Will Dusty Baker matter?
There’s no easy way to quantify what kind of effect a manager can have on a club, but there’s no question that the Nationals had to make a change. The wildly overblown Bryce Harper–Jonathan Papelbon incident was the unfortunately public icing on the cake, but we now know that the clubhouse atmosphere had indeed gotten quite toxic long before that point, and that the players had simply given up on Matt Williams, whose tactical shortcomings were exposed and whose inability to get through to the team made retaining him simply untenable.
What does Baker bring as a manager? He’s certainly entertaining and candid, for better and worse. He’s not going to offer platitudes about “gettin’ em’ tomorrow,” especially when tomorrows are running short. He’ll defend his players, also for better and for worse.
Putting aside dubious, ancient tropes about his “inability” to handle pitchers (of which there is little evidence, only simple-minded memes), Baker brings thousands of games of experience. He nearly won a World Series with the Giants in 2002; he came up short in the playoffs with both the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, but that can hardly be blamed on the manager alone.
Maybe the biggest thing the Nationals needed from a manager, more than some kind of brilliant in-game meta-stragetist, more than a guru lineup-maker or a semi-mystical bullpen-manager, was a communicator — someone who could make the diverse, extreme, ultra-competitive personalities merge. In San Francisco, Baker got two constantly feuding teammates to coexist well enough to become one of the best offensive duos in the history of the game: that would be Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.
Even if the process getting to Baker was chaotic and weird, he seems like just the right guy to get everyone – everyone – from Bryce Harper to Blake Treinen – on the same page. The roster has seen significant turnover, so he’ll have a chance to put his distinct imprint on the club.
It’s worth expanding this question to the entire coaching staff, too. General manager Mike Rizzo replaced almost the entire staff (minus third base coach Bob Henley). Davey Lopes, the new first base coach, is highly regarded and is also known as a base-running guru. New pitching coach Mike Maddux worked wonders in Texas with both starters and relievers. These more behind-the-scenes moves are not to be overlooked in terms of getting the most of the talent on-hand.