than you previously believed?