On Friday, the Washington Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not be returning to the club after another National League Division Series loss, this time at the hands of the Chicago Cubs. Baker spent two seasons at the helm in the nation’s capital, winning back-to-back NL East crowns.
Baker, formerly a Major League Baseball All-Star, went 192-132 with Washington, including a 97-win campaign just this season that was preceded by a 95-win season. Baker’s replacement, yet to be announced but surely coming soon, will be the franchise’s fourth manager since 2013 and sixth in ten years.
It’s clear that the Nationals needed change in their “win now” demeanor. Team ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo are not afraid to pull the trigger on something that can immediately assist the Nationals, and perhaps Baker’s departure will light a fire under the seats of the Washington dugout.
But maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the right move.
Baker is a player’s manager in a game where building roster chemistry is as hard as ever. Similar to John Farrell in Boston, Baker was the recipient of steady criticism for his lack of intelligent in-game moves, but he was perhaps the best player’s manager in his league.
It’s no coincidence that the Nationals were able to run away with the NL East despite losing a heap of talent in the mid-to-late season stretch. At points in the season, the Nationals were sans Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and for nearly the entire season, Adam Eaton.
The Nationals were still winning. Baker was able to conjure up victory after victory with a glorified Triple-A roster because his players genuinely and wholeheartedly believed in him and his system. You won’t find a better human as your manager than Baker, even if there exist more tactical baseball minds.
To blame the Nationals’ annual postseason demise on Baker alone is preposterous. In the five-game NLDS against Chicago, Washington combined for a .186 batting average with a mere 30 hits in the series. The pitching showed up and kept things close, cumulatively posting a 2.66 earned runs average, but the club’s hitting was nearly invisible.
When Michael A. Taylor is your best player in a five-game series against the defending World Series champions, you’ve got a problem with your athletes, not with your manager — especially a known player-centric man like Baker. That’s no discredit to Taylor, but position players like Harper and Rendon need to lead the charge.
If the Nationals had come back to win Game 5’s 9-8 thriller against the Cubs — regardless of the result against Los Angeles, who will represent the NL in the Fall Classic — would they have kept Baker around? To make major business decisions based on a single baseball game is absurd.
Dusty Baker is a fine manager who has been caught in some of the worst managerial circumstances possible. However, between Washington and the Cincinnati Reds, Baker has won 90 or more games in five out of the past six seasons; only one other active manager — Joe Maddon — can say the same, and I’m pretty sure Cubs fans want to erect a statue of that guy.
To toss aside a staple of consistency and player confidence to “win now” will come back to haunt Rizzo and team ownership. Dusty Baker is the right guy for the Washington Nationals job and got fleeced on Friday. There is no other way to sugarcoat it.