Dusty Baker Was An All-Time Great Manager Long Before His 2,000th Win

It takes a lot for a piece of baseball history to impress Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker. In 44 combined seasons as a major league player and manager, Baker has seen just about it all — as his players are constantly reminded of. Meet 24-year-old rookie Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña reaction learning that his father was in the lineup for Baker’s first managerial win (nearly three decades ago), or this exchange with future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander about the milestones Baker was a part of:

So it really meant something when Baker said his 2,000. A career managerial win, which came against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday night, was the highlight of his career.

“It’s at the top right now,” Baker told reporters after the game. “But I won’t stop now.”

To win that many is without question a monumental achievement. Baker became the first black manager to win 2,000 games and the 12th in MLB history. With every other member of this club either already in the Hall of Fame or likely to be, much of the coverage of Baker’s performance focused on how the No. 2,000 win sealed Baker’s place at Cooperstown. But the truth is, Baker has long belonged there — just as he should be part of the conversation about MLB’s all-time greatest manager.

When a skipper’s primary job is to enable his team to win more ball games, it’s hard to argue that there have been many better players than Baker over the years. Dusty has a winning record with four of the five teams he’s managed — only the Chicago Cubs were (by a hair’s breadth) under .500 at .497 — and his teams improved by an average of 7.5 wins per 162 games over the previous season , with three of those teams (the Giants, Cubs, and Nationals) improving with double-digit wins in his freshman season.

In a league where professional performance is often in short supply, Baker has always had a knack for instilling competency in his teams. The Cincinnati Reds are still learning this (perhaps now more than ever): They’ve had a 509-463 record in Baker’s six seasons at the helm, good for a .524 win ratio. In the nine seasons prior to Baker’s tenure, her win percentage was .476; in the nine seasons since then it’s been .439. He is the only Reds manager to have a track record since Jack McKeon in more than one incomplete season leading the team.

Additionally, Baker’s stint in Cincinnati was responsible for three of the Reds’ four playoff appearances in the past 26 years — meaning the team is unlikely to make the playoffs in recent history unless Dusty is on the bench. But Baker is no stranger to leading his teams into the postseason. He has led five different franchises to the playoffs, which is the MLB record since 1901:

Do you want to go into the postseason? Hire Dusty Baker.

MLB managers with most franchises brought into the postseason, 1901-2021

Manager playoff teams Number
Dusty Baker Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals, Astros 5
DaveyJohnson Mets, Reds, Orioles, Nationals 4
Bill Martin Gemini, Tigers, Yankees, A’s 4
Dick Williams Red Sox, A’s, Shows, Padres 4
Tony La Russa White Sox, Aces, Cardinals 3
Jim Leyland Pirates, Marlin, Tigers 3
Bill McKechnie Pirates, Cardinals, Reds 3
Lou Piniella Reds, Mariners, Cubs 3
Buck Showalter Yankees, Diamondbacks, Orioles 3
Joe Torre Braves, Yankees, Dodgers 3

The manager must have spent at least 50 percent of the team’s regular season games on the bench.

Source: Baseball Database

Last but not least, the man can start a triumphal march from almost every changing room. And the result is that Baker ranks high on lists of the best modern managers. Since the beginning of MLB’s free agency era in 1976, Baker has ranked fifth in wins (behind Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Bochy) and fourth in managerial wins, which are above expectations , with 82.0 more wins overall than we would have predicted based on our forecast of the pre-season Elo ratings of the clubs he managed.

Dusty’s teams won a lot more than expected

Best MLB managers since 1976 by wins above Elo’s expected record

Years. Managed Profit %
Manager Out of to Indeed Expected W vs Expected
Bobby Cox 1978 2010 55.5% 51.9% +165.5
Tony La Russa 1979 2022 53.7 51.6 +109.1
DaveyJohnson 1984 2013 56.1 52.0 +100.3
Dusty Baker 1993 2022 53.3 51.1 +82.0
Joe Torre 1977 2010 53.8 51.9 +79.3
Bill Martin 1976 1988 56.2 51.8 +57.8
Mike Scioscia 2000 2018 53.5 52.1 +45.5
Buck Showalter 1992 2022 50.7 49.3 +44.6
Whitey Duke 1976 1990 54.2 52.3 +41.9
Lou Piniella 1986 2010 51.7 50.5 +41.8

Some games managed by interim/backup managers are not included in the main manager’s record for a team. Not every manager has been on the bench every season between their freshman season and their last.

Through games of May 5, 2022.

Source: Baseball Database

This aligns with our previous research into player-level manager overperformance, which found in 2017 that Baker (along with current Mets manager Buck Showalter, whose new team got off to a good start this season) was one of the best in modern history in eliciting better than expected performance from his rosters after controlling the amount of talent he had to work with.

In an earlier era of sabermetric analysis, Baker drew much criticism for his old-fashioned approach to game strategies and pitcher workload management. And that may have been true. While we don’t know exactly how much Baker’s reliance on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the early years contributed to their Chicago injury woes — the research linking high pitch to future injuries is surprisingly mixed — it probably wasn’t good idea that Baker Wood and Prior let 22 different times in the 2003 season for 120 or more pitches. There’s no denying that Baker had a pronounced tendency to put heavy strain on his pitchers’ arms at this point in his career, at a time when managers were allowed to revise their starters as much as they wanted.

But the entire arc of Baker’s career also shows us his ability to evolve. At Cincinnati, Baker reduced his starters’ high-pitch excursions compared to his tenure with the Cubs, and while his teams in Washington and Houston were still above league averages in pitches thrown per start, it reflected the overall evolution of Baker’s workload Management is against MLB overall, with a dramatic trend toward fewer pitches per start in recent seasons:

This shift goes hand-in-hand with other changes Baker has made to his leadership style over time. Baseball-Reference.com has a great feature for managers that tracks their tendencies each season relative to the league average (where a score of 100 is absolute average), and with Baker we can see he’s toned down a lot of his old-school strategies in the Throughout his career – particularly during his current run with the Astros where his stealing and bunting rates have never been lower:

Dusty’s Astros effort is saber tested

Index of leadership tendencies (relative to league, where 100 is average) for Dusty Baker by team management, 1993–2022

team theft 2 theft 3 Sack of Buns
Giants 101

74

116

Boys 104

75

127

Red 95

106

119

nationals 124

114

80

Astros 78

51

80

Through games of May 5, 2022.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

You could argue that these changes were ordered by the front office or the owners and that Baker simply doesn’t have the choice to manage like he did the Cubs if he wants to continue managing a team in 2022. That may or may not be true – but it’s also irrelevant. Whether he needed or wanted to evolve, Baker changed his style to fit the contemporary game. And with a more modern tactical approach woven into his ability to motivate players and deploy them for maximum success, there’s a reason Baker was the perfect person to lead the Astros after their sign-theft scandal a few years ago. All he’s done in his entire career is create a culture of winning.

The only thing missing from Baker’s resume in that regard is a World Series title, which – for now – places him in one of those backhand clubs as clearly the greatest not to win the Big One. (He has by far the most wins, most playoff appearances, and most playoff wins in MLB history among managers who have yet to win a World Series.) That could change this year as the Astros, according to a 7 percent chance of winning it all the FiveThirtyEight prediction model that ties Houston for fourth best odds in MLB. It also wouldn’t be surprising for Baker to make another attempt this fall, given Houston has attended three of the last five World Series. And if Baker ever wins, he probably won’t stop.

“I don’t know how long I can keep this up,” he said after his 2,000th. Victory. “But I’ve always said if I win one, I win two. I hate being a liar.”

However, Baker shouldn’t need a ring to validate his career as one of baseball’s greatest managers of all time. Few skippers in the game’s long history have ever had such a demonstrable effect on their teams’ ability to win games, especially across multiple different franchises. That’s why, after more than 2,000 wins in his career, Baker still proves he can adapt and lead a group of players to fulfill their collective potential.

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