The Washington Nationals hired a manager Tuesday, and the New York Mets kept theirs, and if you listen to their respective fan bases, it’s hard to tell who was hurt more.
The Nats for bringing on Baker, who goes through starting pitchers as if there were no pitch limits? Or the Mets for not getting rid of Collins, who could have won a World Series if he was only more decisive in changing pitchers (and his defense didn’t commit so many errors)?
That’s a deadlock on the scale of a Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera MVP argument. And if you believe the criticisms, the Nats and Mets will be lucky next year to turn in lineup cards that have all nine spots in the batting order filled out.
It’s the kind of discord that makes you relish what the rest of the offseason brings.
Baker and the Nationals may seem an odd match, given the former’s reputation for mishandling young pitchers and the latter’s for overprotecting them. The Nats are putting the manager who shortened the careers of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in charge of Stephen Strasburg? It’s like Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz being on the same ticket.
Unfortunately for Baker, reputations stick like pine tar on the bat, and his is derived from the Cubs’ 2003 season. Baker used — some would call it abused — Wood for 120 pitches 13 times in 2003; neither Prior nor Wood ever made 30 starts in a season again (Wood transitioned into a decent reliever through 2012; Prior made his last big-league appearance in 2006 at age 25).
But that was more than a decade ago, and woe to anyone who approaches baseball the same way now that they did then. Baker wasn’t the same player at age 33 that he was at age 23; why would he be the exact same manager at 67 he was at 54? Even managers, especially managers, should learn from their mistakes.
“In 2008, Baker took over the Reds and assumed a 22-year-old pitching prospect named Johnny Cueto,” wrote Adam Kilgore in the Washington Post. “Under Baker, Cueto developed into an ace and started at least 30 games five times. He will enter free agency healthy. If you want to blame Baker for Wood and Prior, credit him for Cueto …”
Fair enough. And you have to wonder if the Mets’ Matt Harvey will get to free agency three years from now in the same condition.
Baker is 66, the same age as Collins, and suffered a mini-stroke in his last job. The Nats will be his fourth team, none of whom won the World Series, but one of whom came close. Baker just authored a book, “Kiss the Sky,” in which he says he went to the Monterrey Pop Music Festival and smoked a joint on a San Francisco street with Jimi Hendrix; if he was a politician he’d be accused of coming back just to help book sales.
“Deep down inside, I don’t think of myself so much as a baseball man as I see myself as a music man, a blues man and much more than that …” Baker wrote in his book.
I can’t wait till he and Bryce Harper have their first conversation, and Baker tells Harper about the brilliance of B.B. King. I’m guessing Harper won’t know if Baker is talking about a Hall of Fame musician, or a Hall of Fame outfielder who played alongside Ty Cobb.
Mets fans already have the blues, still wallowing after their disappointing World Series loss (a New York Times letter writer called it “post-seasonal affective disorder.” A Cubs fan, he could have called it Chicago every October.)
Mets fans should know that they’re where the Royals fans were last fall, despondent, depressed and replaying every move their manager made that didn’t work, and every one he didn’t make that would have.
Somehow, Ned Yost, whose reputation, according to Royals fans, is to managers what Journey’s should be to music, was a whole lot smarter this year.
Collins certainly didn’t manage a perfect World Series (that was covered in a previous post here) but his team didn’t play one, either, and that hurt a lot more than any of his decisions.
He had so little confidence in the depth of his bullpen that he used his extra starters as middle relievers, and they all proved him right in three of the losses.
Collins had a team that was offensively challenged for half a season (presumably it wasn’t his decision to forfeit a first-round draft pick and $21 million to sign outfielder Michael Cuddyer, whose Series contribution was three Game 1 strikeouts), and he skillfully brought it through a five-game NLDS.
Like Yost, he’ll be a lot smarter next fall if he has a better bullpen and better defense.
Matt Williams, whom the Nats fired, might not have been a good manager, and he took a lot of second-guessing for how he handled his bullpen. No doubt he would have handled it better if it had better pitchers.
Because that’s the truth about managers unhappy Nats fans and Mets fans aren’t recognizing. In most cases — and especially until the postseason — they’re only as good as the players who play for them.