Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dusty Baker: The Natural Man

The Wolfman; Universal Studios

Lawrence Talbot: "Villagers still have the same wild ideas."

Sir John Talbot: "Yes, well, very provincial lot, I must say. Ignorant, superstitious. to a worldly man such as yourself we are savages at the end of the Earth. All I'm saying is that you dismiss the natural man at your peril."  
---The Wolfman

Sabermetricians are a worldly lot. Dusty Baker is a natural man. The former dismiss the latter at their peril.

At the end of another disappointing season, the Reds handed Dusty Baker his walking papers. His dismissal has me reflecting on Dusty and the long, strange path I've traveled in my views of him over the course of his managerial career. Quite the reverse, I suspect, of most Reds fans, I traveled the road from disdain to grudging respect for Dusty. In some respects, he won me over.

Sabermetricians are a worldly lot with a world view formed by education, rational thought, and science. Dusty Baker is a natural man with a world view formed by personal experience, intuition, and tradition. Given these wildly differing perspectives, it's hardly surprising that these two groups are constantly at odds.

I've been dismissing Baker for years. In fact, prior to his hire, if you had asked me for a list of those candidates that I wouldn't want to manage the Reds, then Dusty quite literally would have been at the top of the list. My issues with Baker weren't new or novel. In fact, they were those cited most by his critics. First, he overworks his starting pitchers. Second, he favors underwhelming veterans to young talent. And, third, he doesn't value on-base percentage.

Dusty's first problem was largely eliminated by an industry-wide shift in what constitutes reasonable pitching workloads. He still skews towards the upper end of the reasonableness range, but his natural tendencies are now confined in ways that they previously were not. The industry has eliminated one of his biggest issues. So, now we're down to two problems.

As for the second problem, aside from the decision to give Ryan Hanigan the majority of the playing time over Devin Mesoraco (more on that later), Dusty has done a better job embracing youth. Maybe this was an issue made irrelevant by the Reds renewed emphasis on player development and the ways in which the roster was constructed, leaving Dusty little choice but to embrace youth. Or, maybe it was always an overstated issue, the result of his teams' rosters being littered with aging players. Whatever the reason, this issue never seemed to emerge in Cincinnati. Down to one problem.

The third problem, well, let's be honest, continues to be a problem. Dusty will never live down his "base clogging" comment. He values speed over on-base ability. His flirtations with Corey Patterson and Wily Taveras were difficult to stomach and even more difficult to justify. Dusty will never value on-base percentage the way he should.
Courtesy: AP

Whether it was of his own doing or a shifting workplace environment, Dusty evolved to the point that he eliminated two of my biggest problems with him. The on-base percentage issue will always be a large one, no denying it, but most of the criticism of Dusty these days is directed to his tactical decisions.

In many ways, that's fair criticism, as roster construction and in-game strategy are not one of Dusty's strengths. Not coincidentally, the tactical is the easiest aspect of the job for sabermetricians to evaluate. It's much more difficult to quantify the other areas of the manager job. And, there ARE other areas of the job.

For example, Theo Epstein recently stated that he was evaluating the Cubs' manager by "looking at the development of young players; in-game decision making; the way (the manager) used the roster; the manager's ability to create a culture of accountability; hard work and preparation; and the ability to develop solid, trusting relationship with the players."

Not surprisingly, it's far more difficult to quantify the impact of a manager in some of those areas. And yet, those areas still matter. Those areas still impact on-field performance. Those areas still drive team success. Unfortunately for Dusty, he excels in those areas that are difficult to evaluate/quantify and struggles in those areas that are more easily evaluated/quantified. His managerial mix is easy to criticize and difficult to defend.  

Or, put more succinctly by Theo Epstein: "In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact."

Over his 20 year managerial career, Dusty Baker has a 1671-1504 win/loss record, good for a .526 winning percentage, spread over three different organizations. His career includes eight seasons of 90 or more wins. That's an impressive career and with each successful stop it becomes more difficult to discount Dusty's positive impact. Only the most strident Dusty-haters chalk that success up to luck and player personnel. Dusty deserves some real credit. At the same time, his postseason career has been far less successful.

The disparity between his regular season success and postseason struggles is not that surprising. Dusty is weak in tactical decision-making, which is far more likely to rear its head in a short postseason series where the impact of a single play can make all the difference. Dusty is strong in managing egos, developing solid, trusting relationships, and getting the most out of his players, which is far more likely to make an impact over the course of a 162-game season.

Dusty's strengths have brought him substantial regular season success. Dusty's weaknesses have resulted in underwhelming postseason results. The reasons for Dusty's postseason failures are easier to identify than the reasons for Dusty's regular season successes.

I'm a proponent of statistical analysis. I love the way it has illuminated the game, a shining light revealing new truths. However, as Theo mentioned above, statistical analysis has an inherent bias towards those areas that can be quantified. However, just because something can't be quantified, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It MAY mean that something doesn't exist or it MAY mean that we just haven't figured out how to quantify it yet. The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

What sabermetricians are able to study, they typically study very well. It's difficult to argue with math, after all. However, the things that are not (or maybe are not yet) quantifiable occasionally prove to be blind spots for sabermetricians. After all, the value of a commodity is necessarily determined in relation to the value of everything else. If sabermetricians cannot effectively study a specific area, then they inevitably de-emphasize its importance merely by focusing on those areas that CAN be effectively studied.

If the worldly man cannot recognize what he does not know, then his opinions may be less valid than those of the natural man. In this context, statistical analysis may not be more accurate than simple intuition and personal experience. Dusty may have illustrated precisely this in his handling of the Hanigan/Mesoraco situation (I told you we'd circle back around to these guys).

Dusty took a fair amount of heat for continuing to give Hanigan the majority of the playing time in 2012 and 2013. People were in love with Mesoraco's upside, offensive potential, and prospect ranking, but Dusty seemed to place a greater emphasis on Ryan Hanigan's game calling and handling of the pitching staff.

This is arguably an instance where Dusty's personal experience, intuition, and adherence to tradition were more insightful than the education, rational thought, and science of sabermetricians. Dusty's intuition about the catcher situation, which may have more accurately valued the impact of catcher defense, was arguably more valid than the statistical analysis perspective, which has only recently begun to study pitch framing.

In other words, Dusty was probably right in his decision to start Hanigan over Mesoraco.

There's an ESPN Insider article about the value of pitch framing that's worth a read, but since it's Insider content I'll just post a snippet that's instructive regarding a weakness of sabermetrics:

"There's an old joke about economists that I'll reframe here to make a point: A sabermetician loses his keys while leaving a bar late at night. He crosses the street and starts looking for his keys under the streetlight. His friend asks him, "Why aren't you looking in front of the bar where you dropped them?" The sabermetician replies, "Because I can't see over there!"
Before Turkenkopf used pitch data to investigate catcher framing in 2008, sabermeticians generally valued catcher defense less than, for lack of a better term, baseball people did. The lesson for sabermetrics is that pitch framing existed and was important well before the pitch data that gave light to it became available. Value exists even in the areas we can't yet see."

The take-away from all of this? Statistical analysis is tremendously valuable, but it does have inherent weaknesses and limitations. As with most things, the most important thing to know is what you don't know. And, it's important not to discount those people with views based on personal experience, intuition, and tradition solely because their views are based on personal experience, intuition, and tradition. Sometimes those views turn out to be the most valid.

Dismiss the natural man at your own peril, especially one with 1671 career wins under his belt.

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