Dissecting Dusty Baker’s bullpen brilliance for his sabermetric critics

Dusty Baker “ought to be part of the conversation around MLB’s best-ever managers,” concluded Neil Paine from FiveThirtyEight after studying the most overachieving managers, and “shouldn’t need a ring to validate his career.” Agreed. Let’s go further.

Baker is also MLB’s best-ever bullpen manager — a case this article will make with decades of receipts.

Let’s start here: 0.83. That’s the Mariano Riverian ERA of the entire Astros bullpen this postseason.

Last year’s World Series bullpen run was, arguably, just as impressive given how badly the Astros’ starters fell apart (6.36 ERA; 7.20 ERA in the Fall Classic; only 3.2 innings per start). “I love where they ended up,” wrote Fangraphs’ Ben Clemons.

In the regular season, the Astros’ bullpen ranked No. 1 in ERA, No. 1 in Field Independent Pitching (FIP), and thrived in nearly every advanced metric. Was this predictable? Apparently not. In preseason predictions, they failed to crack “The Top 10 Best Bullpens” by MLB or by Fangraphs.

But don’t be surprised. Baker has been here before.

Not too bad. But it’s hard to blame them considering the following (see chart):

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Last year, Rafael Montero posted a 7.27 ERA with the Seattle Mariners, got booed off the field by their fans, and was designated for assignment. In 2022, Montero’s ERA plummeted to 2.37, and pitched in 10 of 13 Astros postseason games including all three vs. the M’s, helping to eliminate his former team.

Before the Astros, Ryne Stanek was last seen blowing saves while posting a 6.03 ERA for the Miami Marlins before they gave up on him. In 2022, Stanek set an Astros all-time club record with an absurd 1.15 ERA. This is not new for Baker.

Back in 1999, Baker helped save Felix Rodriguez’s career after he posted a 6.14 ERA with the Diamondbacks — the third team to give up him by age 26. In 2001, Felix would post a 1.68 ERA.

From the Giants to the Astros, turning another team’s trash into treasure is what Dusty Baker does best. And it’s not just well-traveled vets. The Astros’ young Bryan Abreu broke out in 2022 with a 1.94 ERA, echoing a young Aroldis Chapman in 2012 (1.51).

And yet, if you reviewed the last 30 days or 30 years of baseball literature on Baker’s bullpens, Dusty is “The Invisible Manager.” He has replicated bullpen magic across teams and decades, but it has gone unnoticed (Giants), misevaluated (the Sabermetrics community); unappreciated (Astros media); downright disrespected (Reds media and Astros Twitter), or 100 percent credited to the closest white men in his proximity (Reds and Astros).

Baker may be revered across baseball, but his managerial excellence is almost universally credited to his interpersonal genius — his mastery of people, personalities, cultures, languages, ability to build clubhouse chemistry, and a winning culture reflected in these 88 quotes from former admiring players.

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

I. “MIRACLE WORKER”: The Most Amazing Managerial Bullpen Chart You Have Never Seen

Manny Parra had a career ERA of 5.12 but put up a 3.33 ERA in 2013 his first season with Baker’s Reds. Credit was widely assigned to Reds pitching coach Bryan Price, who would replace Baker as manager after a 90-win season.

“Manny Parra suddenly became an effective reliever at age 30 under Bryan Price’s tutelage. Price is evidently a miracle worker,” wrote an ESPN reporter before Parra reverted back to his previous form in 2014 with Price as manager.

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

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Dear Dusty’s Saber-Critics: If you can show a similar bullpen list for other managers, please reveal your work. Not more flawed formulas centering on a manager’s process, but concrete before-and-after outcomes that reveal success.

Baker’s process has worked wonders. Of the pitchers on this list:

  • 83 percent arrived with a 4.00 ERA or higher in their career.
  • 43 percent had at least 5.00 ERA or higher in their career.
  • 26 percent had an ERA of 6.00 or higher in their previous season.

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

After an early-career learning curve, Baker’s greatest achievement might still be building the 1998-2002 Giants bullpen (No. 2 ERA and No. 1 FIP) from a collection of cast-offs. The Cubs were his worst, but he still improved an atrocious bullpen to an average one (No. 13 and No. 17). But reducing pitchers’ ERAs from 5.00 to 4.00 still leaves a bad bullpen. The most unappreciated work to this day is the 2008-2013 Reds, a cautionary tale for Baker’s Astros critics.

The list of 24 would be longer but excluded relievers who did not 1) pitch at least 40 innings; 2) also improve their FIP (4 excluded); and 3) improve their ERA by at least 1 FULL run — a criterion that excluded players with exceptional all-star seasons by Rod Beck; Francisco Cordero; Edison Volquez; Aroldis Chapman; and Ryan Pressly. Like Pressly, while a couple of players on this list began improving prior to joining Baker (notably Hawkins, Marshall), they are still included since Baker maintained that standard unlike so many managers after him. Which leads to the most revealing stat:

  • 75 OF THE PITCHERS ON THE LIST HAD THEIR ERA RISE BACK 1 TO 4 RUNS AFTER DUSTY BAKER!

Simply put. Baker’s bullpen brilliance is mostly tactical.

It is specifically Dusty’s superior usage of them — how, when, where, how often, and how long he uses or rests them. Age does not matter either. Six pitchers on the list joined Dusty between the ages of 33 and 39, and the Reds’ Arthur Rhodes made his first All-Star Game at age 40.

While FIP was also reviewed (70 percent improved by 1-2 runs; 96 percent by +.5 runs), ERA, what actually happened, is preferred. There is no such thing as “Field Independent Pitching” (or any variation) with any Baker team. Dusty deliberately prioritizes defense as if he were Gregg Popovich, and his pitchers’ ERAs receive added benefit from it (see Part IV).

II. “MIRACLE WORKER II”: Inside 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 also jumped from No. 24 to No. 2 by 2009 (Fangraphs). Despite this success, Baker still had his bullpen management routinely disparaged, with credit often going to Price, hired as pitching coach in 2010. Baker’s firing in 2013 was widely supported by Reds media. Most Reds fans agreed with the decision, and the very worst of them sent Dusty a “rash” of “really ugly” racist hate mail after losing a 1-game playoff.

Tough crowd.

The Reds hired Price to take the Reds “deep into the postseason”. Price was (incorrectly) perceived as more amenable to Sabermetrics, and hailed as “the anti-Dusty,” who “turned the Reds pitching around.” Price told reporters his No. 1 managerial difference would be altering Baker’s bullpen strategy. Here’s what happened:

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Only Chapman continued his growth. The others were all out of the league by 2018. The Reds bullpen collapse was underscored by a huge disparity in 1-run game records, a tactical staple of Baker’s career (+64 more 1-run wins than losses), and during the Astros 2022 season (27-16) and playoffs (5-1).

In 2022, echoes of Baker’s Reds critics could be heard on Astros Twitter who assign 100 percent of the team’s success to the Astros organization and coaches, a sentiment so prevalent that even ESPN 97.5 Houston radio promoted the idea that “Baker should be done — EVEN if the Astros win the World Series.”

Like the Reds, Baker is just a lucky bystander. What they won’t tell you is Baker’s bullpen history — or even their own.

Under previous manager A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ postseason bullpens produced a 5.03 ERA over 50 games, and arguably cost them two titles (2015 epic collapse and 2019 World Series), and nearly their 2017 title, too (5.40 ERA). Hinch managed old-school-style playoff runs dominated by stellar veteran aces pitching deep into games (3.40 ERA).

Since 2020, Baker has cut Hinch’s postseason bullpen ERA in half. Baker’s Astros bullpen/starter ERA split of 2.47/4.53 is consistent with his entire postseason career (2.73/4.51). Contrary to anecdotal memory, Baker’s playoff bullpens (minus the Cubs), have excelled, including his Reds (1.77), and Giants (3.13). His starters have not.

Should Astros coaches and the organization share credit? Of course. Baker and the Astros are baseball’s Lennon-McCartney, but Astros Twitter thinks Dusty is Ringo. The point is not to quibble over credit, but realize this:

No manager and organization have ever been more perfectly suited for each other. Not because the well-respected Baker revived the Astros out of a cheating scandal, but for tactical reasons alone. Baker, a protege of the legendary Bill Walsh, isn’t a genius just because he highly values baseball analytics like the Astros, but because no manager knows better when to deviate from them.

But how has Baker done it?

III. BEHIND BAKER’S BRILLIANCE: Fewer walks, fewer home runs, better fielding

There are probably 50 nuanced reasons Baker’s bullpens excel, but three stand out. Nearly all of Baker’s pitchers on the above list significantly reduced their walks or their home runs, or both. And nearly 90 percent were also aided by Dusty’s defenses.

What was the main reason Manny Parra improved? He reduced his walks per nine (BB/9) to 2.9 from 5.4 the previous year. And this:

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Not too bad. The Astros’ Hector Neris has also been added to this list. And once again:

  • EVERY PITCHER ON THIS LIST RETURNED TO A HIGHER CAREER BB9 AFTER PLAYING FOR DUSTY!

It’s tactical. It’s Dusty.

Dusty knows when to use them, when not to, and when to give a quick hook if their control is off. Baker specializes in reforming wild flamethrowers other teams could not. “The whole thing about pitching is control, control, control,” says Baker. “Everybody talks about velocity all the time, but the velocity without command and control is no good.”

If this is what Dusty has done with journeymen, isn’t this also the guy you want working with a young Abreu or Chapman, or young starters like Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier — all who significantly cut down their walks growing under him?

Baker’s 2002 World Series Giants bullpen was built off three pitchers who reduced their career BB/9 by 1.2 to 1.7 walks per game. And another, Tim Worrell, who slashed his home run rate by 60 percent. Some others:

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Again, the players listed returned to old HR/9 rates after Baker. Again, it’s tactical. Dusty chooses pitchers, and prioritizes matchups specifically to help keep the ball in the park. That’s how you win an epic 18-inning scoreless 1-0 playoff game.

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 rates to 0.3 or 0.4 this year. Batters just don’t hit the ball as hard against Baker bullpens. Since Hard Hit Rate was tracked in 2015, Dusty’s Astros and Nationals have both ranked in the top 5 in lowest HH%.

Dusty’s defense and choice of catchers is also critical.

Baker consistently favors playing superior defensive players over better hitters, and light-hitting catchers if they prioritize defense, are masterful at handling pitchers, and serve as his “field general” like the Astros’ Martin Maldonado (or Ryan Hanigan on the Reds). These decisions drive his offense-first critics crazy, but save runs, reduce ERAs, and win games.

“It’s hard to play on my team if you can’t catch,” said Baker in 2016. “My teams have been near the top in defense every year. You can look it up.”

OK, let’s do that. According to 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 first year advanced defensive metrics were recorded (UZR).

That’s four teams with top defenses. Dusty did that. “I can improve your defense by hitting you 1,000 groundballs or 100 fly balls,” added Baker. “I believe you can get better at defense if you’re willing to put in the work.”

Unfortunately, much of today’s Sabermetrics community is unwilling to put in the work on Dusty.

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

Dusty has been often derided in certain Sabermetrics circles lending false objectivity to writers, fans, and bigots who mock him. Many of Dusty’s critics operate in good faith, but use flawed formulas; others in bad faith use anecdotal analytics. And others simply can’t accept that a Black man is smarter than them. Let’s pause.

Researching this article was infuriating. For 30 years, behind every individual bullpen success was some new tweak, pitch, delivery, pitching coach, assistant coach, organization, analytics department — any reason to lean on except the same Black man in each dugout. Each time, white scribes would credit other white men. When a bullpen decision went wrong, well, then that was “on Dusty” with meticulous nitpicking documentation.

If the Astros organization were Baker’s bullpens, they would not be defined by their sustained decade of excellence, but by their decision to release J.D. Martinez in 2014. And many of the same saber-critics who worship at the alter of the overachieving genius of A’s GM Billy Beane, despite his abysmal 2-11 playoff series record, could not extend the same analysis for Baker’s brilliance.

With that said, let’s address Baker’s many good-faith Saber-critics, who almost all share the same flaw: they value PROCESS over performance where HOW you win is more important than winning itself.

Imagine a study concluding that most boxers who hold their hands low get knocked out more (which is likely true) — but then conclude that Muhammad Ali must be a bad boxer. That’s what this process-based wing of Saber-critics does to Dusty.

A prime example is a widely-cited FiveThirtyEight 2016 study: “Baseball’s Savviest (and Crappiest) Bullpen Managers,” which ranks Dusty as the fourth “crappiest” bullpen manager.

The “Savviest” guys at the top of the list are Joe Torre (fine) AND Joe Girardi, both tasked with “managing” Mariano Rivera and then some. This study predated 2020 when then-new Phillies manager, Girardi and his new 2020 pitching coach, Bryan Price (yes, that Bryan Price), 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 could Girardi’s 2020 bullpen strategy possibly become less savvy than any other manager in 90 years?

The problem is the study itself, rooted in “Leverage Index,” which basically values bullpen MANAGEMENT over bullpen PERFORMANCE. But what if Baker has a better strategy with better outcomes? Doesn’t matter. “Do it our way.”

This is actually ANTI-Sabermetrics. Before Sabermetrics went mainstream, it wasn’t always that way.

When measuring performance, like Paine’s cited study this year on win totals vs. roster talent, Baker as one of the “best-ever managers” was the norm. Another rigorous outcome study by David Gassko in Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2008, reviewed managers’ impact on player performance, and ranked Baker as the seventh best manager ever, and “greatest manager of all time with hitters.” Yes, all time. The GOAT. Can we get an update?

That followed another glowing study in Baseball Prospectus 2003 that examined every player’s career on Baker’s 2002 Giants, and found that “all immediately began exceeding all reasonable expectations at the plate,” and concluded that “Players seem to play better under Baker than under your other managers. Much better.”

Baker’s 2002 Giants were actually one of the best-managed overachieving teams ever, just to make the playoffs, beat the 101-win Braves once there, and make it to the World Series. And yes, Baker was correct to pull Russ Ortiz in Game 6.

These “before and after” studies don’t measure Dusty’s decisions, they measure their results. Same for this study.

Most managers don’t make players better, but Dusty does. So you better damn measure it.

Not “Leverage Index” or “Pythagorean Theorem,” but performance. If you ignore performance, you draw this conclusion: “Bryan Price Becomes a Scapegoat”… instead of saying, “Baker’s Bullpen Collapses Under Price: Here’s Why.”

This take at Fangraphs wasn’t by some saber-blowhard but by the well-respected author of “Big Data Baseball.” If the big data guys can’t diagnose Baker’s brilliance, what can we expect all the others taking their cues?

“In Cincinnati, they were all over me, all the time, no matter what. If we won, it wasn’t winning the right way,” reflected Baker. “They were like, ‘I don’t understand this mode of thinking.’ Well, I don’t want you to understand my mode of thinking. That’s how I can beat you.”

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

Despite Stanek’s 1.15 ERA, Baker’s boldest move was reducing his role in favor of a red-hot Abreu who rewarded his manager’s trust with 11 shutout innings in the postseason. In a loaded bullpen pitching in razor-close games, Stanek, the wildest one (5.1 BB/9), became the odd man out. Dusty did not want to risk losing the series on walks, even if it meant being crucified had the Astros lost.

The outcome was a postseason bullpen ERA of 0.83, the third-lowest in World Series team history. You’re welcome.

Baker’s bravery reveals his tactical genius that helped 24 other relievers in this article perform better with him.

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

Instead of honoring managerial genius — they extinguish it.

Dusty Baker is the Muhammad Ali of managers, but his critics keep telling him to pull his hands back up.

He has never needed a ring to justify his genius, only to stop his critics from concealing it.

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