It takes a lot for a piece of baseball history to impress Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker. In 44 combined seasons as a major league player and manager, Baker has pretty much seen it all — as his players are constantly reminded. Witness 24-year-old rookie Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña’s reaction to learning that his dad was in the lineup for Baker’s first managerial win (nearly three decades ago), or this exchange with future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander over the milestones Baker has been a part of:
So it really meant something when Baker said his 2,000th career win as a manager, achieved against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday night, was the high point of his career.
“Right now it’s at the top,” Baker told reporters after the game. “But I ain’t gonna stop now.”
Racking up that many victories is, without question, a monumental accomplishment. Baker became the first Black manager ever to win 2,000 games and the 12th in MLB history. Since every other member of that club is either already in the Hall of Fame or likely will be,1 much of the coverage around Baker’s feat has focused on how win No. 2,000 sealed Baker’s place in Cooperstown. But the truth is, Baker has long since belonged there — just as he ought to be part of the conversation around MLB’s best-ever managers.
If a skipper’s main job is to put his team in a position to win more ballgames, it’s hard to argue that there have been many better than Baker over the years. Dusty has a winning record with four of the five teams he’s managed — only the Chicago Cubs were (very slightly) under .500, at .497 — and his teams improved by an average of 7.5 wins per 162 games over the previous season once he took over, with three of those teams (the Giants, Cubs and Nationals) improving by double-digit wins in his first season.
In a league where professional performance can be in short supply, Baker has always had a knack for instilling competency into his teams. The Cincinnati Reds are still learning this (perhaps now more than ever): They had a 509-463 record in Baker’s six seasons at the helm, good for a .524 winning percentage. In the nine seasons leading up to Baker’s tenure, their winning percentage was .476; in the nine seasons since, it’s been .439. He’s the only Reds manager with a winning record in more than a partial season running the team since Jack McKeon.
Furthermore, Baker’s stint in Cincinnati was responsible for three of the Reds’ four total playoff appearances in the past 26 years — meaning that, in recent history, the team probably isn’t making the playoffs if Dusty isn’t on the bench. But Baker is no stranger to guiding his teams to the postseason. He has taken five different franchises to the playoffs, which is the MLB record since 1901:
|Dusty Baker||Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals, Astros||5|
|Davey Johnson||Mets, Reds, Orioles, Nationals||4|
|Billy Martin||Twins, Tigers, Yankees, A’s||4|
|Dick Williams||Red Sox, A’s, Expos, Padres||4|
|Tony La Russa||White Sox, A’s, Cardinals||3|
|Jim Leyland||Pirates, Marlins, Tigers||3|
|Bill McKechnie||Pirates, Cardinals, Reds||3|
|Lou Piniella||Reds, Mariners, Cubs||3|
|Buck Showalter||Yankees, Diamondbacks, Orioles||3|
|Joe Torre||Braves, Yankees, Dodgers||3|
If nothing else, the man can extract a winning effort from just about any locker room. And as a result, Baker shows up really high on lists of the best modern managers. Since the dawn of MLB’s free-agency era in 1976, Baker ranks fifth in wins (trailing only Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Bochy) and fourth in manager wins above expected, with 82.0 more total wins than we would predict based on the preseason Elo ratings2 of the clubs he managed.
|Yrs. Managed||Winning %|
|Manager||From||To||Actual||Expected||W vs. Expected|
|Tony La Russa||1979||2022||53.7||51.6||+109.1|
This dovetails with our previous research on managerial overperformance at a player-by-player level, which in 2017 found that Baker (along with current Mets manager Buck Showalter, whose new team is off to a nice start this season) was one of the best in modern history at coaxing better-than-expected performances out of his rosters, after controlling for the amount of talent he had to work with.
In an earlier era of sabermetric analysis, Baker drew plenty of criticism for his old-school approach to both the game’s strategies and his management of pitcher workload. And that may have been valid. Though we don’t know exactly how much Baker’s reliance on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the early aughts contributed to their injury problems in Chicago — the research linking high pitch counts to future injuries is surprisingly mixed — it probably wasn’t a great idea for Baker to leave Wood and Prior in the game for 120 or more pitches 22 different times in the 2003 season. It’s undeniable that Baker had a pronounced pattern of placing heavy burdens on his pitchers’ arms at that phase of his career, during a period when managers were allowed to overwork their starters as much as they wanted.
But the full arc of Baker’s career also shows us his capacity to evolve. In Cincinnati, Baker reduced his starters’ high-pitch outings as compared with his Cubs tenure, and while his teams in Washington and Houston have still been above the league average in pitches thrown per start, the overall trajectory of Baker’s workload management has mirrored that of MLB as a whole, with a dramatic trend toward fewer pitches per start in recent seasons:
That shift goes hand-in-hand with other changes Baker has made to his managerial style over time. Baseball-Reference.com has a great feature for managers that tracks their tendencies relative to the league average each season (where a score of 100 is perfectly average), and with Baker, we can see that he has tempered many of his old-school strategies over the course of his career — particularly during his current run with the Astros, where his rates of stealing and bunting have never been lower:
|Team||Stealing 2nd||Stealing 3rd||Sac Bunts|
You might argue that these changes were mandated by the front office or ownership, and that Baker simply doesn’t have the choice to manage like he did with the Cubs if he wants to continue leading a team in 2022. That may or may not be true — but it’s also irrelevant. Whether he needed or wanted to evolve, Baker did change his style to fit the contemporary game. And with a more modernized tactical approach woven into his ability to motivate and deploy players for maximum success, there’s a reason Baker was the perfect person to lead the Astros in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal several years ago. All he has done his whole career is create a culture of winning.
The only thing missing from Baker’s resume in that regard is a World Series title, which — for now — places him in one of those backhanded clubs as the clear-cut greatest who hasn’t won the Big One. (He easily has the most wins, most playoff appearances and most playoff wins in MLB history among managers who haven’t won a World Series.) That could change this year, as the Astros have a 7 percent chance of winning it all according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model, which places Houston in a tie for the fourth-best odds in MLB. Nor would it be surprising for Baker to get another crack at it this fall, as Houston has visited three of the past five World Series. And if Baker ever does win, he probably won’t stop there.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to manage,” he said after his 2,000th win. “But I always said if I win one, I’ll win two. I hate to be a liar.”
Baker shouldn’t need a ring, though, to validate his career as one of baseball’s greatest managers ever. Few skippers in the long history of the game have ever had such a demonstrable effect on their teams’ ability to win games, particularly across multiple different franchises. That’s why, more than 2,000 wins into his career, Baker is still proving he can adapt and lead a group of players to reach their collective potential.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.