The 71-year-old dugout philosopher-king was brought in to lend credibility to the Houston cause following the sign-stealing scandal that roiled baseball for so long and cast doubt upon the team's recent run of success. In addition to dealing with those layers of strife, Baker was also confronted by an inordinate number of key injuries. The Astros finished a mere 29-31 during the regular season, but thanks to the expanded playoff field their spot in the postseason was secure. Thereupon, they swept the favored Twins in the Wild Card round, bested the favored A's in five games in the ALDS, the pushed the favored Rays to the brink in the ALCS.
Along the way, we were pleasantly reminded of what makes Baker so special and such a survivor in the exclusive profession. Baker almost two decades ago or so was a bit of a punchline because he was presumed to be hopelessly out of the loop when it came to the emergent field of analytics. Across the years, though, Baker proved to be more adaptable in his thinking than many of his critics were. He's worked like a muscle his skill, a rare one, of implementing the vision of the quantitatively inclined wings of his front offices while making that vision palatable to his players, who may otherwise not have been inclined to buy in. At times, though, Baker still lets his old-line instincts bubble up, usually to our uplift.
One particularly compelling instance was in Game 4 against the Rays, when he left starter Zack Greinke in the game despite a climbing pitch count, a warmed-up Ryan Pressly, and the perilous nature of the situation:
This is the age in which managers recoil from the prospect of doing what Baker did -- letting his starter get into the meat of the opposing lineup for the third time with traffic on the bases and the outcome in doubt. Indeed, Baker may be the only manager in baseball right now who leaves the ball in the hands of his starting pitcher in that moment. Needless to say, Greinke, not long after cracking the rare smile you saw above, was grateful for an opportunity that's become vanishingly rare these days:
Zack Greinke on Dusty Baker keeping him in the sixth: “It’s nice having someone have confidence in me. Since I‘ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. It was nice having that happen at an important time like that.”— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) October 15, 2020
In the fated Game 7, Baker's human touch was once again there for all to see, this time in a moment of failure. As starter Lance McCullers Jr. exited the field after allowing three runs in 3 2/3 innings, Baker was there with fatherly consolation:
Speaking of that Game 7, it ended yet another Baker bid to win the World Series. The assumption seems to be that Baker needs a ring in order to secure his eventual spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager. Really, though, Baker should already be bound headlong for a plaque. Consider:
- He's 15th all-time with 1,892 wins as a major league manager.
- He's the only manager in MLB history to lead five different teams to the postseason.
- In 23 seasons as a manager, he's logged 14 winning seasons, seven division titles, 10 playoff berths, and a pennant.
- He ranks 23rd all-time among managers in games over .500 (225).
- He's a three-time NL Manager of the Year (1993, 1997, 2000).
Right now, 22 plaques in the Hall of Fame belong to those classified as managers. Of those, four -- Al Lopez, Wilbert Robinson, Ned Hanlon, and Frank Selee -- never won a World Series as manager. Hanlon's and Selee's managerial careers were almost entirely over by the time the World Series era began (1903), but Lopez and Robinson countervail the notion that a manager must have a ring in order to make the Hall. So if winning it all is the standard for Hall of Fame managers, then it's a standard of inconsistent application. Robinson has 1,399 wins as a manager -- or almost 500 fewer than Baker -- and he's one game above .500. Lopez has 1,410 wins as a manager, but he's an impressive 406 games above .500. Again, though, he never won the World Series as a manager.
There's not expressly such thing as a "hybrid" Hall of Famer, in which an inductee is characterized as both a player and manager. In practice, however, full resumes play an obvious role. For instance, the plaques of both Robinson and Lopez -- and a number of other inducted managers, for that matter -- reference their playing careers in the prose of supporting evidence. Each had a lengthy career as a catcher at the highest levels. That brings us to Baker, who spent parts of 19 seasons as a major league outfielder.
Speaking of which, here's a basis for comparison of those playing careers:
WAR is a bit of a blunt instrument, especially when applied to players from the distant past, but the margin is sufficient to overcome any such concerns. Baker was a significantly better player than Lopez or Robinson. Not reflected in the above numbers is that Baker was also a two-time All-Star, a World Series champion as a member of the 1981 Dodgers, and the 1977 NLCS MVP. As hybrid player-manager cases go -- and such cases exist regardless of whether they're formally acknowledged as such -- Baker has a stronger case than almost anyone not named Joe Torre or John McGraw.
We'd also be unforgivably remiss if we didn't acknowledge the pioneering aspect of Baker's managerial career. Black managers are woefully underrepresented thanks to structural impediments, informal or otherwise, that have all too often reflected society at large. In grimly related matters, there's no Black manager in the Hall of Fame. It's not radical to say that Baker had to overcome more than almost all of his peers to become one of just 26 managers to spend 20 or more seasons in the dugout. Yes, the randomness and occasional absurdities of postseason baseball have worked against him time and again, but consider the overwhelming strength of the remainder of his body of work and the pressures that worked against it.
Baker will be back in the Houston dugout in 2021 and perhaps beyond, so this in't the final word on whether he's able to lead his team to their ultimate goal for the first time. Insofar as his eventual Hall of Fame case is concerned, however, it shouldn't matter. Dusty Baker is already a deserving Hall of Famer. His case, his work both on the field and while watching over it, is too strong to hinge on that.