Phillies managerial candidate Dusty Baker is 70, but he’s no dinosaur when it comes to analytics | Matt Breen
If hired, the septuagenarian would be the oldest manager in Phillies history.
Dusty Baker, fired four months earlier after managing the Washington Nationals to 97 wins, raised his left hand and pointed to attract the attention of the moderator.
The baseball lifer — Baker has spent 48 of the last 52 years employed by a team — was part of a panel discussion about the “Next Frontier of Baseball Analytics” in February 2018 at MIT Sloan’s annual Sports Analytics Conference, the premier gathering of statistical wonks.
And Baker, known more for patrolling a dugout than pushing numbers, had a point to make.
“I think the best clubs combine analytics and scouting together,” the 70-year-old said. “I don’t think you can really do a true job just using one. I think you have to use both.”
The Phillies, as they look for a new manager, are eyeing a leader who fits that mandate. The description of a manager who can blend both new-age numbers with time-tested strategy led them this past week to narrow their search to Baker, Buck Showalter, and Joe Girardi.
Showalter and Girardi are the early favorites, but Baker remains in the race.
The Phillies met with Baker on Wednesday and hosted him Thursday at Citizens Bank Park for a follow-up interview. A decision is expected next week. Baker was put through the wringer Thursday, meeting with everyone from the traveling secretary to the ownership group.
The franchise is trying to keep up in baseball’s analytics race, but the Phillies could turn their team over to a manager who reached the majors in the 1960s, played alongside Hank Aaron, and faced Juan Marichal. If hired, Baker would be the oldest manager in franchise history.
Baker is a septuagenarian, but the Phillies likely learned during their interviews that he’s not a dinosaur.
“A lot of people have said, ‘Dusty isn’t into analytics.’ Well, I was into analytics years ago,” Baker said at the MIT panel. “It just didn’t have a name for it.”
There was no analytics department at Baker’s disposal when he began his managerial career in 1993 with the Giants. If other teams called up an unknown player from the minors, Baker had to call a coach in the farm system for a scouting report. If he wanted to find out who was slumping on the other team, Baker had to dig through the media notes compiled by the public relations staff.
It took heavy lifting, but Baker still found a way to play the percentages. He kept a sheet in the dugout on his relievers’ success with inherited runners. He tracked their ability to retire the first batter they faced, played the left-right matchup, kept stats on who hit better in the later innings, and studied a batter’s tendency of hitting into double plays.
“What sabermetrics has done for me, it’s allowed me to ask questions so I don’t have to do all the research on my own,” Baker said. “Nowadays, everything is at your disposal. You just have to research it, find it. ...
"It’s really helped out. The key thing is that you have to have the players. That’s number one. You have to have the players to enact what you’re trying to do.”
The next Phillies manager will have the players. Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Rhys Hoskins will hit in the middle of a lineup that will start with Andrew McCutchen. The rotation will receive upgrades, and the bullpen will be bolstered. The Phillies were humbled in 2019, but they will still enter 2020 with expectations to reach October.
First, they must select a manager. It will certainly be a prerequisite that the new manager is willing to work with the team’s analytics department, which was constructed four years ago and has grown exponentially.
The team’s statheads were empowered under Gabe Kapler, who asked staffers to wear a uniform and sit in the dugout during spring training. He leaned on their research throughout the season, met with them frequently, and welcomed them into the clubhouse.
Kapler is gone, fired last week, but the research and development department is not going anywhere. Each of this year’s playoff teams used analytical information to reach October. The Phillies are hoping for a similar path. The new manager will have to be on board.
Girardi managed 10 years for the Yankees, one of the leaders of baseball’s analytical revolution, and Showalter said last season that he welcomed analytics despite being less than willing to adapt in the past. And the analytics department, Baker said, played a key role in his time with the Nationals, whom he managed for two seasons.
“They’re there every day in the clubhouse off of the coach’s room,” Baker said. “Say we start a series on Monday. They would be there on Monday and we’d go over things. I’d say, ‘I want to know manager tendencies. I want to know what a guy likes to do and this and that.’
"These guys would give their opinions. We welcome their opinions. To me, it appears that sometimes in modern America, people think disagreement is being disloyal. But I think disagreement is very helpful because that gives me a different view and a different outlook on how to look at things.”
The Nationals won 95 and 97 games with Baker before they fired him. They were the fourth team he took to October and the fourth team to let him go.
He started his decade-long tenure with the Giants by winning 103 games and ended it by capturing the 2002 National League pennant. He brought the Cubs to within a game of the World Series and managed the Reds to three playoff trips.
He has managed 22 seasons and has more wins than any active manager. He is older than any manager, too, but his willingness to adapt has provided him with staying power.
The Phillies failed to reach the postseason the last two years after hiring a manager who relied heavily on analytics. This month’s search is not taking the Phillies out of the numbers game. But they’re looking for someone who can do more.
After Baker made his point at MIT, the moderator asked him if there were traits about a player that cannot be quantified by statistics.
Baker said a player’s instincts, knowledge, and ability to lead cannot be measured by numbers. Those are intangibles, Baker said. The manager who found a way in the early 1990s to measure his relievers’ ability to escape jams said 25 years later in a room of sports folks who share an affinity for numbers that some things cannot be tabulated on sheets in the dugout.
“There’s certain things that I can tell with my eyes or with my ears,” Baker said. “I can tell one year, like Rich Aurilia, when he was playing for me, they didn’t think that was going to be a big-league shortstop, but I could hear the difference in sound coming off of his bat and said, ‘This guy is getting stronger.’
They said, ‘Well, he’s never hit more than 10 home runs.’ I said, ‘Well, if he plays every day and he can hit that fastball, and I bat him in front of Barry Bonds, he’ll get a lot of fastballs and end up hitting 35.'"
Aurilia went on to hit 37 home runs in 2001.
“It’s a situation where you’re picking a dog out of a litter,” Baker continued. "I don’t know how many hunters are out there and if this makes any sense, but you pick a dog out of a litter and see which one has big feet and which one has big shoulders and you project what he might be when he’s grown. A lot of times, I’ve been right, and a few times, I’ve been wrong.”