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Dissecting Dusty Baker’s bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Dusty Baker “should be a part of the dialog round MLB’s best-ever managers,” concluded Neil Paine from FiveThirtyEight after finding out essentially the most overachieving managers, and “shouldn’t want a hoop to validate his profession.” Agreed. Let’s go additional.

Baker can also be MLB’s best-ever bullpen supervisor — a case this text will make with many years of receipts.

Let’s begin right here: 0.83. That’s the Mariano Riverian ERA of the whole Astros bullpen this postseason.

Final 12 months’s World Sequence bullpen run was, arguably, simply as spectacular given how badly the Astros’ starters fell aside (6.36 ERA; 7.20 ERA within the Fall Basic; solely 3.2 innings per begin). “I really like the place they ended up,” wrote Fangraphs’ Ben Clemons.

Within the common season, the Astros’ bullpen ranked No. 1 in ERA, No. 1 in Area Impartial Pitching (FIP), and thrived in almost each superior metric. Was this predictable? Apparently not. In preseason predictions, they did not crack “The High 10 Finest Bullpens” by MLB or by Fangraphs.

However don’t be stunned. Baker has been right here earlier than.

Not too dangerous. Nevertheless it’s arduous in charge them contemplating the next (see chart):

Image for article titled UNSUNG GENIUS: Dissecting Dusty Baker's bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Final 12 months, Rafael Montero posted a 7.27 ERA with the Seattle Mariners, bought booed off the sector by their followers, and was designated for project. In 2022, Montero’s ERA plummeted to 2.37, and pitched in 10 of 13 Astros postseason video games together with all three vs. the M’s, serving to to remove his former workforce.

Earlier than the Astros, Ryne Stanek was final seen blowing saves whereas posting a 6.03 ERA for the Miami Marlins earlier than they gave up on him. In 2022, Stanek set an Astros all-time membership file with an absurd 1.15 ERA. This isn’t new for Baker.

Again in 1999, Baker helped save Felix Rodriguez’s profession after he posted a 6.14 ERA with the Diamondbacks — the third workforce to surrender him by age 26. In 2001, Felix would publish a 1.68 ERA.

From the Giants to the Astros, turning one other workforce’s trash into treasure is what Dusty Baker does greatest. And it’s not simply well-traveled vets. The Astros’ younger Bryan Abreu broke out in 2022 with a 1.94 ERA, echoing a younger Aroldis Chapman in 2012 (1.51).

And but, should you reviewed the final 30 days or 30 years of baseball literature on Baker’s bullpens, Dusty is “The Invisible Supervisor.” He has replicated bullpen magic throughout groups and many years, nevertheless it has gone unnoticed (Giants), misevaluated (the Sabermetrics group); unappreciated (Astros media); downright disrespected (Reds media and Astros Twitter), or one hundred pc credited to the closest white males in his proximity (Reds and Astros).

Baker could also be revered throughout baseball, however his managerial excellence is sort of universally credited to his interpersonal genius — his mastery of individuals, personalities, cultures, languages, skill to construct clubhouse chemistry, and a successful tradition mirrored in these 88 quotes from former admiring gamers.

Whereas all true, Dusty’s tactical genius has gone unsung and undocumented. And the proof is within the bullpen.

I. “MIRACLE WORKER”: The Most Superb Managerial Bullpen Chart You Have By no means Seen

Manny Parra had a profession ERA of 5.12 however put up a 3.33 ERA in 2013 his first season with Baker’s Reds. Credit score was broadly assigned to Reds pitching coach Bryan Value, who would substitute Baker as supervisor after a 90-win season.

“Manny Parra immediately grew to become an efficient reliever at age 30 below Bryan Value’s tutelage. Value is evidently a miracle employee,” wrote an ESPN reporter earlier than Parra reverted again to his earlier type in 2014 with Value as supervisor.

Parra is a part of an astounding listing of 24 separate miracle pitchers who lowered their ERA by one to a few full runs below Baker, baseball’s Managerial Moses minus the Bible entries. Take an extended look and let this listing soak in:

Image for article titled UNSUNG GENIUS: Dissecting Dusty Baker's bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Expensive Dusty’s Saber-Critics: In the event you can present an analogous bullpen listing for different managers, please reveal your work. No more flawed formulation centering on a supervisor’s course of, however concrete before-and-after outcomes that reveal success.

Baker’s course of has labored wonders. Of the pitchers on this listing:

  • 83 % arrived with a 4.00 ERA or greater of their profession.
  • 43 % had a minimum of 5.00 ERA or greater of their profession.
  • 26 % had an ERA of 6.00 or greater of their earlier season.

Dusty wasn’t working with Joe Torre’s Yankee bullpens.

After an early-career studying curve, Baker’s best achievement may nonetheless be constructing the 1998-2002 Giants bullpen (No. 2 ERA and No. 1 FIP) from a group of cast-offs. The Cubs have been his worst, however he nonetheless improved an atrocious bullpen to a median one (No. 13 and No. 17). However lowering pitchers’ ERAs from 5.00 to 4.00 nonetheless leaves a nasty bullpen. Essentially the most unappreciated work to this present day is the 2008-2013 Reds, a cautionary story for Baker’s Astros critics.

The listing of 24 could be longer however excluded relievers who didn’t 1) pitch a minimum of 40 innings; 2) additionally enhance their FIP (4 excluded); and three) enhance their ERA by a minimum of 1 FULL run — a criterion that excluded gamers with distinctive all-star seasons by Rod Beck; Francisco Cordero; Edison Volquez; Aroldis Chapman; and Ryan Pressly. Like Pressly, whereas a few gamers on this listing started enhancing previous to becoming a member of Baker (notably Hawkins, Marshall), they’re nonetheless included since Baker maintained that normal not like so many managers after him. Which results in essentially the most revealing stat:


Merely put. Baker’s bullpen brilliance is usually tactical.

It’s particularly Dusty’s superior utilization of them — how, when, the place, how usually, and the way lengthy he makes use of or rests them. Age doesn’t matter both. Six pitchers on the listing joined Dusty between the ages of 33 and 39, and the Reds’ Arthur Rhodes made his first All-Star Sport at age 40.

Whereas FIP was additionally reviewed (70 % improved by 1-2 runs; 96 % by +.5 runs), ERA, what really occurred, is most well-liked. There isn’t a such factor as “Area Impartial Pitching” (or any variation) with any Baker workforce. Dusty intentionally prioritizes protection as if he have been Gregg Popovich, and his pitchers’ ERAs obtain additional advantage from it (see Half IV).

II. “MIRACLE WORKER II”: Contained in the Reds bullpen collapse after Dusty

In 2008, Baker inherited the No. 27-ranked Reds bullpen. By 2009, it was ranked fourth. By 2012 it was first. The Reds’ defensive rank additionally jumped from No. 24 to No. 2 by 2009 (Fangraphs). Regardless of this success, Baker nonetheless had his bullpen administration routinely disparaged, with credit score usually going to Value, employed as pitching coach in 2010. Baker’s firing in 2013 was broadly supported by Reds media. Most Reds followers agreed with the choice, and the very worst of them despatched Dusty a “rash” of “actually ugly” racist hate mail after shedding a 1-game playoff.

Powerful crowd.

The Reds employed Value to take the Reds “deep into the postseason”. Value was (incorrectly) perceived as extra amenable to Sabermetrics, and hailed as “the anti-Dusty,” who “turned the Reds pitching round.” Value advised reporters his No. 1 managerial distinction could be altering Baker’s bullpen technique. Right here’s what occurred:

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Solely Chapman continued his development. The others have been all out of the league by 2018. The Reds bullpen collapse was underscored by an enormous disparity in 1-run sport data, a tactical staple of Baker’s profession (+64 extra 1-run wins than losses), and in the course of the Astros 2022 season (27-16) and playoffs (5-1).

In 2022, echoes of Baker’s Reds critics may very well be heard on Astros Twitter who assign one hundred pc of the workforce’s success to the Astros group and coaches, a sentiment so prevalent that even ESPN 97.5 Houston radio promoted the concept “Baker ought to be achieved — EVEN if the Astros win the World Sequence.”

Just like the Reds, Baker is only a fortunate bystander. What they gained’t inform you is Baker’s bullpen historical past — and even their very own.

Beneath earlier supervisor A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ postseason bullpens produced a 5.03 ERA over 50 video games, and arguably value them two titles (2015 epic collapse and 2019 World Sequence), and almost their 2017 title, too (5.40 ERA). Hinch managed old-school-style playoff runs dominated by stellar veteran aces pitching deep into video games (3.40 ERA).

Since 2020, Baker has lower Hinch’s postseason bullpen ERA in half. Baker’s Astros bullpen/starter ERA cut up of two.47/4.53 is constant together with his whole postseason profession (2.73/4.51). Opposite to anecdotal reminiscence, Baker’s playoff bullpens (minus the Cubs), have excelled, together with his Reds (1.77), and Giants (3.13). His starters haven’t.

Ought to Astros coaches and the group share credit score? In fact. Baker and the Astros are baseball’s Lennon-McCartney, however Astros Twitter thinks Dusty is Ringo. The purpose is to not quibble over credit score, however understand this:

No supervisor and group have ever been extra completely fitted to one another. Not as a result of the well-respected Baker revived the Astros out of a dishonest scandal, however for tactical causes alone. Baker, a protege of the legendary Invoice Walsh, isn’t a genius simply because he extremely values baseball analytics just like the Astros, however as a result of no supervisor is aware of higher when to deviate from them.

However how has Baker achieved it?

III. BEHIND BAKER’S BRILLIANCE: Fewer walks, fewer residence runs, higher fielding

There are in all probability 50 nuanced causes Baker’s bullpens excel, however three stand out. Practically all of Baker’s pitchers on the above listing considerably diminished their walks or their residence runs, or each. And almost 90 % have been additionally aided by Dusty’s defenses.

What was the primary motive Manny Parra improved? He diminished his walks per 9 (BB/9) to 2.9 from 5.4 the earlier 12 months. And this:

Image for article titled UNSUNG GENIUS: Dissecting Dusty Baker's bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Not too dangerous. The Astros’ Hector Neris has additionally been added to this listing. And as soon as once more:


It’s tactical. It’s Dusty.

Dusty is aware of when to make use of them, when to not, and when to present a fast hook if their management is off. Baker focuses on reforming wild flamethrowers different groups couldn’t. “The entire thing about pitching is management, management, management,” says Baker. “Everyone talks about velocity on a regular basis, however the velocity with out command and management isn’t any good.”

If that is what Dusty has achieved with journeymen, isn’t this additionally the man you need working with a younger Abreu or Chapman, or younger starters like Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier — all who considerably lower down their walks rising below him?

Baker’s 2002 World Sequence Giants bullpen was constructed off three pitchers who diminished their profession BB/9 by 1.2 to 1.7 walks per sport. And one other, Tim Worrell, who slashed his residence run price by 60 %. Some others:

Image for article titled UNSUNG GENIUS: Dissecting Dusty Baker's bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Once more, the gamers listed returned to outdated HR/9 charges after Baker. Once more, it’s tactical. Dusty chooses pitchers, and prioritizes matchups particularly to assist hold the ball within the park. That’s the way you win an epic 18-inning scoreless 1-0 playoff sport.

The 2022 Astros, 2012 Reds, and 2002 Giants bullpens all ranked No. 2 in HR/9. Neris, Montero, Stanek, and Abreu all slashed their HR/9 charges to 0.3 or 0.4 this 12 months. Batters simply don’t hit the ball as arduous in opposition to Baker bullpens. Since Onerous Hit Charge was tracked in 2015, Dusty’s Astros and Nationals have each ranked within the high 5 in lowest HH%.

Dusty’s protection and selection of catchers can also be essential.

Baker persistently favors taking part in superior defensive gamers over higher hitters, and light-hitting catchers in the event that they prioritize protection, are masterful at dealing with pitchers, and function his “discipline common” just like the Astros’ Martin Maldonado (or Ryan Hanigan on the Reds). These choices drive his offense-first critics loopy, however save runs, cut back ERAs, and win video games.

“It’s arduous to play on my workforce should you can’t catch,” stated Baker in 2016. “My groups have been close to the highest in protection yearly. You’ll be able to look it up.”

OK, let’s try this. In line with Fangraphs, Baker’s Astros (2020-22) and Reds (2008-13) had the No. 2-ranked defenses; the Cubs at No. 7; and the Giants at No. 4 in 2002, the primary 12 months superior defensive metrics have been recorded (UZR).

That’s 4 groups with high defenses. Dusty did that. “I can enhance your protection by hitting you 1,000 groundballs or 100 fly balls,” added Baker. “I consider you will get higher at protection should you’re keen to place within the work.”

Sadly, a lot of right now’s Sabermetrics group is unwilling to place within the work on Dusty.

IV.“THE INVISIBLE MANAGER”: The issue with Baker’s saber-critics

Dusty has been usually derided in sure Sabermetrics circles lending false objectivity to writers, followers, and bigots who mock him. Lots of Dusty’s critics function in good religion, however use flawed formulation; others in dangerous religion use anecdotal analytics. And others merely can’t settle for {that a} Black man is smarter than them. Let’s pause.

Researching this text was infuriating. For 30 years, behind each particular person bullpen success was some new tweak, pitch, supply, pitching coach, assistant coach, group, analytics division — any motive to lean on besides the identical Black man in every dugout. Every time, white scribes would credit score different white males. When a bullpen determination went fallacious, nicely, then that was “on Dusty” with meticulous nitpicking documentation.

If the Astros group have been Baker’s bullpens, they’d not be outlined by their sustained decade of excellence, however by their determination to launch J.D. Martinez in 2014. And lots of the identical saber-critics who worship on the alter of the overachieving genius of A’s GM Billy Beane, regardless of his abysmal 2-11 playoff collection file, couldn’t lengthen the identical evaluation for Baker’s brilliance.

With that stated, let’s tackle Baker’s many good-faith Saber-critics, who virtually all share the identical flaw: they worth PROCESS over efficiency the place HOW you win is extra essential than successful itself.

Think about a research concluding that almost all boxers who maintain their fingers low get knocked out extra (which is probably going true) — however then conclude that Muhammad Ali have to be a nasty boxer. That’s what this process-based wing of Saber-critics does to Dusty.

A first-rate instance is a widely-cited FiveThirtyEight 2016 research: “Baseball’s Savviest (and Crappiest) Bullpen Managers,” which ranks Dusty because the fourth “crappiest” bullpen supervisor.

The “Savviest” guys on the high of the listing are Joe Torre (superb) AND Joe Girardi, each tasked with “managing” Mariano Rivera after which some. This research predated 2020 when then-new Phillies supervisor, Girardi and his new 2020 pitching coach, Bryan Value (sure, that Bryan Value), led a historic bullpen collapse with a 7.06 ERA — the worst since 1930. Over Girardi’s tenure, his bullpen bombed (No. 29 ERA), and he was fired in June.

How might Girardi’s 2020 bullpen technique presumably change into much less savvy than some other supervisor in 90 years?

The issue is the research itself, rooted in “Leverage Index,” which principally values bullpen MANAGEMENT over bullpen PERFORMANCE. However what if Baker has a greater technique with higher outcomes? Doesn’t matter. “Do it our method.”

That is really ANTI-Sabermetrics. Earlier than Sabermetrics went mainstream, it wasn’t at all times that method.

When measuring efficiency, like Paine’s cited research this 12 months on win totals vs. roster expertise, Baker as one of many “best-ever managers” was the norm. One other rigorous final result research by David Gassko in Hardball Instances Baseball Annual 2008, reviewed managers’ affect on participant efficiency, and ranked Baker because the seventh greatest supervisor ever, and “best supervisor of all time with hitters.” Sure, all time. The GOAT. Can we get an replace?

That adopted one other glowing research in Baseball Prospectus 2003 that examined each participant’s profession on Baker’s 2002 Giants, and located that “all instantly started exceeding all cheap expectations on the plate,” and concluded that “Gamers appear to play higher below Baker than below your different managers. Significantly better.”

Baker’s 2002 Giants have been really one of many best-managed overachieving groups ever, simply to make the playoffs, beat the 101-win Braves as soon as there, and make it to the World Sequence. And sure, Baker was appropriate to drag Russ Ortiz in Sport 6.

These “earlier than and after” research don’t measure Dusty’s choices, they measure their outcomes. Identical for this research.

Most managers don’t make gamers higher, however Dusty does. So that you higher rattling measure it.

Not “Leverage Index” or “Pythagorean Theorem,” however efficiency. In the event you ignore efficiency, you draw this conclusion: “Bryan Value Turns into a Scapegoat”… as a substitute of claiming, “Baker’s Bullpen Collapses Beneath Value: Right here’s Why.”

This take at Fangraphs wasn’t by some saber-blowhard however by the well-respected writer of “Huge Knowledge Baseball.” If the massive information guys can’t diagnose Baker’s brilliance, what can we count on all of the others taking their cues?

“In Cincinnati, they have been throughout me, on a regular basis, it doesn’t matter what. If we gained, it wasn’t successful the suitable method,” mirrored Baker. “They have been like, ‘I don’t perceive this mode of pondering.’ Nicely, I don’t need you to know my mode of pondering. That’s how I can beat you.”

Exactly. That’s how Baker’s Astros beat the Phillies.

Regardless of Stanek’s 1.15 ERA, Baker’s boldest transfer was lowering his function in favor of a red-hot Abreu who rewarded his supervisor’s belief with 11 shutout innings within the postseason. In a loaded bullpen pitching in razor-close video games, Stanek, the wildest one (5.1 BB/9), grew to become the odd man out. Dusty didn’t wish to danger shedding the collection on walks, even when it meant being crucified had the Astros misplaced.

The end result was a postseason bullpen ERA of 0.83, the third-lowest in World Sequence workforce historical past. You’re welcome.

Baker’s bravery reveals his tactical genius that helped 24 different relievers on this article carry out higher with him.

It additionally reveals the rigidity and lack of humility and deference of the process-driven wing of his Saber-critics.

As an alternative of honoring managerial genius — they extinguish it.

Dusty Baker is the Muhammad Ali of managers, however his critics hold telling him to drag his fingers again up.

He has by no means wanted a hoop to justify his genius, solely to cease his critics from concealing it.



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