Baker great, but not the greatest

Dusty Baker is one of the game's great managers, but he's not the greatest. Not yet, anyway. In Rob's opinion, that honor goes to Atlanta's Bobby Cox.

Originally Published: October 23, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Through three games, the two biggest World Series-related stories are

  • Barry Bonds hitting a homer per game;

  • and the Angels scoring runs whenever it seems to strike their fancy.

    Unfortunately, both are self-evident to the point that while they might not defy description, neither do they demand it. At least for now, the pictures tell the story better than words could. My words, at least.

    So let's shift to Joe Buck's words. At one point during Game 3, Buck described Dusty Baker as "the best manager in the game."

    Is that true? If so, that would place Baker in pretty heady company, right up there with immortal skippers like John McGraw, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver, and Davey Johnson, all of whom were also once considered the best managers of their time. It's hard to deny that Baker's a good manager, but is he really the best?

    After all, we're talking about a manager who couldn't figure out a way to get a decent left-handed bat on his bench for the World Series. A manager who apparently thinks Livan Hernandez is a better pitcher than Kirk Rueter. But of course, nobody's perfect. McGraw was hard to get along with, Stengel couldn't remember anybody's name, and Weaver once allowed Tony Muser to bat 350 times in a single season. If you look hard enough, you can find warts on anybody.

    That said, to suggest that Dusty Baker is the best in the game right now is something of a preposterous contention, because Bobby Cox is pretty clearly the greatest manager in the game today. I guess the two arguments against Cox might be 1) he's an old man, past his prime, and 2) he hasn't done enough in the postseason.

    To which I would answer, 1) Cox might be past his prime, but his team did win 101 games this season, and 2) until quite recently, Baker's teams hadn't exactly played like gangbusters in October, either.

    It's true that Bobby Cox is 61 years old, which by historical standards is fairly advanced for a baseball manager. So if one were looking to sign a manager to a five-year contract, one might look elsewhere. To Johnnie B. Baker, even. But right now, today? There's no finer manager than Bobby Cox. Especially if Leo Mazzone is along for the ride.

    So Baker's not the best. But how good is he? In The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers (Scribner, 1997), James presented a method for evaluating managers that's based on expectations. Composed mostly of a team's record the previous season and the tendency of all teams to gravitate toward .500, James' formula allows us to compare managers.

    By this measure, the Giants have won 31 more games than "expected" while under Baker's watch. That +31 is outstanding, among the top 30 or so figures ever. However, it's probably worth noting that the great majority of that positive number is due to one season: 1993, Baker's first. The Giants had won only 72 games in 1992. Throw in the tendency toward .500 and their record in the previous two seasons, and the Giants might have been expected to win 76 games in 1993.

    They won 103.

    What made the difference? There were two big changes in 1993. Baker replaced Roger Craig as manager, and Barry Bonds replaced Mike Felder and Chris James in left field. Baker was named Manager of the Year. Bonds was named Most Valuable Player for the second straight season.

    Does Baker deserve a lot of credit for what the Giants did in 1993? Absolutely. But does he also deserve blame for what the Giants did in 1994, 1995, and 1996? They finished below .500 in each of those seasons, bottoming out with a 68-94 record in '96.

    Since then, Baker's resume is close to spotless. Six seasons, and the Giants' worst record was 86-76 (in 1999). Relative to expectations, four of those seasons were good, and two were right in line. If you think that managing is all about wins and losses, or even wins and losses relative to expectations, then it looks like Baker was a great manager in 1993, a poor one from 1994 through '96, and an excellent once since.

    Add it all up, and there's every reason to think that Dusty Baker is, indeed, one of the great managers in the game today. He's probably not the greatest, and it's far too early to put him in the Hall of Fame. He's never shown any great facility with young pitchers, and he's never had to manage for long without the best player since Babe Ruth.

    But if the Giants don't want him any more, somebody else sure will. And whoever ends up with him, they'll have a good man.