The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Are the Astros taking a step back with Dusty Baker?

My good friend and baseball buddy Jim in Houston texted me when it was announced Dusty Baker was in the process of finalizing a deal for the manager’s job with the Astros.  His reaction was, “Really?”

 

70-year-old Dusty Baker signed a one-year deal with the Astros, with a club option for a second year.  He fills the vacancy created when A. J. Hinch was suspended for a year by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the sign-stealing scandal by the Astros.  Hinch ultimately stepped down as manager of the team, along with President and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, by mutual agreement with owner Jim Crane.

 

Baker’s most recent managerial job had been with the Washington Nationals in 2017.  His Nats won division titles in 2016 and 2017 but couldn’t advance in the post-season.  Prior to that, he had stints with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs.  Altogether he has 22 seasons under his belt.

 

The Houston Astros have the reputation of being one of the most forward-thinking major-league clubs, after beginning the makeover of the team in 2014.  They are considered one of the leaders in player acquisition and development and in the use of technology and baseball analytics.  Their manager, A.J. Hinch, was one of the more progressive managers in translating analytical data into effective to game strategies and decision-making.  Under Hinch, the Astros won 100 or more games for the past three seasons that have included two World Series appearances and one championship.  The Astros’ approach was working.

 

But perhaps their reputation was also instrumental in their sign-stealing scandal that ultimately led to the dismissal of Hinch and Luhnow.  The Astros stretched the envelope with what they could do with technology and wound up breaking the rules.  As a result, the luster of the Astros’ model franchise has faded somewhat, and their integrity has been called into question.

 

So, what did the Astros do?  They hired “old school” Dusty Baker whose managerial experience has mostly preceded the development of new models for the “new age” manager.  He doesn’t seem to be a logical fit for the job given the Astros’ recent organizational history and the trend happening across Major League Baseball where managers are frequently being hired with virtually no experience in the dugout as a coach or manager.  It appears the Astros organization has taken a step back.

 

Even though he’s a well-respected, seasoned skipper, Baker doesn’t have extensive managerial experience in the analytics world that has come to dominate the game.  It was one of the reasons why the Nationals chose to go in a new direction despite his two division titles.  They brought in Dave Martinez, who was considered a disciple of modern analytics, and sure enough the Nationals won a World Series in his second season at the helm.

 

Another characteristic of the new style of managers is that they are more collaborative with their front office in developing strategies for game-time decisions involving lineup construction, pitcher utilization and matchups, and defensive shifts.  That hasn’t been Baker’s previous style of running a team.  He has instead relied on his relationships with the players, applying the “eye test” to evaluate players, and using his baseball instincts for making game decisions.

 

A concern is that Baker will be obstinate about fully accepting the direct inputs he will undoubtedly receive from front office baseball research and data analytics staff who have never set foot on the baseball diamond.  This can result in a friction that will be obvious to the players and put them in a quandary about whose direction to follow.  Furthermore, players who have readily adopted the use of analytics could see this as a regression.  Assuredly this issue was discussed in Baker’s job interview with Astros ownership, and Baker said all the right words to assure them he would be on board with the front office staff.  But as everyone knows, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

 

With a one-year contract, Baker could very well be a transition or interim manager for the Astros.  Baker would help them get past a publicity nightmare in the short-term. The Astros would also buy more time to hire a longer-term guy who better fits the mold they have established with Hinch.

 

On the other hand, here’s another theory.  Maybe the Astros are trying a new approach for its manager.  Recall that MLB Network host Brian Kenny suggested several years ago in his book Inside the Curve that teams will evolve to the point where the big-league manager’s job is de-emphasized, and a team of coaches, in conjunction with the front office, will collaborate to run the team. 

 

In this model, Baker’s nominal role as manager would be the face of the clubhouse, leveraging his experience to help the team restore its credibility, handle the media, and manage player relationships.  He’s capable of leading the team through the period of turmoil that is expected to heighten when the players will have to get in front of the media every day and answer tough questions about their involvement in the sign-stealing in 2017.  In the background, the field coaches would be attuned to inputs and directions from the front office staff to make in-game decisions and be responsible for ensuring the players are buying in and using the information.  Crazier things have happened.

 

Baker may not be the right guy, but one thing is for sure.  He wants to get back to the Fall Classic.  A World Series ring has eluded him in his previous 22 years as manager, and this is the 70-year-old’s last chance to get it.  The Astros would love nothing better.  And Jim, too.

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