Manager's experience, old-school touch a big reason for Washington's hot start
By Hal Bodley
Major League teams today have sabermetrics, analytics, projections of this and projections of that -- not to mention devices in the dugout.
The Washington Nationals undoubtedly use those state-of-the-art tools, but they also have Dusty Baker in the dugout. Enough said.
When general manager Mike Rizzo tapped the 66-year-old Baker last November, skeptics questioned the decision. Baker had been away from baseball for two years. Many wondered if the game had passed the old-school manager by.
That was a typical knee-jerk reaction, but it was totally wrong. In the end, baseball experience will always overshadow any computer analysis or electronic report.
And Baker has brought that to the Nationals -- a huge reason why they own the best record in Major League Baseball.
"I've had Davey Johnson and now Dusty Baker," Rizzo said Thursday before the Nats played the Marlins. "I can say from the bottom of my heart we don't have enough Dusty Bakers and Davey Johnsons in the game today."
What Baker, a three-time Manager of the Year Award winner, has done is bring together a mix of young and old talent, restore energy in the clubhouse and -- in his words -- create a family atmosphere. The Nationals are playing with more confidence and appear to be much more relaxed.
"It sounds corny, but it's for real," Baker says. "Like a family, you don't get along all the time. But guess what? You're still a family, and that's what we are here."
The Nats were one of MLB's biggest disappointments in 2015. They were loaded with talent, but didn't reach the expectations heaped on them preseason. Neither the newly signed Max Scherzer ($210 million), who pitched two no-hitters, or unanimous National League MVP Award winner Bryce Harper could turn the tide.
Matt Williams, 2014's NL Manager of the Year Award recipient, was dismissed after the season, opening the door for Baker.
Beginning in 2012, the Nationals became one of MLB's prominent teams, giving Washington a legitimate contender for the first time since 1933. Twice they went to the playoffs, but lost in the NL Division Series. And twice they failed to make the postseason after high expectations.
In addition to Baker, he also brought Mike Maddux, a highly respected pitching coach, aboard.
Harper, like the Nationals, is off to a sizzling start with a firestorm of homers and RBIs. Newcomer Daniel Murphy, postseason hero for the Mets, is leading the NL in batting.
Stephen Strasburg, onetime face of the franchise as its No. 1 Draft pick in 2009, is 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA. Scherzer, who pitched against the Marlins on Thursday afternoon, is 2-0, as is Joe Ross.
This is Baker's fourth managerial stop, after San Francisco (1993-2002), the Chicago Cubs (2003-06) and Cincinnati (2008-13). He's produced seven postseason teams, but he has never won a World Series and says this might be his last chance to reach the ultimate goal.
More importantly is the fact that Baker and Maddux rebuilt the bullpen this spring. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, seemingly a persona non grata because of his disruptive antics after being obtained from the Phillies before the non-waiver Trade Deadline in 2015, is putting last season behind. He's converted six of seven save opportunities.
The Nationals have built their commanding NL East record against teams (Minnesota, Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia) not expected to contend.
Beginning this weekend in St. Louis, and followed by stops in Kansas City and Chicago, the music will play much faster. The Nats face the defending division-champion Mets for the first time beginning May 17.
"Dusty is one of the smartest baseball men I've ever been around -- a great ambassador for the game," said Rizzo. "He's very, very underestimated about his baseball IQ. He knows the Xs and Os -- how to run a game. Even more important, he has a knack for handling people and his staff members.
"Dusty Baker squeezes out the most talent from each and every individual we give him. His use of the bench and the way he handles the veteran players, giving them days off when they need them, is a marvel to watch. He and Mike Maddux are a great match."
During his two years away, Baker wondered if he'd manage again. He says there's a difference between being dismissed -- as he was by the Reds -- and retiring.
"I know I belong here," he said. "I was trying not to miss it, but deep down I did. I truly did miss it. Yes, I missed the game, but life goes on. I'm closer to death than I am to birth. So therefore you have to live your life which is what I tried to do."
And then there's the argument about chemistry in the clubhouse, how the players get along with each other. Baker has worked hard, as he says, creating the family atmosphere.
"I've heard people say chemistry doesn't count, it doesn't matter," Dusty said. "If you've ever been on a team, you know it matters a lot. It's very, very important. This game is still played by people with feelings, fears and aspirations. The one thing that hasn't changed is he who crosses home plate the most wins."
"Probably how complicated we've made the game. Period," Baker said without hesitation. "Not only analytics, but the terminology of hitting, pitching. We tend to analyze every swing, every pitch. I'm not sure they understand it all."
Virtually every Major League team is deeply involved with the extensive use of analytics. Many of the franchises have complete departments with computer-savvy folks constantly spewing out numbers, trends and detailed information on every player and almost every pitch.
Teams would be foolish not to take advantage of sabermetrics, but they cannot discount other tools that have been around -- or lifelong baseball men who can offer opinions about character, competitiveness, willingness to learn and heart.
That's exactly what Baker has brought to the Nationals.
Put it this way, said Rizzo: "Dusty Baker has been a breath of fresh air."
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.